A Silent Voice
A suicidal teenager decides to seek redemption by befriending the deaf girl he used to bully in school a number of years ago.
Japanese with English subtitles. Japanese Sign Language.
2 hours, 10 minutes.
Japan - September 17, 2016
USA - October 20, 2017
Distributor: Eleven Arts
Director: Naoko Yamada
Writers: Reko Yoshida, Yoshitoki Oima (manga), Kiyoshi Shigematsu (original author), Amanda Winn Lee (English translation), Clark Cheng (English translation)
Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: Not Rate (for comparative purposes, it was rated 12A in the UK, M in Australia, and PG in Singapore)
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about A Silent Voice. During GUG’s Back to School week, I listed it as a movie that has inspired real change in my life. Having seen over a hundred films this year, A Silent Voice is the only one that has impacted me so heavily—that has encouraged me to not merely reflect upon it’s message, but to take action in response. Very few films have ever elicited such a reaction from me.
While there is an English dub currently in development, the version of A Silent Voice I am reviewing is the original Japanese version with English subtitles. Those hoping to see the English dub may have to wait until a commercial release.
Violence: There are two attempted suicides, both of which involve trying to fall from a high place. One character walks to the edge of a bridge, about to jump, but changes their mind. The second attempt is thwarted by another character. The suicide attempts are discussed heavily after the fact, and friends and family of the suicidal characters question their motives and beg them to never do it again. Blood crops up a couple of times in the film—once seen as red traces when a character hits their head underwater, and a separate time when a character lays down while blood pools from the back of their head. Bullying is a prominent issue, and there are multiple scenes involving physical assaults, resulting in cuts, bruises, and bleeding wounds. One character takes photos of dead creatures.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild slurs, such as “stupid,” and comparisons to human excrement.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character tries to coolly smoke a French fry like a cigarette.
Spiritual Content: It’s not directly stated or overtly obvious, but some viewers may recognize a Buddhist influence in the narrative. The folkloric tale about the koi carp that perseveres by swimming up the river, against the current, and is rewarded by turning into a dragon (yeah, the Magikarp story) is used as a visual metaphor.
Sexual Content: There are quite a few shots focusing on the short skirts of school girls–it doesn’t go so far as up-skirting, but quite a bit of thigh is seen. Though not terribly obvious, two characters (mistakenly) develop the impression that they will be visiting a strip club.
Other Negative Content: One female character is mistaken for a boy, and she only corrects this misconception after several meetings. The bullying that occurs is mean-spirited and lacks empathy, and some of this behavior is never explained (though most of the cast do go on to regret their actions with age).
Positive Content: This film focuses on the journey to redemption–seeking forgiveness from those who have been hurt, and learning to love oneself again along the way. It sheds light on the difficulties the deaf community faces, not just in regards to communication, but also the misguided, horrible feeling that they are a burden to others—a topic that is rarely addressed in media. The film promotes the idea that persistence is worth it. It highlights the isolating effects of depression, but shows that through opening up and allowing friendship to blossom, the negative voices and trust issues can be replaced with a newfound sense of self-esteem.
The path to redemption is not a simple one, and A Silent Voice dares to tackle the messy intricacies that are experienced every step of the way. Never has animation been more realistic in portraying the troubles one faces when trying to convey their innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires. It’s a narrative that doesn’t hold the audience’s hand; it doesn’t dictate what to think through voice-overs or other techniques. Rather, it relishes the separation between communication and understanding, both on and off the screen.
A Silent Voice is a beautiful film with messages that run so deep and true that they may emotionally unravel the unprepared. The story revolves around two characters: Shoko, a deaf girl who over-apologizes for her own existence in a misguided effort to make others happy, and Shoya, the boy who bullies her relentlessly when they first meet. While the title might suggest this story is about Shoko’s difficulty in communicating due to her disability, the protagonist is actually Shoya, with the narrative arc following his battle with depression.
After Shoko leaves the school due to Shoya and his friends’ horrible antics, it doesn’t take long until Shoya becomes the next victim of bullying. After years of torment both externally and internally, on the brink of suicide, Shoya suddenly decides to make amends with Shoko. Actions speak louder than words, so he takes sign language classes in order to demonstrate the sincerity of his conviction.
Yet it’s soon apparent that even though Shoya makes the effort to “speak” to Shoko in her own language, it is still not enough to convey what’s deep inside. Indeed, every character in the film at some point has difficulty conveying what they truly mean. A Silent Voice demonstrates that words and gestural signs are still merely shallow reflections of the guttural groans of our souls. People from Shoya’s past constantly question his motives, despite his innocent intentions. Redemption, the film implies, is only achieved through struggling—facing the hurt feelings of the past, acknowledging the criticisms of others, and most importantly (though frequently overlooked) forgiving oneself.
