Living in any society is to be part of a group of people divided by a common language. It’s hard enough penetrating through the constructed veil of speech in everyday conversation, let alone being deaf in the sometimes unforgiving environment of the schoolyard. Kyoto Animation, and in particular director Naoko Yamada (K-On), are adept at navigating the slice-of-life landscape, and with this latest film she strikes a balance between introspection and romance.
Based on the manga series by Yoshitoki Ōima, A SILENT VOICE (Koe no Katachi/聲の形, translated on-screen as The Shape of Voice) centres on Shoya Ishida (voiced by Miyu Irino). When Ishida was in grade school, he relentlessly bullied his deaf classmate Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami). When she transferred out, his friends and teachers gave him up to be a social pariah. By the time he reaches high school, his remorse and self-loathing have left him suicidal and unable to communicate with anybody, at least until he reconnects with Nishimiya. Ishida’s journey towards making amends for his past actions sets him on the path towards learning what friendship mean, while Nishimiya also overcomes some demons.
A SILENT VOICE is not simply a film about the consequences of bullying, but a carefully constructed reflection on the emotional immediacy of adolescence. Japanese manga and anime is known for its character ‘types,’ often played for cheap laughs or shorthand drama. Here Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida use them with scalpel-like precision to dissect not only what bullying can do to self-worth, but how the notion of personal value can completely overwhelm the senses when one is on the cusp of adulthood.
Naoko Yamada’s impressionistic eye doesn’t offer easy answers either. Often the audience is left to piece together the complex on and off-screen interactions. When Ishida’s single mother comes back from a confrontation with Nishimiya’s mother, her ear is bleeding. Indeed, how Ishida’s single parent household came to be is perhaps left to the manga readers. Yet moments like this offer a glimpse into how his worldview is formed, and that his self-punishment is based in learned behaviour as well.
The real beauty of A SILENT VOICE is the visual interpretation of these moments. By the very nature of the central relationship, many of the poignant moments are wordless. Ishida’s anxiety and inability to look at people is expressed through big ‘Xs’ hovering over everyone’s faces, save for the few people he lets into his circle. As his defensive walls go up and down, just as anybody who has fought any version of the Black Dog will know, the X peels aways and comes back.
As the film builds to a crescendo of animation and emotional confrontation, the film asks the audience for a bit of their own introspection. It’s rare that a film manages to tackle the intricacies of friendship and romance without hitting us over the head with it. Not just an essential anime, but a film that genuinely speaks to the disaffected.