Trigger warning: mentions of suicide
“A silent voice” released in 2017, is an anime film directed by Naoko Yamada and produced by Kyoto animation which follows Shoya Ishida, an elementary school student who is loud, mischievous and the leader of his group of friends. When Shoya first encounters Shouko Nishimiya, a new girl at his school and is confronted with the fact that she’s deaf, Shoya is unable to understand Shouko or communicate with her and starts bullying her with his peers joining in, ripping out her hearing aids, throwing away her notebook, her only means of communication, in the water and mocking the way she speaks amongst many other things. You’d think that this the movie’s way of setting up its antagonist.
However, when Shoya finally gets in trouble for his actions; all his peers turn against him when he tries to point out that he wasn’t the only one who bullied Shouko, and he becomes the next target of all the bullying. Instead of this being an “Aha! The bully finally got what he deserved!” moment, we’re still confronted with the cruelty that he’s being subjected to and find ourselves sympathizing with him.
The movie is not only stunning in its plot execution but also in its beautifully crafted animation and emotionally manipulative soundtrack. “A silent voice” was able to showcase all of the complexities of the human condition in a high school setting through the eyes of a teenager and this is how they did it.
“I want you to help me live”
“A silent voice” opens with Shoya crossing things off his calendar leading up to the day he plans to kill himself by jumping off a bridge and just like that you are presented with a clear theme in this movie.
The movie tackles debilitating conditions such as depression, suicide, and social anxiety and handles them delicately with such care, a definite rarity in the world of anime.
We see that Shoya has endured bullying and isolation all through his high school years which ultimately leads him to the decision to take his own life, but before that he has a few things he has to do; he quits his job, withdraws all the money he’s made to give to his mother and goes to give Shouko back her notebook. Yet after seeing her again, Shoya’s plans change as he tries to become friends with Shouko. Unlike the common assumption that people who commit suicide are impulsive, rash and uncaring of those around them. The movie makes a point to show that Shoya’s decision to take his own life was one that was thoroughly premediated, as he ties up all loose ends and tires to take care of the people he’s leaving behind.
The movies’ portrayal of social anxiety is masterful in its subtlety. Shoya’s anxiety is a product of him feeling not worthy enough of connecting with others because of his past mistakes. His anxiety is not shown in the form of exaggerated panicking or him actively running away from every situation but instead it’s shown in his inability to meet people’s eyes, him constantly looking down at the floor as he walks around his school. The movie shows how distant Shoya is from the rest of his peers by placing X’s all over people’s faces in the background as well as having the camera represent his gaze as he constantly looks away from people.
Whilst it is clear that there is an underlying romantic dynamic between Shoya and Shouko, it is not made the main focus of their relationship. At a certain point in the movie, where you think a love confession might be coming, we instead are met with the words “I want you to help me live.” From Shoya to Shouko. We then understand that their relationship is about their mutual need for a support system, for friendship, and for understanding more than anything else.
“Even monsters have hearts.”
If it isn’t obvious enough through Shoya’s character being the main protagonist, the movie makes it a point to explore flawed characters. It takes someone like Shoya, who has made horrible mistakes; from his cruelty, aggression to his inability to try and understand others and yet somehow manages to make us, the audience, connect with him on a deeper level and to see things through his eyes. The presentation of flawed characters is not just through Shoya but through almost every character in the story, and within every flawed character the movie explores and reveals a bigger issue.
An example of this is Miki Kawai’s character, a quiet and shy girl, who stood by and watched as her peers bullied Shouko. Kawai confronts Shoya in front of the whole classroom and repeatedly blames him for bullying Shouko so harshly and absolves herself from responsibility, saying that she was never cruel to Nishimiya. Whilst her accusations are true, Kawai’s character is a clear example of the “bystander effect”; where people are less likely to offer help when there are others present. Whilst Miki’s character has technically done nothing to Shouko, she is inadvertently responsible when she does not step in to put a stop to Shouko’s bullying.
Naoka Ueno’s character is easily one of the most hated in the movie and yet the creators do not fail to give her, her own human moments as well. Ueno views Shouko as the reason the friendships she formed in elementary school fell apart, instead of the reason being their own cruelty towards Shouko. Her inability to empathize or understand Shouko is evident in the movie. She is immature, cruel, and unapologetic in her behavior but the audience is still able to understand why she is all of those things. Other characters are shown to be flawed as well. For instance, Tomohiro’s relentless and sometimes illogical protectiveness over Shoya, and Sahara’s cowardliness when it comes to standing up for herself or her friends.
Even Shouko, the character that has been wronged the most, is not without her own flaws, as she is quick to blame everyone’s wrongdoings on herself, she constantly apologizing for others mistakes and views herself to be the source of everyone’s problems and that not only affects her negatively but ends up having repercussions on those around her as well.
Naoko Yamada, the director of a silent voice, summarizes this point beautifully in an interview with Cartoon Brew as she says “Because I am neither a judge nor God, I tried not to judge what they did, what they saw, what they felt, and all the circumstances surrounding them. I just tried to understand and respect their emotions and actions, which consisted of many layers and reasons.”
“Me and you… could we be friends?”
At its core, “A silent voice” is a lesson in friendship and forgiveness. After years of both of the characters enduring painful experiences, Shoya and Shouko are both looking for reasons to continue on living, and they end up finding that in each other.
In their elementary school days, Shouko tries time and time again to become friends with Shoya, through the use of her notebook, through the use of sign language, through touch, and Shoya meets her with rejection each time. Years later, Shoya who had written off any hope for redemption or forgiveness, finds it on the day he plans to end his life, when he asks Shouko the question that she had asked him all those years back in elementary school. “Could we be friends?” and we, the audience, see that the moment he asks her that through sign language that he finally understands what she was trying to ask him all those years ago. Once Ishida has made an active attempt at understanding the person opposite him, in this case by learning sign language, he is finally able to connect with someone. Similarly, with Nishimiya, after enduring cruelty in elementary school had stopped trying to connect with people all together until she sees Shoya again.
This movie showcases that despite Ishida’s wrongdoings, he is still worthy of forgiveness, that people are capable of regret and change, the movie is a journey of Shoya trying to accept who he was as a child and move past that, and his friendship with Shouko, perfectly showcases that as they help each other.
“Starting tomorrow, I’ll do things right”
In its final few minutes, the movie establishes one of the most emotionally charged and justified ending scenes of a movie. The decision to portray Shoya’s anxiety and inner tribulations through the use of X’s placed over the people’s faces are fully justified through their use in the movie’s final moments when Shoya finally decides to open himself back up to the world, and take in his surroundings and the people around him, this moment of acceptance and relief for Shoya is amplified as the X’s finally fall off of the people’s faces and we see his emotional reaction.
“A silent voice” is a study of the human condition, it is a movie which looks at how humans fall and get back up, how humans isolate themselves, how they deem themselves unworthy of love and connection. The movie handles its characters with love and care and in turn shows us how we should be treating ourselves. It is a lesson that despite all of our wrongdoings and misgivings, we are not our actions, and we are deserving of forgiveness, of happiness and of love.