Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Silent Voice: A Review


I've long argued that animation can tackle subjects beyond cute animals singing and dancing.  This ability to look at serious issues through moving drawings is something that only the Japanese appear to do.  A Silent Voice, based on a manga story, tackles really heavy issues: bullying, guilt, shame, responsibility.  While at two hours it might be a bit punishing for viewers, A Silent Voice (also known as The Shape of Voice) is a timely tale, told richly, deeply and sincerely.

Former big man on campus Shoya Ishida, now a teen, reflects on his elementary school days while contemplating suicide.  Back then, he ruled the roost with a collection of followers delighted by his hijinks.  Then came a new student, Shoko Nishimiya.  She is pretty, but she has a disability: she is deaf.  Ishida begins a campaign of bullying, even though Nishimiya proves herself to be a kind and welcoming person (following Japanese custom, the characters tend to refer to themselves by their last names).  Ishida routinely pulls out her hearing aids, once so violently they cause her ears to bleed.  He leads others in ostracizing her, which they do save for Sahara, who shows her kindness but won't stand up to the others.

Finally, it reaches a crisis point when the administration finally steps in.  The hearing aids Ishida routinely tosses or damages are expensive, and the results of his bullying force his mother to not only apologize for his actions but pay monetary compensation, money they can hardly afford to spend.  After being exposed, and finding no one to stand with him, Ishida, once the campus star, is ostracized himself, with Nishimiya moving to another school.

Now as teens, Ishida carries a lot of guilt over his actions, as well as shame and hurt for the end results: financial and emotional.  He feels the ostracism of others to where he can't look up at them, seeing literal 'X's over their faces.  At last, only one person, a short, fat student named Nagatsaku becomes his overly-eager friend when Ishida steps out of himself to keep Nagatsaku's bicycle from being stolen.

Nagatsaku adopts him as his BFF, and while Ishida isn't thrilled by this, at least he has someone.  He also has rediscovered Nishimiya's old notebook, which she used early on to write questions and answers on.  Having learned sign language in the ensuing years, he seeks out Nishimiya in order to make amends.

He does, which leads to his efforts to restore what he has destroyed.  It means dealing with Yuzuru, whom he and Nagatsaku first mistook for Nishimiya's boyfriend only to find out Yuzuru was Nishimiya's younger sister (I guess in anime, all things are plausible).  It also means helping Nishimiya reconnect with Sahara, as well as finding that some of the people Ishida either hurt or abandoned him still have their own issues when it comes to Ishida and Nishimiya.

In time, Nishimiya tells Ishida that she loves him, but Ishida fails to understand her words.  Still, their relationship ebbs and flows, culminating at a fireworks festival.  After an outing previously, Ishida essentially blames everyone, including and especially himself, for all that has happened, and tries to push his new friends away.  Nishimiya got it into her head that the world would be better without her and attempts suicide by jumping off her balcony after leaving the festival.  Ishida gets there in time to save her, but ends up falling himself when he lost his balance after pulling her to safety.

At the hospital, it is now Nishimiya's mother and sister who must beg forgiveness from Ishida's mother, and while Ishida does recover (even going to the bridge where they often met after having a dream involving Nishimiya), he still carries an awful guilt about things.  Finally, at the high school festival, he begins to finally hear himself, hearing all the voices of those around him: his friends, his enemies, and his fellow classmates.  No longer just hearing his own voice, he finds all the 'X's fall, and at last he is free of his guilt and shame, and can embrace life redeemed.

A Silent Voice, as I said, might feel a bit slow at its two-hour running time, particularly when there are scenes and characters that don't appear to fit neatly into the overall plot.  The idea that Yuzuru could be mistaken for a boy seems odd, and there is a subplot involving Nishimiya's Granny that seems unimportant.  However, we find that these little bits do matter, and more importantly, do move the viewer.

In A Silent Voice, the Granny character has a very limited role, but it is an important one: helping Yuzuru begin valuing herself.  When we see the family mourning her death, the image of Granny's smiling picture at the altar with the incense and her mourning daughter and granddaughters moved me intensely.  I should confess that the fact that I am still grieving myself over a friend's sudden death might have played a part in my emotional reaction to this, but given how well director Naoko Yamada crafted the adaptation, along with screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, these little bits have an emotional impact.

Same for Ishida's young niece Maria.  She is so adorable in her innocence and enthusiasm that you can't help loving her.  She may be unnecessary to the overall plot, but you wouldn't want to remove her either.

Yamada had several brilliant moments and allusions, such as putting literal 'X's on Ishida's classmates to emphasize how he perceived them.  It also stays true to human nature.  One of Nishimiya's former bullies, a girl named Ueno, is not redeemed or has a sudden realization.  She still feels little to no regret over her actions, believing that if not for Nishimiya things would have been better.  However, it rings true, particularly at the age the characters were, because sometimes teens and adults don't acknowledge wrongdoing.

It is Ishida's story, and it rings true because these are flawed characters.  A Silent Voice is really about Ishida's redemption, about his evolution from thoughtless to bullying to guilt-stricken and finally to forgiveness.  Forgiveness from Nishimiya for starters, but also forgiving himself, which sometimes can be the most difficult thing for anyone to do.

There are some beautiful moments visually as well in A Silent Voice.  The roller coaster ride is beautifully filmed, and Nishimiya's suicide attempt is really intense.  Previously, we see other characters observing the fireworks show from various positions, visually showing where they stand.  Subtle touches like these elevate A Silent Voice tremendously.

A Silent Voice is a film about the evils of bullying, but it drives its message without beating one down with it.  It is a subtle, beautiful film, and not just about bullying itself, an important topic today in this Facebook/Twitter/Instagram world where cyberbullying is now a fast-growing epidemic.  It is a film about the importance of kindness and forgiveness.  It is a film about the need for friends, flaws and all.  "Friendship lies somewhere beyond things like words and logic," Nagatsaku tells Ishida when the latter asks the former whether his friendship has value. 

A Silent Voice is a plea for tolerance, for mercy, kindness and ultimately forgiveness.  It speaks to the importance of human connections, of decency to all regardless of their differences, and about how guilt truly is a useless emotion. 

The Bible says that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our strength...and to love your neighbor as yourself.  If we all did that, irrespective of one's individual faith or lack thereof, this would truly be a better world.  It would be a world where all these silent voices would be heard, and loved.


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