Makoto Shinkai, the director of Your Name, currently “the highest-grossing anime film worldwide”, has described A Silent Voice as “too cool.” or “too much good” (depending on which translation engine you use). Can this tale of disability, school bullies, friendships and growing live up to such high praise?
Opening your film with The Who’s “My Generation” is either an act of supreme confidence or extreme folly. Thankfully Naoko Yamada’s Koe no Katachi/A Silent Voice more than manages to live up to the promise set in those opening minutes (and Makoto Shinkai’s praise).
Kids can be so cruel
Shoya Ishida’s uncomplicated life becomes a lot more confusing when a deaf girl, Shoko Nishimiya, joins his elementary school class. It’s not long before his curiosity, and that of his classmates, turns to something much nastier. When Nishimiya eventually has to transfer to another school, the blame for bullying her falls squarely on Ishida’s shoulders. It may not be entirely fair, but he’s not completely innocent either and the consequences will reverberate through all their lives for years to come. At least that is, until Ishida runs into Nishimiya again…
What could have been a very creepy tale of a bully seeking redemption through a past victim, manages to be something else entirely thanks to beautiful animation, strong characterisation, interesting directorial choices, fantastic music, and a cast and plot that are never less than engaging and almost constantly surprising.
For a former bully, Ishida is easier to empathise with than you’d think. The (relatively few) years since elementary school been incredibly isolated and depressing for him, to the point that he’s given up on ever having friends again. Just as you sympathise with him however, the film jumps back in time to show you just how bad his behaviour towards Nishimiya was (along with the rest of his classmates). It’s a nuanced approach that’s taken with all the characters who orbit the central pair. There’s far more to the stereotypical “mean girl”, “smart girl” and “nice girl” than first appears, but they are also true to those stereotypes, for their own reasons.
The plot may sound like a thousand other high school dramas, but that strong characterisation, avoidance of easy solutions to problems and plenty of unexpected turns elevate it beyond that.
It helps that the film is beautiful to look at. The animation is top notch but its matched by very some interesting choices in setting and framing. With Ishida too ashamed to look people in the eye there are plenty of shots of people’s feet or the sky. It happens so often that it becomes almost a visual shorthand for the audience to understand characters feelings, almost more than any dialog ever could. There’s also a very clever visual treatment which shows just how open or closed Ishida is to those around him at any time.
Accompanying the visuals is an absolutely fantastic score. It’s not quite as poppy as the RADWIMPS soundtrack to Your Name, but the soft piano and orchestral score really suits A Silent Voice’s story of intense highs and lows.
The only real downside to the film is that its very clearly Ishida’s story. You never really get a feel for Nishimiya’s character outside some plot points. It doesn’t detract from the film too much but it would have be nice to see more of the story, and the experience of growing up deaf in Japan, from her point of view.
A Silent Voice is another emotionally devastating anime that is well worth catching at the cinema. I’m just not sure how many of these I can handle in a one year!
Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki, Kenshô Ono, Yûki Kaneko, Yui Ishikawa, Megumi Han
Directed By: Naoko Yamada