Bullying in schools is, tragically, something that is felt across the world. Japan is no different in that regard – yet its own bullying problem manifests in forms that are equally unique and disconcerting. There, bullying is called ‘ijime’, and it can range from verbal threats and physical altercations to – outstandingly – ostracisation and prolonged psychological cruelty aimed at individuals. In this form, ‘ijime’ is defined as the elimination of those who are considered ‘different’, be it through racial heritage, disabilities or personality traits, to maintain classroom homogeneity and conformity. This harassment takes root in values taught in school – uniformity and those who uphold group attitudes are championed, while those who ‘stand out’ are seen as disruptive elements, and subsequently the ‘majority’ encourages ignoring, criticising and punishing those who deviate from the established norm. Attitudes towards ‘ijime’ are gradually shifting, but it is so deeply ingrained into Japanese society that it has been normalised within the school system, with some students describing it as ‘necessary’ to uphold conformity. Teachers are sometimes just as culpable, whether through asking parents of victims to label suicides as ‘accidents’, singling out children who are ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’, or outright denying the existence of any harassment to preserve the reputation of their school, their students or themselves. It is a deep-rooted issue with thousands of cases reported on a yearly basis, and it is summarised by a proverb of Japan’s own making: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.
The Japanese entertainment industry does not often confront such a subject. A Silent Voice, created by Yoshitoki Oima, was quick to garner both praise and controversy for its upfront, no-holds-barred exploration of the ‘ijime’ phenomenon in Japan, both when it was first released as a one-shot story to stiff opposition – its later serialisation was delayed by vocal opponents who claimed it painted a discomfiting picture of Japanese society – and now as a feature film under the auspices of Naoko Yamada. The premise establishes the bedrock for a story of absolution – Shouya Ishida (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka), is a rambunctious delinquent who chooses to harass new student Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) because of her deafness. The harassment becomes so severe that Shoko transfers, and Ishida soon finds himself shunned in turn, shouldering the blame. Resolving to try and make amends for the follies of his youth, he runs into her several years later, having learned Japanese sign language and having a genuine desire to hear her voice. Their chance encounter puts him on the slow, rocky path to redemption.
Every film is the sum of its parts, and from the top down almost every aspect of this film’s composition comes together to deliver something spellbinding. Visuals are a key competent of any animated production, and from an artistic standpoint the work is stunning, a feast for the eyes that flows like water as Yamada and her staff put every bit of the film’s sizeable budget to use with minimal outsourcing to other studios. Every element of the production gels together and supplements each other, from the fluidity of the animation to the immersive lighting, to the soft colour palettes and engrossing background art provided by Mutsuo Shinohara to the smooth yet striking character designs courtesy of Futoshi Nishiya that refine Oima’s occasionally rough artwork. The level of detail present in the animation is a sight to behold. Meticulous attention is given to character movement, especially considering the prominence of sign language, and the motions are so fluid – especially those of hands – that the characters are made even more lifelike because of it.
The sound is rich and clear, and Kensuke Ushio delivers a score that fits the film like a glove. The picture opens with a rather bombastic choice of soundtrack in the form of The Who’s My Generation, a song that perfectly encapsulates Ishida’s outlook as a child. From then on, though, the soundtrack consists of minimalistic yet stirring piano tracks and ambient noise, punctuated by strikingly effective stillness. The tracks are sometimes ponderous, halting and distant in nature, reflecting the minds of the cast in times of contemplation and struggle. The voice work is solid and the cast gives a commendable performance, but credit must be given to Hayami who delivers a painfully moving and decidedly unconventional performance that makes Shoko’s few yet outstanding attempts at speech even more powerful.
Visually and aurally the film is doubtlessly impressive, but it is in the script and direction where the film’s true strengths lie. The film’s script is written by Reiko Yoshida, Yamada’s scriptwriting partner in many previous works such as Tamako Market, K-On! and their respective films. Over the course of a 129-minute running time it finds itself pared down compared to the original work, with good reason. Combined with the aforementioned serialisation problems the manga also suffered from secondary arcs that weighed down the central plot, and occasionally indulged in excessive and sometimes gratuitous emotional moments. By trimming secondary plot details the film gains a renewed focus on the central thrust of the story with minimal distractions, and what results is a film that has an optimal length, hitting all the central plot beats with aplomb and having the emotional aspects of the tale come about naturally as opposed to being forced upon the audience. Owing to her script and Yamada’s style of directing, the work also abounds with small subtleties and concealed character motivations that aren’t blatantly spelled out – instances of sign language go untranslated leaving the viewer to infer their meaning. Characters undergo development visually in response to external stimuli. Little visual quirks, like a near-constant distance being maintained between Shoko and Shouya and characters being framed in deliberate isolation, are prevalent throughout the film.
This laser-like focus on Shouya and Shoko also enables the narrative to curb its excesses, exploring the range of emotions and topics on offer without descending into melodrama as the original work was sometimes wont to do. Shouya thunders out of the gate in that respect – for him, much of the first act is dedicated to his younger self indulging in the many fraught and terrible forms of bullying in scenes that are thoroughly uncomfortable and completely unrestrained. In his crusade to conquer boredom he faces no opposition in his campaign of mockery. Some of his classmates, particularly Ueno (Yūki Kaneko) are complicit, joining him in harassing her when they come to see her as a burden dragging down the class. Others are merely content to be spectators even after offering half-hearted words of criticism, or decide to silently ignore his actions. Even members of the faculty become aloof, at least until Shouya himself is turned into a convenient target – ‘We’re still in class’, one teacher nonchalantly tells him after another display of mean-spiritedness. His clique is universally toxic and his actions and those of his colleagues depict the disconcerting reality behind how ‘ijime’ scenarios often play out – entire classrooms can marshal against a single victim in one way or another. However, the turnaround he suffers because of of his actions opens a pathway to intense introspection down the road.
