Shoya Ishiyida fills his grade school days with pranks and roughhousing. When deaf student Shoko Nishimiya transfers into his class, the unsympathetic Shoya quickly makes her a recurring target. Things eventually reach a head and suddenly he finds no one is on his side, reducing him to a social pariah. By high school, he has become determined to meet Shoko again and atone for his past mistakes.
Japan as a country is always keen to make the case that animation is a medium, not a genre. While the kind of content that propagates the global anime stereotype continues to be pumped out regularly, there is also material willing to go experimental and bold, with A Silent Voice serving as a prime example. An adaptation of a manga, the film is produced by the legendary Kyoto Animation and directed by Naoko Yamada. Yamada has a few director credits to her name, with the most famous possibly being K-ON!, a show which is one of those anime Marmite titles.
If K-ON! felt like fluff (as it did for me), then A Silent Voice displays Yamada’s talent to handle a more substantial story. Although the film is set in Japan, the core concepts of the story can be found across the world. For better or worse children can often be uncompromisingly honest with their feelings and stubborn with their outlook. The high-pressure social cliques of a school setting only make those tendencies worse. We see poor Shoko initially welcomed as something of a novelty before the needs of her condition, such as a suggestion to dedicate a sliver of time a day to teaching the class sign language, leads the children to view her a sub-human irritation. Shoya’s bullying only exacerbates the situation, with the easy acclaim pushing him to increasingly meaner actions. We’re obviously supposed to see his actions as cruel, but his actions are somewhat excusable as youthful ignorance. This ultimately leads into the real plot of the film, where his older and wiser teenage self carries a sincere wish to atone. This is a fascinating dynamic because we get to see how he has changed compared to his former classmates. Maybe this resonated with me because I’ve just reached my thirties, but it can be surprising to catch up with old school friends to see how they’ve changed for better or worse. Shoya’s willingness to become a better person (having even chosen to learn sign language in the intervening years) is juxtaposed against his friends who scapegoated him.
My biggest concern with Shoko is how she occasionally becomes a stereotypical moe girl, being unwaveringly kind even as the younger Shoya harasses her. Thankfully, she does obtain some more human edge once her teenage self appears, with her central conflict tied into the very real basis for the story. Saori Hayami delivers a strong performance in the sequences where Shoko chooses to talk rather than use sign language or hand writing. I imagine there must have been some trepidation on Hayami’s part, as an attempt to imitate the speech patterns of deaf people could easily slide into offensive parody (something the film has enough sense to highlight with via the younger Shoya). However, this is a strong, respectful performance and my acute ears couldn’t place it was her until the credits.
The voice cast as a whole is strong, with the wise choice to go with a cast of younger actors. This provides a necessary organic quality as the film explores anxieties of those on the cusp of adulthood and what they think they understand. This is particularly pronounced by the voice work of Mayu Matsuoka as the brash and thoughtless younger Shoya, transitioning to Miyu Irino as the older, humbled form of the character. Aoi Yuki puts in an impressive performance beyond her more familiar range and Kensho Ono is awesomely goofy as Shoya’s eventual buddy Nagatsuka.
Being a Kyoto Animation production, you know the animation will be sumptuous. We get to see glimpses of this in their television output, but a theatrical budget allows them to be more consistent about it. Something that particularly struck me was the communication of space. Character’s homes feel small and cosy while public locales feel vast and grand. You could imagine walking through these locales quite easily. Of course Kyoto Animation’s trademark has long been character animation which is outstanding here as well. It always impresses me how they manage to give characters such true to life movement, especially even when using stylised character designs. In this case the talent is also called upon for use of sign language by the cast. The animation is complimented by Kensuke Ushio’s musical score punctuating scenes without bludgeoning you. It can carry a heavy impact when needed but it isn’t shamelessly leading you along like other scores I could name.
A Silent Voice is well worth viewing. I can’t say it’s the absolute best treatment of a film analysing the plight of the deaf, but the attempt it makes is well considered and the focus on self-awareness of a younger generation is uplifting. Naoko Yamada has presented an adaptation that is smart and sincere, telling a complete story while also respecting audience ability to pick up on subtext. Which is most fitting for a film highlighting how easily we can otherwise miss the forms of intelligent communication outside of an audible voice.
A Silent Voice will screen at select UK cinemas 15th March 2017, with further screenings from 17th March. Visit the official website for screening list and booking info.