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Theme Tuesday - A Silent Voice

For January, I will be exploring the works of Japanese female directors as part of my 2018 resolution to watch more films by female directors (more than fifty percent of films watched to be precise).


As an adolescent, Shoya Ishida reflects on his past behavior, especially in elementary school, where he bullied a deaf girl (Shoko Nishimiya) so mercilessly that she had to leave the school. His classmates (who were not entirely blameless of making Nishimiya’s life a paranoid, living hell) turn on him, and he grows up to be an insecure, weak young man who can barely look people in the face. In fact, Ishida sees X’s on people’s faces to symbolize his introverted nature, one of the most striking images in the film. Ishida goes on a complicated, emotional journey to redeem himself and make amends, but many unexpected twists occur as he struggles through his life.

Watching Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice, I became convinced that animation was the only way to tell this story. Even though nothing fantastical happens in this particular narrative, I just could not conceive of it otherwise. I tried to imagine what this film would have been like if it were live-action, and perhaps it is my poor imagination, but I couldn’t help thinking of those laughably bad live-action adaptations of popular anime properties like Clash on Titan, Naruto, or even (shudder) Dragonball: Evolution. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule such as Oldboy (based on an epically long Japanese manga) or Road to Perdition (Max Allan Collins), but even those adaptations took many visual and compositional cues from their original sources.

Some people are not naturally drawn to the style of most Japanese artists in anime (which is not uniform in the least). There isn’t too much in this movie that would convince such people otherwise. Shoko has impossibly big eyes and pink hair, while other female and male characters have other just as unlikely features. I think, however, that these artists are trying to capture the essences of characters rather than portraying them realistically. We should also consider that even in live-action cinema the camera is far from objective, so why should animation strive for realism?

Despite how pretty, cute or even stunningly beautiful many of the images and compositions are, the story underneath is as raw as an exposed nerve. Shoya’s journey to make amends starts with a failed suicide attempt and the depictions of bullying are horrifyingly familiar and even violent. All the lovely animation in the world couldn’t mask the callousness of teenagers who would bluntly tell a deaf girl they hate her because of her deafness, and if you don’t think that’s realistic, you have not been around teenagers for a long time. One of the sharpest observations that this film makes is how bullying does not have to be active. When you simply look on or even laugh at someone being bullied, you are just as much a bully as they are.

I believe quite firmly that the fact that the major creators are women, the original manga creator Oima Yoshitoki, screenwriter Reiko Yoshida and director Naoko Yamada, is critical to this movie’s success. They give this story power, complexity and resonance. Not that men cannot be truly emotionally astute, but I think the women understand Nishimiya’s character more profoundly than a man would. She is definitely a victim, but she is also flawed and weak in ways not tied to her deafness. Most people, men and women, wouldn’t have the courage to make someone with disabilities a complex person, but this is probably the greatest accomplishment of this film. Also, the film and manga resist the temptation to define people by their terrible behavior alone. I know I spent so much of this film wanting to hate Ishida and looking forward to his comeuppance, but the creators steer us gently but firmly away from such reductionist thinking.

The film is not without its problems, namely its length and the overabundance of characters. It’ s a testament to the storytelling that I wanted to know more about every single character, not just the main two. Clearly, this needed to be a miniseries, so that we could dive into the stories of all the characters even further. A Silent Voice is still a wonderful and deeply empathetic work that is enhanced by its presentation as an anime film.

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