Review: A Silent Voice

There were two anime movies that I was excited to watch this fall: the first being No Game No Life Zero, and the second being A Silent Voice. No Game No Life Zero ended up being a total waste of time, and so a small part of me hoped that it wouldn’t be the same here.

I’m a huge fan of Kyoto Animation and their works, though; they’re unique in the anime industry in which they’re not stuck in a loop of bidding on and completing contracts. Instead, they’re the ones writing the contracts. This studio, which has animated some of my most favorite ever works, has total freedom over the types of shows/movies they want to make, and overall, I find that to be pretty awesome. But even so, my confidence in them was shaken by shows like Phantom World.

I first heard about A Silent Voice through a high school friend who had enjoyed the manga. When I saw the announcement that Kyoto Animation was going to animate the movie for it, I was kind of intrigued. Unfortunately, unlike movies like Your Name and No Game No Life Zero, none of the big anime licensors here in the US decided to pick up A Silent Voice for the longest time. Time went by as a British anime licensor picked up the film, showed it in theaters over there, and had a Blu-Ray release announcement while there was silence over the pond.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a company named Eleven Arts (whom I’ve never heard of before) licensed it here in the US and would be airing it in theaters – around the same time British people are getting the Blu-Ray release in their hands.

Either way, I was determined (almost absurdly so) to watch it in theaters, and after asking nearly every friend I could, I hopped in a car and made the trek to the next city over to watch it there. And my goodness, it was such a good movie.

An Introduction

Shoko Nishimiya is the new kid in elementary school. As happens when you transfer, she’s brought to the front of class, and asked to say a few words. Rather than speaking, though, she pulls out a notebook and shows it to the class. Among the generic niceties and good will written on the notebook, the following words are written: “I’d like to get to know everyone through this notebook.” As the class learns, Shoko is deaf, unable to hear.

This opens up various other kids in the class the opportunity to begin picking on her, because of her difference. The biggest instigators are the two who sit behind her: the boy Shoya Ishida and the girl Naoka Ueno. Alongside them are their friends, the boys Shimada and Hirose and the girl Miki Kawai. The bullying starts with small remarks behind Shoko’s back and making noises to try to get her attention, but later turns into something much more visible and damaging: like pulling out her hearing aids, throwing her notebook out the window, writing mean messages meant to demean her.

Despite it all, for the longest time, Shoko takes it all in stride. She smiles, says “thank you”, and moves on – much to the confusion of the kids causing her harm. The bullying never stops, though.

However, Shoya does end up getting a taste of his own medicine. When the principal confronts the class to ask about the bullying, they all through Shoya under the bus – he ends up being cast out himself when he tries to say that he wasn’t alone in the bullying. Shoya the bully has become the bullied. Even at this stage, though, he still pushes Shoko away, getting angry and aggressive towards the girl while he himself is in the same boat. Eventually, Shoko transfers out to another school.

Now, Shoya is all alone – his friends have turned against him and now bully him, and he becomes afraid to look anyone in the eye. This continues all the way up to his senior year of high school. Shoya realizes his life isn’t going anywhere… so why bother continuing with it? Before ending it all, though, he decides he needs to repay his debts… including apologizing to Shoko for that vicious bullying all those years ago.

The Plot and Characters

You may not be able to fully tell from how I introduced this film, but A Silent Voice is a drama/romance story. The core theme and idea of the film is about reconciling past mistakes, and figuring out how to live with your actions and flaws.

Shoya and Shoko are, of course, the central characters here, and a majority of the film takes place in their senior year of high school. Pretty obviously, Shoya does of course end up walking away from killing himself, after he stumbles into Shoko, awkwardly trying to apologize to her and inadvertently ending up asking for friendship instead. This scene ends up kickstarting the events for the rest of the film.

My friend had some concerns (and frankly, I can relate) that this film was going to be a story of a girl falling in love with her own bully. While at the surface level, it can seem that way, this story is more about delving into complex feelings and thoughts that have been left without closure for years – not only for Shoko, but also for Shoya. The bullying that happened in elementary school becomes a backdrop to the overall plot, only taking up a portion of the film’s runtime.

As I previously noted, their senior year is what this film focuses on. While Shoya and Shoko begin a new, not-antagonistic relationship with each other, others from that time past begin to come back into the picture, alongside some new faces.

A lot of the actors from that time have grown up and dealt with (or haven’t dealt with) what happened in their own ways – it’s these people coming back together years later that this drama-romance story gets its “drama” from. Each of them act and react differently, and have their own thoughts, concerns, and flaws they deal with. Although it certainly isn’t enough for me to consider these others fully fleshed out, it does surprise me a bit how much attention they and their thoughts/concerns receive.

