A Silent Voice

****

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

A Silent Voice
"Alternately, funny, engaging, witty and insightful, it cuts to the core of teenage cruelty."

A film about remorse and self-hatred. And a cartoon – or rather, anime - to boot! If that sounds an unlikely prospect for an evening's entertainment, stay with it. Because A Silent Voice (also translated as The Shape Of Voice), directed by Naoko Yamada and written by Reiko Yoshida, proves yet again that anime is a vehicle capable of conveying complex, important themes in a deceptively easy to access wrapper.

On the surface, this is a classic redemption story. It begins with the arrival of a young Shoko Nishimiya (voiced by Saori Hayami) at primary school where, the class teacher explains, she must communicate through a notepad: she is very deaf and while she is capable of expressing herself verbally, what passes her lips is almost unintelligible.

Copy picture

For these crimes against able-bodied normality, Shoko is bullied mercilessly: her chief bully is laddish troublemaker Sh?ya Ishida (voiced initially by Miyu Irino, and later Mayu Matsuoka). While classmates mock Shoko and write rude comments in her notebook, Sh?ya goes one step further, destroying her hearing aids, throwing dirt in her eyes and tossing her notebook in a pond.

Sh?ya is punished: Shoko moves school.

Fast forward six years and Sh?ya is a reformed character. At least, he has taken the time to learn sign language and as the second act opens, we find him trying to make amends to Shoko. After he's initially repulsed, and obstructed in his attempts by Shoko's sister Yuzuru (voiced by Aoi Yuki), who raises cute and gamine to new heights, an uneasy friendship begins and, as connoisseurs of this sort of set-up might expect, the possibility of romance hovers in the background.

Except Silent Voice is more complicated, more interesting than that. Somewhere in the intervening six years, Sh?ya has himself become a social outcast. It is never made exactly clear whether this was because of how he treated Shoko, was the result of him being too much the bully, or whether it simply reflects a deeper social awkwardness which, for a while, he disguised through his brash boorish behaviour. Perhaps that is the point.

What is clear is that despite his own inner impairment, he is basically well-intentioned, if a little selfish. His rapprochement with Shoko coincides with opening out to new and equally outcast “friends” such as the overweight and over-loud Tomohiro (Kensho Ono), as well as revisiting former classmates who once upon joined in bullying Shoko.

The result: a complex exploration of bullying, from the perspective of bullies and bullied alike. Silent Voice asks awkward questions: is the most outspoken bully really worse than the false friend who sits by and says nothing? Is hatred for those who are different a facet of self-hatred; and what does it take to obtain true absolution for past wrong-doing? Is the impulse to seek pardon itself an act of selfishness?

Woven into this already wide-ranging examination of the causes and effects of bullying is a note that might make those of us taught the essential duality of such situations – of clear perpetrator and victim – question our preconceptions. For Shoko is victim not just of her classmates, but of herself.

Her own constant self-loathing leads her to apologise incessantly, which does not endear, but outrages. Victim-blaming? Or important reminder that no human interaction is ever entirely the responsibility of one party? If nothing else, there is plenty to think about here: one might almost imagine this film repurposed as PSHE assignment. Watch: discuss.

But Silent Voice is far more than intellectual exercise. Alternately, funny, engaging, witty and insightful, it cuts to the core of teenage cruelty, reminding me how lucky I am for those years to be long past.

It is powerful in terms of emotion accessed. It is also essentially heartwarming: because despite all their human flaws, the protagonists of Silent Voice do, eventually, struggle through. Things do get better.

And of course, like so much anime, this film is visually stunning: alternatively colourful and washed out, realistic and abstract. Water is both backdrop to the action and recurrent theme: the pond in which both Shoko and Sh?ya find themselves tipped, the river in which Sh?ya attempts to drown himself, the waterfalls and pools where they feed carp and where friendship slowly blooms. And over all, an umbrella offered as shelter from the rain and token of so much more.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2017
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A Silent Voice packshot
When a former bully is bullied himself, he grows up determined to make amends to the hearing impaired girl he used to pick on.

Director: Naoko Yamada

Writer: Reiko Yoshida, based on the manga by Yoshitoki Oima

Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Megumi Han

Year: 2016

Runtime: 129 minutes

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Glasgow 2017

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