A Silent Voice: An Emotional Powerhouse That Happens to Be Animated
Anime is a five letter word that is RIDDLED with connotation. With a passionate fandom that spans decades and initiates new and returning admirers annually, many ears will perk at its mention, but just as much if not more will immediately shut as it conjures the thoughts of Pokémon, Dragonball Z, and animated porn. The latter is a shame because in this post-Studio Ghibli (creators of universally beloved Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Academy Award-winning Spirited Away) world we now live in (although word is founder Hayao Miyazaki has un-retired… again) the medium is stronger than ever in both terms of storytelling and animation. Kyoto Animation’s stunning A Silent Voice, screening in Regal Cinemas for two nights only November 7th and 8th, is one of the best examples of how far anime has truly come.
A Silent Voice is a story that could have been told in any medium, but it truly prospers as an animated feature film. We’re initially introduced to a young man named Shoya Ishida via a day in his life before flashing back to his time in elementary school when a new student transferred to his class. The new student Shoko Nishimiya introduces herself to the class by pad and paper, revealing that she is deaf and goes by the nickname “Sho.” Shoya, already going by the nickname “Sho,” has an immediate distaste for this girl for this simple, childish reason. In time Shoya’s distaste is exacerbated when one of the popular girls, Naoko Ueno, begins to ostracize Shoko. Shoya reads this as a cue from his peers and begins to relentlessly torment and bully Shoko for being deaf. Her classmates do not help or intervene, rather standing by in a mix of amusement and apathy during her plight. Rather than asking for help, Shoko thinks that her handicap is to blame and tries to befriend Shoya, which only results in him hating her more.
The bullying sequences are distressingly difficult to watch, culminating in an attempt by Shoya to rip out Shoko’s hearing aids that leaves her bleeding mid-class. This is finally the line that is crossed for Shoya’s classmates, especially after school administration comes down on the class to name the culprit. The class sells out Shoya immediately who is punished for his actions not only by the school… but his fellow classmates. Poor Shoko is transferred to another school for her own safety and Shoya’s classmates immediately ostracize him in her place. In a sequence that in another director’s hands should have been redundant, we witness how Shoya is similarly bullied by his peer’s for… having been a bully. The irony isn’t lost on Shoya and we witness him growing up into a shell of his former self.
Shoya moves on to middle school, hoping to reinvent himself, only to find out that a former classmate has already alerted his new classmates that he was such a big bully at his former school that a girl had to transfer. Word spreads like wildfire and Shoya again becomes an outcast. By the time we reach high school, Shoya develops a social anxiety disorder, gorgeously animated as large periwinkle X’s across the faces of the peers he’s unable to look in the eye.
Hoping to finally apologize for his actions years earlier, Shoya seeks out Shoko (voiced in the English dub by deaf actress Lexi Cowden with affecting authenticity) to return her elementary notebook in his possession all this time, unsure if she’d ever want to see him. She is understandably reserved upon the realization that the young man before her is a tormentor from years prior, and a new classmate Yuzuru won’t let him close to Shoko, questioning his intentions. Shoya, having built this experience up into something that it isn’t with years of guilt and shame, won’t take a hint and returns day after day to associate with Shoko. What follows is not a teen romance as one would predict from the onset, but rather a story of the rippling effects that bullying has for years to come. As Shoya and Shoko reconnect, more classmates from elementary school come back into their lives, some for the better and others for the worse. Yet the emotional scars from those elementary years of harassment run deep in them all, no matter how repressed or denied they may be.
Personally, as someone who is well over a decade out of high school, and despite coming out as gay at 16, had an extremely positive overall school experience, the concept of bullying isn’t foreign to me, but I have had a hard time fathoming it being as prevalent and as much a problem as Lifetime Original Movies and TV have led me to believe. Yet after the release of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, reports of youth attempting self-harm following the series and all of the teen mental health professionals damning it as more harmful than entertainment brought me to learn the staggering recent statistic that 77% of students are bullied mentally, verbally, and physically. Bullying is something that touches so many of us directly or periphrastically, and A Silent Voice expertly presents this hot-button topic, not as an after-school special or redemption tale, but an emotionally heavyweight drama that doesn’t want you to see the best in its characters but to see its characters for what they are: teenagers. Self-conscious and flawed, capable of both the best and worst intentions, these teenagers may be marvelously animated, yet they are undeniably genuine.
Dramas, in general, can be a tough sell, but an animated drama about bullying with teen protagonists is one that will be especially hard. Sidestepping any schmaltz, A Silent Voice presents a story that was difficult to watch but needed to be told. The masterwork in animation just enhances the emotional weight of a tale that will be an affecting film for all that can get past the word “anime” and give it a chance. With the truly weak animated offerings hitting theaters in 2017 thus far, if there is any justice, A Silent Voice will get the attention it deserves come awards season.