Of the side characters, the ones that get the most attention are Yuzuru and Nagatsuka – ironically, the two in this story who weren’t directly present when the bullying went down. Yuzuru is Shoko’s sibling, and (understandably) first looks at Shoya with a lot of distrust and discomfort; for quite a while, Yuzuru actively tries to protect Shoko from Shoya, barring the two from ever seeing each other. Nagatsuka is on Shoya’s side; the two become high school friends as Nagatsuka himself was cast out and left alone, just like Shoya. (The interactions the two have together are actually rather charming and fun to watch.)

(To be fully honest, I don’t really know if I could even call Shoko or Shoya entirely fleshed out either. I can’t really answer the question of what either of them enjoy doing or what either of their aspirations are. I become too swept up in the drama and events of the film to really give these things much thought though.)

Ueno, of all these characters, probably has the biggest claim to the “antagonist” title in this film; in this reformed friend group, she’s the one who keeps trying to drudge up the past. It’s a safe claim to make that a lot of the drama and tension in this film solely comes from her, as she continues to reopen wounds and be mean to Shoko, while everyone else is attempting to look forward and accept Shoko. Despite this and the amount of screentime she receives, the film ends with her seemingly unchanged from the beginning.

There is definitely closure for Shoya and Shoko by the end, though – and I would’ve certainly hoped so, given the dramatic events that make up the climax.

Overall, I do rather like the plot and characters here. I got sucked into the emotions, the drama, wanting to see things get better for Shoya and him and Shoko becoming closer. I felt the events and dialogue in this film was rather human and felt realistic (with some exceptions). I certainly wouldn’t rush to call this film perfect; it definitely could’ve gone further to have longer, deeper, more human conversations, but it was definitely an experience I was happy to have had. (It certainly helped that I was in a theater filled with other fans as well; there was a lot of unison reactions to events in the film lol.)

When it comes to fact that Shoko is a deaf person, this, again, ultimately only ends up as a backdrop to the plot. This film doesn’t attempt to be a story about Deaf people as a whole; instead, it’s simply about one deaf character and the experiences she has. Beyond the bullying, her deafness has a non-crucial impact on how everyone acts and interacts: most characters (Ueno being the biggest exception) talk with Shoko through sign language as they would talk to each other with their voices, Shoko’s borderline-unintelligible speech and other vocal sounds come off as adorable rather than a point to focus on, and – excepting a major scene in the middle – her deafness doesn’t really exclude her from what all happens around her.

Ultimately, I am happier that A Silent Voice did things this way; her hearing impairment doesn’t become something the film constantly harps on about and comes back to. A Silent Voice realizes and respects that there’s more to Shoko beyond her impairment, and doesn’t aim for something bigger than it’s able to handle. At the same time, though, it does somewhat feel like this film doesn’t really give any attention to her deafness at all. I wasn’t coming into A Silent Voice expecting it to answer any and all questions I may have about what makes a deaf person’s life different, but I somewhat wish we saw its effects more, on how Shoko lives and how others around her live. Shoya is definitely the true protagonist of this story.

When it comes to the film’s pacing… I have more thoughts on it than I thought I would.

The beginning of the film, with the extended flashback to elementary school… despite that only being a portion of the entire thing, like I wrote above, it definitely lasted long enough to make me wonder “is this actually the entire film?” The film could’ve benefitted from a tighter first third, although I have a hard time thinking about how exactly to go about making it tighter. Oppositely, the rest of A Silent Voice’s scenes seem to err on the side of just not being long enough. There’s a lot of scenes, locations, and events we end up seeing during this 2-hour runtime, and so A Silent Voice went for a large number of shorter scenes, rather than fewer – but more meaningful – longer scenes. Despite all this though, the pacing isn’t really all that bad, and certainly isn’t enough to keep you from watching this film.

The Atmosphere

When it comes to Kyoto Animation, I expect a lot out of them because they almost always put out high-quality work.

I wouldn’t consider this an exception. The animation is super smooth, the backgrounds are colorful and great looking, and the character designs are also wonderful – and still done in KyoAni’s signature style. This studio is capable of drawing some truly human moments, and A Silent Voice definitely features a couple of them.

To be specific, though, Shoya is designed a little bit differently from Kyoto Animation’s signature style. His eyes are bigger and his pupils smaller; it’s closer to how he looks in the manga, and while he isn’t quite different enough to really truly stand out, he does still look different. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, simply something I noticed.

