Director: Naoko Yamada
Runtime: 129 manga minutes
A Silent Voice was released in Japan in 2016, but has just found its release in Australian cinemas. Regardless of whether or not it is showing in a cinema near you at the time of you reading this, please note that this animated film from Kyoto Animation is worth tracking down and exposing yourself to. The film’s title partially refers to one of its star characters, Shōko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami), who is deaf and needs to find her voice through other mediums beyond speech. But the title also refers to the voices we sometimes hear within us—without truly knowing whether or not we should be hearing them—as well as the voice calling through society that we try to ignore because hearing it means we might be shaken from our routines and comfort zones. I’ll let you watch the film to understand what I mean by this.
Shōya Ishida (Mayu Matsuoka) is in 6th grade when the aforementioned Shōko Nishimiya confidently stands out the front of her new class and introduces herself to her captive peers via a notebook. Since she is deaf, her classmates must write in the notebook if they need to know anything about her. When some of the students find out that Nishimiya’s nickname is “Sho”, they remark how cool it is that she goes by the same name as Ishida. He disagrees. This starts a stream of bullying, largely out of confusion and frustrated awakenings, that leads to Nishimiya eventually leaving the school.
Ishida is not a bad kid. We see him deal with the emotional fallout of his actions. He starts a trend of taking Nishimya’s hearing aids. Ishida considers a possible future where his single mother, working as a hairdresser and make-up specialist, has to fork over her hard-earned money for Ishida’s cruelty. This causes him embarrassment, which he just doesn’t know how to navigate.
As most of us do through high school and beyond, hopefully, Ishida grows up. Now voiced by Miyu Irino, he is haunted by his actions that caused Nishimiya to leave the school and tracks her down to make amends. This development isn’t entirely selfless; we discover through Ishida’s memories that when he advanced to high school, he was identified for his bullying antics and was socially ostracised. Many times throughout the movie, characters point out that they might be doing seemingly kind things for selfish reasons. One character—and the less said about them here, the better—blatantly states to Ishida that if he is here to make himself feel better, then he can forget it. Some wounds aren’t worth re-dressing if they are for the ego of the inflictor. The message is firm: if you don’t want to feel terrible now, don’t make someone feel terrible back then.
What transpires is a beautiful unfolding of relationships that shouldn’t merely be recounted as plot developments. Ishida makes some friends, some who have never had friends before. Nagatsuka (Kenshō Ono) is another loner at school, who is hassled for his bike one day. Ishida steps in and settles the issue, and finds that he has a loyal bodyguard for life. Mashima (Toshiyuki Toynaga) is presented like a dreamy teen idol, yet exudes patience beyond his years. Kawai (Megumi Han) is obsessed with retaining a moral image, even at the cost of her honesty with herself. Sahara (Yui Ishikawa) seems to have grown up so much, but intimidates herself when it comes to crunch time. Perhaps the deepest of them all, however, is Ueno (Yūki Kaneko), who started off as friends with Nishimiya in primary school, distanced herself, and has, in her mind, very valid reasons for doing so. Ueno is just as scared about the world in front of her, but she carries herself with a nastiness that she justifies as honesty. Friendship and love are at the heart of A Silent Voice, and the way that this is tested by hormonal teenagers trying their best to be the best version of themselves, or at least the most beloved version of themselves, goes beyond harrowingly nuanced and becomes touching.
A Silent Voice is animated gorgeously. Less concerned with the fantastic, and more focused on creating human portraits of neuroses, the most rewarding elements of the animation are in the tiny details. As a scrappy young boy, the tag at the back of Ishida’s shirt protrudes as he gets up to all sorts of antics with his friends. As an older boy, not taking notice of his tag is a habit he has not grown out of. I think my favourite animated touch was during a conversation between Ishida and Nishimiya in the later stages of the film. There is a lot to be said between the two characters, and it anchors them, right then, right there, in that place and time. We’ve all had emotionally cathartic moments like that—where there is nowhere else we would rather be, and the world outside us just melts away. Nothing else matters. It is during this moment that we cut away to a plane flying overhead. There are other people in this world; other places; other loves. Penetrating through this isolated, static, emotionally dense bubble is the perfect symbol for transience, the kinetic, and the connected.
The film does break the conventions of reality to take us into Ishida’s mind, whether it’s a flash-forward, a flash-back, or to explain the otherworldliness of high school. But the most useful visual touches are the blocks he puts on people in his life. A blue “X” goes up in the face of anyone in his social circle that he does not consider a true friend. We can hear their voices, but we can never quite get a read on the emotional content of their face. Ishida and Nishimiya have almost the inverse issue, with her being able to see faces, but not being able to hear their voices. This visual technique helps position us behind Ishida’s emotional compass, while also being a great representation of the feeling of anxiety and depression.
After the release of The Wind Rises (2013), it was widely reported that Japanese animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki, was retiring from creating feature-length pictures, although his involvement in a project called Boro the Caterpillar, and other shorter features. Miyazaki has famously influenced generations of animators, and it’s relieving to know that his keen eye for human detail lives on through animated features like A Silent Voice. There’s a scene in Ponyo (2008), where Sōsuke’s mother collapses on a bed after discovering her husband won’t make it home from sea as scheduled. As she throws herself backwards onto the bed, her shirt rides up in such an authentic way it lends legitimate human angst to this issue. You want to hug the poor woman, even as you empathise with all the characters involved. There’s a similar moment in A Silent Voice, where Ishida is crouched over, and his shirt crawls just a little bit up his back. While it’s likely just a byproduct of meticulous attention to detail, the observed behaviour of clothing in these films gave me a warm hug. Films like Ponyo and A Silent Voice may contain fantastic elements, but the world they create is more real than most live action films.
In an age where 13 Reasons Why addresses suicide as if it were a gimmick and a sexy means of revenge, A Silent Voice listens to what depression and anxiety actually sound like—and realises that they don’t manifest themselves, necessarily, as in American high school drama. They can live around the edges of our kindness. They can manifest themselves with the nagging feeling that despite our immediate situation being filled with warmth, we are still unhappy, and this can lend a feeling of guilt and sense of inevitable misery. A Silent Voice understands that the darkest of human emotions aren’t necessarily causally linked to the responsibilities of others.
Naoko Yamada was only 31 when A Silent Voice was released in Japan. It is based on a manga I am unfamiliar with. Preexisting quality of the source material aside, Yamada has crafted a great film here. She has said that the most important thing to her as a director is to observe people, emphasising the mind of her characters. She explains her process more succinctly than I could. I am eagerly awaiting her next feature.