Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice reminds us that anime is not simply a genre of action-packed fighting robots or giggling school girls within absurd tales, but a rich and vibrant cinematic form unto itself. A Silent Voice deals with issues of isolation, bullying and stereotyping as it depicts the evolving relationship between Shoya, the school bully and protagonist, and Shoko, a deaf girl who moves to his school, following them from their youth and into their late adolescence. At times it is poignant and emotional, and at others, it seems to miss the mark completely.
Since the ‘90s. respect and admiration has matured for anime, particularly those produced in Japan, due to the critical and commercial success of films such as Grave of the Fireflies, Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke. These films are beautiful character studies, told against stunningly drawn backdrops, as they navigate the human experience with thoughtfulness and nuance. As A Silent Voice progresses further along its overly long runtime, however, it is the latter camp where the film begins to stumble most. Although, full credit should be given to its art department which renders each frame colourful, exuberant and bursting with life.
The opening scenes of A Silent Voice see Shoya years after his days as a bully. He is selling off his possessions to pay back his mother for some unknown reason and then climbs onto a bridge, readying to take a final leap of absolution. The sequence barely needs a line of dialogue to make you feel the pain Shoya is in. And when the film cuts back to Shoya’s primary school days, it maintains this momentum as Shoya lashes out at the defenceless Shoko. For Shoko, being the new girl would be hard enough, but being deaf turns her into a moving target for the merciless Shoya. The opening scene and Shoya’s ruthless and unending torment of Shoko highlight the journey he is yet to undergo. This period makes up about half of the film’s runtime and is where it understands its characters best, as Shoya simply craves the easy attention that bullying brings him and Shoko is stoic in her attempts to keep her cool in spite of her overwhelming circumstances. And when Shoko does lash out, you feel sympathy for both these characters in how much they struggle to perform their predetermined roles.
Eventually, Shoko’s mother catches onto the bullying when her daughter’s eighth pair of hearing aids goes missing, and when the teachers press the students, despite many having been willing participants in the bullying, both actively and passively, they turn on Shoya, revealing that his actions haven’t been building him friends, but goons who only followed him because of his perceived strength. Shoko is taken out of the school and Shoya is left without any real friends. When the film skips ahead, however, the momentum dies early on. We catch up with the opening scene and, instead of taking the jump, Shoya meets with Shoko and they make up. Why? The film doesn’t seem so sure. It is about here where the film starts forcing story and character choices rather than building them in a natural way. The catharsis between Shoya and Shoko seems forced, and there is still half of the film to go.
Some of the most jarring moments include Shoya’s mother threating to burn the money he gave her unless he promises to not kill himself. Not the most maternal or thoughtful of approaches towards depression, especially considering the scene ends up being comedic. Yet it somehow works, and Shoya goes on with his life. Then to demonstrate Shoya’s newfound isolation, literally big, purple crosses are placed over the faces of his fellow students for the remainder of the film. It is as if A Silent Voice does not know where the tension should come from if Shoya and Shoko are at peace, so the film manufactures it. The crosses, in particular, are the death of nuance in this film. There is much better symbolism here, such as the ripples of the fish that Shoya and Shoko feed together representing the ripple effect their actions have on each other’s lives.
Part of the problem is that this 127-minute long film could probably be told in a neat and tidy 90 minutes, and it would not have to string out towards a disappointing ending. A Silent Voice should be applauded for tackling rarely touched-upon subject matter, but, in the end, that simply isn’t enough to save it.