The visuals for this film are primarily brightly colored, which isn’t an uncommon thing for a KyoAni production. Colors pop no matter what the setting is, but don’t become too much to detract from what needs attention; at the same time, when the scene or mood requires something with a more narrow contrast range, this is provided for as well. Generally, one would question if these things even deserve mentioning, and I would somewhat agree, but given what some peoples’ first ideas of this film may entail, they may be expecting something a bit more darker in visual tone than what’s actually given to them.

Interesting camera angles and shots help give a sense of the world and the space (physical or emotional) between people, and are used throughout. People’s faces are avoided as Shoya feels pushed back into his shell, and the film has a great way of keeping tension or hiding things to be revealed later as the camera focuses on other things. As well, a big X is drawn over the faces of people Shoya feels uncomfortable talking with. Entering into the high school with Shoya for the first time, the X’s dominate the view, with us being unable to look at anyone’s face at all except for Shoya, who himself is shoved into a small portion of the screen. As Shoya interacts with people and his relationships with them change, the X will fall off their face or become stamped right back upon them to serve as symbolism for Shoya’s comfort levels. Certainly not subtle as far as symbolism goes, but it does its job.

Excepting the climax and a few other key moments, this film feels otherwise visually restrained, though. Digital effects, strange colorizations, and other stylings are kept only for those key moments (and some interesting transitions). It definitely makes these moments stand out more as they occur, though, and when these effects are used, they’re wonderfully (and subtly done).

On top of that, as well, is the soundtrack.

The piano- (or music box/synth-)heavy melodies have an immense sense of energy to them; not just in bombastic overtures or sequences, but also through their more quiet, poignant moments as well. The soundtrack was written exceedingly well at being able to melt into these modern, urban scenes as if the music naturally belonged there, along with standing out on their own to become memorable and remarkable in their own right. Percussion instruments are notably absent here, and when they are used, it’s primarily just the cymbals. Listening to these tracks on their own, I’ll get shivers sometimes; there’s nothing but praise I can give to the music here.

That being said, there is one glaring exception: the song “My Generation” by The Who is played during one of the first scenes of the film, when the extended flashback begins, and it came so out of nowhere and felt so odd that I wondered for quite a while if the American licensor had decided to add in this song in a pitiful attempt at Westernizing the film. Honestly, I think this film would’ve sufficed without it, or would’ve done better with a tune that more matched the tone of the soundtrack. I like The Who quite a bit, but they weren’t exactly a band I was expecting to encounter in an anime film.

Miyu Irino does a great job at having Shoya sound like a teenager who’s lost his confidence and purpose. Saori Hayami takes up the mantle of voicing the mostly-mute Shoko; the occasional grunts and other utterances punctuate the scenes well, and her voicing of Shoko’s rare attempts at speaking come across as believable (seeing as I’ve not actually met a deaf Japanese person to compare it to).

I only became aware after watching the film that an English dub is actually being made for it, being done by the UK licensor Anime Limited (despite this, the dub is being produced in the US by NYAV Post). The English dub didn’t seem to be present at the British theatrical screenings and weren’t even mentioned at all here in the US, but it’s making its way to the UK home disc releases – I do wonder if it’ll be brought to the American Blu-Ray release, if we get one. From the clips Anime Limited has shared, the dub sounds reasonable enough, but not unbelievably amazing. For Lexi Cowden playing Shoko, it sounds like she stuffed her face with marshmallows while doing her lines, rather than coming across as a believably deaf person. (Though, I’ve also not met a fully deaf American person either.)

The ending theme, Koi wo Shita no wa, I rather like how it starts, but otherwise it’s just okay.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

A Silent Voice is a movie about complex feelings, about wounds that have been left unclosed for years, and about flaws in people. This film delivers in providing an experience about these ideas, and it’s a glorious one at that – sucking the audience into the drama, with great visuals and soundtrack to go alongside it. But it’s important to note that the film isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t the deaf kid story.

If you’re looking for something more character-heavy, with emotions, thoughts, and words at the forefront, this will very well be something for you. There’s a lot to enjoy and get attached to in these 2 hours, and it’s been a treat all the while. Sadly, if you haven’t gone to see it in theaters, it may be a while until Americans get a legal way of watching it again.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ really sucks you into the characters and drama, great soundtrack, not just a girl falls in love with her bully story
— pacing leaves some room to be desired, Ueno is the biggest/only one to drive tension, My Generation was unexpected and kind of unnecessary

 

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