It blew me away just how utterly relatable I found this film to be. Bullies are normally portrayed in media as villains (and so they should be), but they are rarely explored in depth, nor do stories involving bullying tend to focus on the aftereffects experienced years later. Before knowing what it meant to live in Christ, I used to bully a girl in my teenage years. No reason–I sadly admit it was mostly for my own sadistic entertainment. As I matured, my regret grew stronger with each passing day. For years I wanted to apologize to her, but never knew the right way to begin—if there even was a correct method.
A few months ago, we actually did reconnect. We’ve always had a love of anime in common, so when she suggested that we see A Silent Voice together, I agreed. It was only the second time we had met up. Going in, we had no idea what the film was about. Boy, was I in for a God moment! This film convicted me like none other. The story is so moving that it made me want to be a better person. After the movie, I finally had the courage to apologize and ask for her forgiveness.
She said that she never viewed me as bully. My entire decade of self-loathing was all for nothing.
That’s the sort of issues that A Silent Voice encapsulates. Usually films address the hurt that’s experienced by the victim only, but in truth, healing occurs on both sides when redemption is sought. Shoya and Shoko’s relationship is complicated but rich with reality, where a lesser story would have tidied up the ending and produced nothing more than shallow entertainment.
A Silent Voice’s real strength lies in its character development. These characters might be animated, but not one of them feels one-dimensional. It’s so refreshing to watch characters that feel like unique individuals fighting their own personal battles. Savvy viewers may pick up a metaphor with the koi in the river, with each fish representing the characters’ attitudes to their barriers in life.
This film is a subtle, nuanced story. Even the title can be interpreted and applied to many of the characters. In some ways, the audience is also cut out of the conversation and left wondering in silence, as there are no subtitles available for the dialogue held in sign language. It’s unclear whether this was an intentional choice. Ironically, considering the main themes of the movie, Western audiences may find some of the film’s symbolism to be lost in translation due to cultural differences.
Suffice to say, it’s not a perfect film. It does have a long runtime, and there are moments that left me pondering where the plot was heading. The story appears to start wrapping up, but instead continues for another half-hour. Despite appearances, though, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, as the narrative quickly establishes its intent to come full circle with the opening image mirroring the closing. Wrapping the film together is a piano score that manages to successfully hit every emotional note in the narrative.
It’s not all drama and tears, though. The story does have its fair share of comedic moments thanks to its well-rounded supporting cast. It does, however, shoe-horn in an awkward cross-dressing sub-plot where one character’s gender is mistaken for another—an oddly prominent gimmick in Japanese tales.
The plot may meander, but it does eventually display the strengths and flaws of every character, even the deaf girl, Shoko. The film doesn’t take the politically-correct route by portraying her as perfect, as though nothing “bad” can be said about people in minority groups. By having the bravery to realistically depict such a character, the story has the freedom to explore deeper themes and to touch on issues that truly resonate with the deaf community.
While the film shows that signing isn’t necessarily enough to communicate the desires of one’s soul, and that a barrier of sorts will always exist, seeing the other characters make the effort anyway is a powerful testament for learning the language.
After watching this film, I took up Auslan classes (the Australian version of sign language). Unfortunately, sign language is not universal, and different countries will have different gestures. My use of it has been limited so far, though it has encouraged me to seek out opportunities. One time, a few weeks ago, I was in a supermarket, and after struggling to find the specific item I needed, I asked the store clerk for help. She apologized and explained that she was deaf; judging from her defeated expression, this was an explanation that she no doubt repeated each and every shift, fully expecting others to back away, deciding it was too difficult to communicate. I started signing. Her eyes instantly brightened and a smile swept across her face. I had absolutely no idea what the sign was for the item I needed, so I had to painstakingly fingerspell everything, but she didn’t mind–she just seemed delighted to have a conversation with someone.
Communication. Without it, we’re truly alone. It’s about having a voice, listening, being heard and—most importantly—understood. Shoko’s voice is represented by a notebook. She treasures it so much that she endures humiliation to retrieve it. For other characters, the symbolism isn’t as obvious, though the theme of communication still works as the undercurrent of the narrative. A Silent Voice delves into the many facets of interpersonal connection, and largely nails it.
There’s a lot more to this film than I initially anticipated. It doesn’t narrow in on a single message, and there’s much more that can be said regarding friendship and the toxic negativity that comes with depression—far too much to cover in a single review. Some viewers may be frustrated by A Silent Voice’s wide scope—it’s heavy and a bit long—but for those who are willing to look deeper, it’s a rich and rewarding film. It literally changed my life, as one of the most powerful, influential films that I have ever seen. Especially if you’re into anime, A Silent Voice is a must-see.
+ Well-rounded characters
+ Willingness to explore messy issues
+ Powerful themes
+ Doesn't belittle the audience by holding their hand
- Meandering story
- Some subplots feel jarring to the rest of the story
- Western audiences may miss some of the cultural symbolism used