Two thirds psychological study on bullying and disability, one third first love romance (and I’ll use that term very lightly here), A Silent Voice, based on the highly-acclaimed manga by Yoshitoki Oima, plots the unexpected turn that lives can take on, if not the simplest then at least the most uninformed of choices. To its great credit, however, it doesn’t in any way sugar coat the fact that some of those turns can get ugly, can have consequences we didn’t intend, can in fact change the course of our lives and not always for the better.
Shoya Ishida (Miyu Irino) is the cool guy in his middle school class. You know the stereotype – a trouble-maker and a charmer. People like him because he’s funny, but what no-one acknowledges openly is that his entertainment value comes at others’ expense. He is in fact, a horrible bully, but not the kind of violent physical bully typified in anime high-school settings or Yankis gangs; he’s a social bully, and what he perhaps is about to learn is that his popularity is only really due to the fact that no-one else wants to stand out as a target.
When shy and retiring Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) joins the class and everyone discovers in her the novelty of someone with a hearing disability, Ishida begins a silent campaign of harassment against her. Maybe it’s just to maintain his popularity in the face of this interloper; maybe as some key scenes indicate it’s more to do with something about Nishimiya’s quiet acceptance of her lot in life that triggers something meanly and irrationally defensive in Ishida. The reasons are mostly redundant though. In the absence of any kind of adult intervention and with half the rest of the class taking their cues from Ishida, the bullying eventually gets so bad that Nishimiya stops coming to school altogether, at which point the principal is appearing in front of the class demanding to know the one responsible. Ishida, having basically started it, is the one who gets the entirety of the blame and the subsequent fallout shapes his life well into his teenage years, to the point that he seems prepared to end said years, permanently.
Which is actually cause for not a little reluctant sympathy, and it’s here where the story likely earns its acclaim, because no part of this – not Ishida’s struggle to somehow live with the pain he realises he’s caused others, nor Nishimiya’s struggle to relate to people when she’s so isolated in her own world – is simple. It’s complicated and painful and sometimes ugly and not exactly fun to watch, but Ishida’s desire to redeem himself, to be a better human when no-one’s ever handed him a how-to guide on it, is riveting. So too is watching the social dynamics unfold as events progress. Individually, the supporting characters orbiting Ishida and Nishimiya are not terribly remarkable (although Yuzuru (Aoi Yuki) and Ueno (Yûki Kaneko) stand out among these as significant narrative forces), but as a whole they illustrate and reflect something fundamental back at the viewer – life can be a harsh teacher, and some people don’t ever hear what it’s trying to tell them. Ishida stands as an example of how mistakes, even when we’re too young to know that’s what they are, can have terrible impact on us and those around us. Luckily for him, he manages to stumble through to a place where he can try and live a life that makes up for what he did but not knowing any better doesn’t excuse the damage.
In a medium that likes to make cool action features out of mental health issues like PTSD and tends to play social anxiety for laughs, this gently toned film has the precision of a scalpel to our desensitised social conscience. By focusing on bullying and disability, somewhat complicated topics in Japan and in fact not as well resolved as they should be outside of Japan either, as realistically as A Silent Voice does is clearly where its emotional depth lies, if the popularity of the title is anything to go by. And if this had been a non-animated film, there’s no doubt adjectives like “gutting“, “brutal”, and “emotional powerhouse” would be getting thrown about, and not just by me. Instead, A Silent Voice addresses its topics with a gorgeously deft visual hand which in no way detracts from the seriousness of its numerous sensitive subjects.