A Silent Voice (Koe no katachi)
Japan (2016) Dir. Naoko Yamada
Kyoto Animation – KyoAni for short – are largely known for their endearing TV anime shows, occasionally venturing across to the big screen with spin-offs from their TV output. A Silent Voice marks KyoAni’s first theatrical outing unrelated to an existing small screen project and makes for a bold departure from their previous works.
Shoya Ishida is the cock of the walk at his junior high school, always causing mischief with his mates. When new transfer student Shoko Nishimiya arrives, Shoya has a new target to play with through Shoko being deaf. At first, the other girls help Shoko out but soon feel she is holding them back with having to accommodate her and shun her. This gives Shoya carte blanche to torment Shoko, with vindictive Naoko Ueno joining in.
Eventually Shoko is transferred to another school and Shoya is stitched up by the other bullies as the sole perpetrator, becoming a victim himself. Five years later and Shoya is now the isolated one when his former bullying reputation precedes him. Realising how Shoko must have felt, Shoya learns sign language and sets out to make amends for his past behaviour.
Based on the manga by Yoshitoki Ōima, A Silent Voice may contain the first ever deaf protagonist in anime – at least not one designed purely for comic effect – which could be argued is long overdue in lieu of the ever increasing campaign for social equality. Yet the story is actually about the journey of Shoya from ignorant bully to empathetic redeemer, whose own struggle for acceptance is equally based on petty discrimination.
Shoko refreshingly isn’t portrayed as a hopeless victim and for the most part of the film is the strongest character in it. She recognises her handicap yet doesn’t feel completely hindered by it, using a note book to communicate with others. Initially considered cute by the others the novelty soon wears off and Ueno and the aptly named Miki Kawai, whose vanity knows no bounds, are the key offenders in rebuffing Shoko.
Getting hearing aids to help improve her interaction only incurs more harassment for Shoko, with Ueno and Shoya regularly stealing them and throwing them in unsightly out of reach locations. Eight pairs of damaged and missing hearing aids later, Shoko is moved to a new school and Shoya’s vertiginous fall from grace begins.
The film actually begin with Shoya standing on a bridge ready to jump having decided his life is worthless but the distraction of some younger kids playing with fireworks prompts the life-changing flashback that sets Shoya on the path of redemption. He was unequivocally a nasty little sod and his hairdresser mother was either too busy or uninterested to see this.
Director Naoko Yamada, who helmed the K-ON! series and film, is given the unenviable task of turning Shoya from a despicable antagonist into a likeable protagonist without resorting to schmaltz and contrivance. It is more a reflection of Shoko’s inherent positivity that she is the first to give Shoya the benefit of the doubt; even at the peak of the bullying Shoko tries, via sign language, to make friends with her tormentor.
Shoya is at least aware that earning Shoko’s forgiveness is not going to be easy and finds he has others he needs to win over first, such as Shoko’s younger sister Yuzuru (who is mistaken for a boy) and he mother. But again, at the heart of the matter is the issue of communication and not just the lack of verbal interaction either, the turning tide of their emotions and expressing them a primary culprit.
This is highlighted in an awkward scene which requires basic knowledge of the Japanese language to understand, and in turn is rather ironic in itself. To say you like someone or something is “daisuki”, pronounced “die-ski”; the Japanese word for moon is “tsuki” also pronounced “ski”, but due to Shoko’s vocal handicap, Shoya thinks she is talking about the moon when in fact she is confessing to him.
In making Shoya a more agreeable and contrite person the script calls for someone unexpected to replace him as antagonist, and whilst I won’t reveal who it is, the actions and appalling attitude of this person proves that self-centred arrogance is an ugly trait. Some of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes involves this person and the psychological damage they try to inflict on Shoko can be attributed to their own insecurities.
Because of KyoAni’s reputation for largely fluffy anime shows and the distinctive cutesy art style which other studios and artists have been keen to emulate, their connection to such a dark and probing subject would seem improbable. Under Yamada’s instruction, the story allows for some bold visual flourishes and leitmotifs that delineate the internal musings of the characters and add an edge of danger to the pervasive air of whimsy.
A prime example is found in Shoya’s high school life as an ostracised loner – everyone around him has a large blue cross covering their faces, denoting those who are outside of his life; once friendship is established, the cross falls away. Perhaps most notably is the use of sound as a prominent feature as a subtle reminder of what we take for granted that Shoko has no concept of.
The artwork is captivating in its detail and the occasional flirting with psychedelic fantasy images is never so outlandish to destroy the mood or obscure the overall thrust of the film’s messages. A special mention has to go to voice actress Saori Hayami for her adept performance as Shoko, whose voice is heavy with the nuanced broken inflections caused by her impediment, driving home the heartbreak of Shoko’s communication struggles.
It is debatable as to how much of the 129-minute run time could have been excised but this is a gripe easily forgiven when considering the enriching journey A Silent Voice takes us on. A poignant, powerful and vital dissertation on acceptance, understanding and redemption.
Rating – ****
Man In Black