At a time when empathy seems at an all-time low and bullying seems at an all-time high, A Silent Voice comes in with a story about a young boy seeking redemption after he mistreats a classmate and then gets ostracized himself. Based on the manga, written by Yoshitoki Ōima, originally published in Japan in 2011, its US theatrical release is this Friday, October 20.
Trigger warning: This review contains discussions of bullying and references to suicide.
A Silent Voice is a gut-punch of a movie. Anyone who was bullied as a kid may get horrible middle school flashbacks watching new girl Nishimiya Shōko be harrassed by her classmates for being deaf. The worst offender is Ishida Shōya, the boy who sits behind her. He shouts in her ear, mocks the way that she speaks, and even rips her hearing aids out of her ears and tosses them out the window. Though Nishimiya does her best to make friends, the kids consider her “too different” and don’t want to make the effort to understand her. It’s a stark reminder that human beings often fear and sometimes hate that which they do not understand.
Eventually, Nishimiya’s mother goes to the school, and Ishida is singled out as the culprit with the other kids denying involvement. Ishida starts feeling guilty when he witnesses his mother paying for the missing hearing aids and sees how much they cost, and then even further when his friends turn on him, bullying him the way they bullied Nishimiya. By the time Ishida is in high school, he has withdrawn almost completely from everyone around him, believing that it is his punishment for his behavior as a kid. He is so overwhelmed by guilt and shame that he even contemplates taking his own life. The movie actually opens with him standing on a bridge, imagining himself jumping into the water, but a group of boys setting off fireworks nearby startles him, and he simply returns home.
He decides instead to make amends with Nishimiya and help her reconnect with the kids she wasn’t able to befriend in elementary school. Ishida’s path to redemption is difficult, but he is clearly trying to be a better person. He stands up for an overweight boy, Nagatsuka, who is similarly friendless, does his best to track down Sahara, the only girl from their childhood who was kind to Nishimiya, and helps take care of Nishimiya’s younger sister. He has worked hard to repay his mother for the cost of the hearing aids, getting a part-time job and selling most of his belongings, including his bed.
One thing that A Silent Voice does well is the redemption arc. It’s the entire point of the story, so it’s natural and believable. Even animated, it’s very easy to see the guilt Ishida feels because of his behavior, and likewise his desire to make things right. During the childhood portion, Ishida is big and boisterous, with large gestures and a personality to match. After, though, he is quiet and subdued.
I feel like this will be a hard film for a lot of people to watch due to the subject matter, but I think it’s important to check it out. There is a lot of toxicity in our society right now, and it’s vital to recognize when people are legitimately trying to change, and to treat them with kindness when they do so. Ishida is honestly trying to be a good person, and people from his past keep treating him as though he is the same person; this has a profoundly negative impact on him. But the film also shows how bullying affects the victim as well; Ishida is both, and so it’s easier to see its impact on him, but Nishimiya has also been affected by what happened. She is still shy and reserved, she doesn’t have many friends, and she repeatedly apologizes for things that aren’t her fault.
Truth be told, there is a lot that A Silent Voice does well. The use of sound and the soundtrack, the animation effects when Ishida is having a flashback, and the use of color and imagery are all top notch. However, the pacing is a little off – it starts to drag a bit near the end but somehow the climax still seems rushed. Plus, in adapting from the manga, some of the scenes from childhood are cut, leaving a few of the minor characters to be less fleshed-out to the point where you’re questioning their inclusion at all.
Overall, though, A Silent Voice is a stellar film. It absolutely deserves to be nominated for an Oscar (and it is eligible, though in the past the only anime films that have been nominated were produced by Studio Ghibli). If you’re able to see it in theaters, I highly recommend that you do so.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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