Five years on he finds himself listless, seriously entertaining the thought of taking his life and beset on all sides by comments regarding what he did in his younger days, and subsequently copes by closing himself off almost completely. He constructs mental walls around his psyche to numb the pressure that gnaws away at his mind and to deafen the noise of the world around him – a key moment is Shouya imagining himself cupping his hands over his ears before crosses blossom across the faces of his fellow students and former associates, so that he can shut them out and deal with them without even having to look at them even when they talk to him. Breaking down those walls is never easy, and not just in relation to personal relationships – even after his encounter with Shoko, he receives justifiable criticism, constantly wonders about his own self-worth, ponders whether his pursuits are only meant to satisfy himself and have no greater meaning, and questions whether he deserves happiness and forgiveness while having spectres of the past hovering over him. For him, having reaped what he has sown, the film is a struggle for genuine betterment in the face of adversity, an attempt to find purpose in his life and start relationships anew while also yearning to listen to the silent voice that he ignored in his youth.
The film spares no expense, however, in showing that the hurt goes both ways. On the surface, Shoko initially seems the embodiment of innocence. Unerringly kind, she shows almost no resistance towards those who torment her. Instead of lashing out against those who harass her she maintains apparent positivity and refuses to retaliate, but her kindly, magnanimous behaviour is not a convenient panacea – for her persecutors, it is another target. Her unwaveringly good-natured disposition and her tendency to profusely apologise in the event of any misunderstanding or perceived wrongdoing sometimes cause aggravation in others, particularly Ishida’s younger self and Ueno, who see her neutral passivity and outwardly gentle demeanour as either a fabrication, a ploy for pity or an annoyance and view her as weak, selfish and excessively submissive. We see cracks in the armour that speak to her depth as a character – one striking moment early on involving her and Ishida, one of the few times they close the near-perpetual distance between each other, results in an emotional and physical flashpoint where Shoko’s facade falters. Just as Shouya is not a stereotypical thug, she is not simply a character designed to garner sympathy – in fact, it is underneath her innocent mask that we see the full extent of her suffering and learn that she and Shouya are, in the present day, very much alike.
She is quietly and painfully aware of her faults, and just as Shouya has his episodes of internal reflection, her own dilemma is showcased through both how her personality is depicted in relation to her condition and through her family. Her self-esteem is at troubling lows owing to both her opinion of her deafness and her past torture, despite the best efforts of her sister Yuzuru (Aoi Yūki) and her stern mother Yaeko (Akiko Hiramatsu). Underneath her sweet, cheerful veneer and her outward kindness, there resides a broken soul, a girl who internalises her pain and battles extreme hatred within her as she inwardly sees herself as a problem and her deafness as a burden. She silently accepts whatever criticism and blame she receives because she believes she deserves it in a shockingly accurate depiction of how severely depressed people sometimes see themselves and she apologises as intensely as she does because she sees herself as the source of all the problems that transpire. That her tormentors, past and present, point out personal flaws that she silently acknowledges also does not help matters, and beyond her apologetic exterior there lies someone who is locked in a constant struggle with herself, all the while in danger of succumbing to the weight of the cross of self-loathing that she willingly bears. For her, the film is also a lesson in reflection and self-improvement – learning from the mistakes that she makes, coming to peace with herself and reining in the self-hatred festering within her.
This is a movie that rests upon the shoulders of its characters, and through their emotional turmoil and trials – not just those of Shouya and Shoko, but virtually everyone in the cast – there emerges a timeless tale of atonement and self-discovery. It is about people who each have their own demons and who, through sorrow, hurt and endurance, gradually start to overcome them while they try to move onward, swimming boldly against the tide. It is a production filled with heart-warming ups and heart-rending downs and a satisfying if slightly rushed emotional payoff, and its contents are not restrained by what it is. It embraces what it wants to show and is universally resonant, capable of affecting and educating a whole host of audiences.
The film is not without its problems. Like a number of adaptations, it is in cutting away extraneous content and narrowing its focus that the film suffers most, chiefly relating secondary cast. Although characters such as Ueno and Nagatsuka (Kensho Ono) emerge mostly intact albeit with a couple of pivotal personal scenes removed, others such as Kawai (Megumi Han) and Mashiba (Toshiyuki Toyonaga) find themselves lacking in substance owing to them being tied to the arcs and individual spotlight chapters that found themselves excised from the film – flow is improved, but character development falls behind subsequently. Additionally, by nature of its content alone it is extremely polarising and intentionally uncomfortable in many places. It aims to prove a point and it does so very well, but some viewers who are less receptive of what it tries to show them may be firmly dissuaded by the unremitting cruelty it displays. Those who come in expecting the film to be a decidedly more romantic affair will no doubt find themselves bewildered as well. It occupies a niche within a niche, a Japanese animation about singularly unique subject matter, and it ultimately is not for everyone.
It may cause discomfort to those who are unaware, but A Silent Voice is right to be forthcoming in its subject matter. It is undeniably polarising but it says what needs to be said in a package that is both tender and forthcoming. Perhaps it is not the most original tale or the most faithful adaptation, the film is a commanding presence on the silver screen, powerful, touching, poignant and revelatory in equal measure. It may be unrelenting in its depiction of the brutality of bullying as it intends to be, and it doesn’t dismiss such deep-rooted problems with convenient fixes, but it is something that champions second chances for those who truly want to take them. It is a film that shows us that, sometimes, simply listening is the first step towards absolution.