A Silent Voice

I wrote an article comparing the anime and manga versions of A Silent Voice for the AllTheAnime blog, while the following review was published in the BFI’s Sight & Sound.

Even more than last year’s blockbuster Your Name, the Japan-animated A Silent Voice feels like a film which happens to be animated, as opposed to an animated film. While very well-drawn, A Silent Voice has little of Your Name’s ostentatious spectacle, instead telling a largely believable, character-driven story which could certainly have been made in live-action. (For some cartoon purists, that is a sin in itself; if so, it’s a sin anime has been committing for decades.) Very unusually for an animated film, its credits are dominated by women: director Naoko Yamada, scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida and original manga writer Yoshitoki Oima.

A Silent Voice is also unusual in being a reflection on school bullying. While many Japanese cartoons involve school-age characters, bullying is usually a device to mark out the antagonists. A Silent Voice is far bolder; its viewpoint character is the bully, a boy called Shoya. In the opening scenes, he’s a boisterous primary schooler, who resents the new girl joining their class. Called Shoko, she’s deaf, which gives Shoya (who sits behind her) the chance to play increasingly vicious pranks, from shouting at the back of her head to throwing her expensive hearing aids out of the window.

For a long time, the class and even a teacher are complicit in Shoya’s persecution of Shoko. Finally, though, Shoya finds the tables turned, becoming a victim of bullying too. Most of the film is set five years later, when Shoya is an introverted teen with a bad reputation, whose self-loathing has grown to the point that he plans suicide. However, an encounter with Shoko (whom he hasn’t seen for years) sparks a desperate desire in him to make amends.

A Silent Voice is uneven but largely compelling, exploring a delicate subject through intelligent scripting and accessible characters. The film has plenty of modern Japan icons, from cat cafes (where customers pay to play with cats), to summer firework festivals. However, the situation feels universal, especially the opening primary-school scenes, which are so masterfully cut and composed that the rest of the film struggles to match them.

Although the victimised Shoko at first seems an angel who needs protection from the world – and her perspective is rarely shown directly – the film adds complexity through another girl involved in the bullying. As a teen, this girl refuses to apologise for her actions, arguing that she gave Shoko every obvious message to avoid her. It’s a self-serving argument, certainly, but it’s also a good insight into how Shoko’s behaviour of constantly apologising and vainly trying to be friends could deepen a bully’s contempt.

Produced with vivid detail and delicacy, A Silent Voice has a few more cartoonish touches and character designs that may jar some viewers out of the story. More seriously, the story involves a great many characters; while the film balances them with admirable skill, it still ends up feeling overloaded and unwieldy, though its opening scenes would make an outstanding short film on their own. Unsurprisingly, the source serial manga told the story at far great leisure and length.

The biggest problem, though, is with A Silent Voice’s closing ten minutes. There’s nothing wrong with the basic ending, but the script unwisely brings in a supernatural suggestion of shared dreams, and a melodramatic reunion between the main characters that’s fatally laughable. After that stumble, the multiple extra resolutions feel very protracted, especially for a film that’s already over the two-hour mark.