Here’s an anime that has a powerful message and a rare beauty that SHELLEY SWEENEY can’t quite resist.
Can a bully and their victim ever become friends? A Silent Voice explores the complexities of such a friendship. Shoya the bully is not a likeable character, but he does try to grow beyond his self-loathing and learn from his victim.
I really love the look of this film. Some of the backgrounds appear to be photographic, and at times the animated characters seem to occupy a real space. A considerable amount of time is dedicated to subtle imagery that made me feel as though I was walking through the scene, taking in the trees, the sunlight and the day. This is casually referred to in anime as ‘scenery porn’, and the heightened/animated reality can often lend itself to greater empathy for characters than a live action film. In anime, the world is often not so ordinary as it is here, but the scenery always has a powerful emotional presence. It reminds me in a small way of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and there’s a beautiful melancholic tone throughout, but A Silent Voice doesn’t come close in its narrative or background design.
Where A Silent Voice struggles is in the character development, which could be due to the film being adapted from the acclaimed Manga series, and the hefty challenge screenwriter Reiko Yoshida must have faced in reducing the series into a one-off film. Neglecting to show the emotional history of the bully though, is a disappointing oversight in an otherwise good story.
Shoyo is a primary school student who has lots of friends and no problems. Then Shoko joins his class and the whole dynamic changes. Shoko is different. She is deaf and is more comfortable using sign language than speaking. Why won’t this new girl speak? Shoyo’s lack of understanding turns to frustration and leads to brutal bullying, making the early scenes are painful to watch. He bullies without remorse and relishes in being cruel to a girl who he finds ‘creepy’.
Shoko wears hearing aids and at some point she takes time off school to get them replaced. The other children, led by Shoya, have been throwing them around the classroom for fun. Shoko desperately wants to be liked. She tries to make friends with Shoya one day and keeps making the same sign with her hands. Shoyo is haunted by her signing. What can it mean? The bullying escalates to such a point that she leaves the school. Shoyo is relieved but the other children turn on him, labelling him as a bully. Then the bully becomes the victim, rejected by his friends. When he starts high school, word quickly spreads that he is a bully and no one speaks to him there either. Shoyo’s sense of rejection is portrayed by people’s faces being crossed out. All he can see when he walks around school are crossed-out faces. This is a poignant portrayal of social anxiety. He feels that he has no friends and can’t look anyone in the eye. The bully has become the victim and is isolated by his self-hatred. Shoyo is tormented by his past. This is a turning point in his life.
There is some welcome comic relief when the lonely Shoya protects a boy from a bully and the two become friends. His new friend is lighthearted but protective, and helps Shoya on his mission of self redemption. Shoya learns sign language and finally understands what Shoko kept trying to tell him. She was using the sign for ‘friends’.
All of Shoya and Shoko’s old friends are brought back together, but they still carry the baggage of what happened in the past. Shoya is so focused on his own need for self-acceptance that he fails to see Shoko suffering from the same thing herself.
This film is about learning: to put the past behind you, to love the things about yourself that you don’t like and to move forward with life. That’s a powerful message, but one that would have been more so in a shorter film. The story gets a bit bogged down in teenage drama, but is still a bold premise wrapped in a thing of beauty that is well worth a watch.
- A Silent Voice hits NZ screens on April 13.