A Silent Voice

Tackling the troubles of high school life, this introspective animation offers an emotionally detailed portrait of coming-of-age.
A Silent Voice

 A Silent Voice image via Madman.

It's a simple decision, and an effective one. With teenagers prone to feeling that they're not being heard, A Silent Voice features a hearing-impaired character that rarely speaks out loud. From the moment Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami, Gantz: O) arrives at her new elementary school, director Naoko Yamada’s (Tamako Love Story) adaptation of Yoshitoki Ōima’s manga of the same name, translated on screen as The Shape of Voice, makes its focus on marginalisation and alienation known. As the film charts Shoko’s efforts to make friends  communicating via a notebook, signalling to everyone around her that she'd like to connect, yet largely earning scorn and derision in return  she isn't the only person struggling, however. He mightn’t realise it at such a young age, but he does as a high-schooler years later: Shoya Ishida (voiced by Blank 13’s Mayu Matsuoka as a child and Naruto Shippuden’s Miyu Irino as a teenager), her chief bully, similarly doesn't know how to make his mark on the world.

The film that follows chronicles the experiences of both, though, somewhat surprisingly, it's Shoya that sits at its centre, turning from antagonist to protagonist. Haunted by the way he behaved towards Shoko, as well as the treatment he received in turn when his mocking, hearing aid-stealing, physically taunting ways were discovered by his peers and elders, he sees people around him the way that she hears them. Where Shoko can only meaningfully interact with those kind enough to learn sign language or write down their thoughts, something made increasingly easier via text messages and email, Shoya feels as though he can only relate to a tiny fraction of the people he knows. The latter’s faces are clear and open, if he dares raise his bowed head to look into their eyes; everyone else's are blocked by a large, visible cross. 

So it is that A Silent Voice explores its title in both a literal and metaphorical sense, with screenwriter Reiko Yoshida (TV’s Myriad Colors Phantom World) layering both into a moving musing on adolescence that endeavours to capture all sides – kindly and cruel, victimised and aggressive, yearning and confident, accepted and outcast all among them. As Shoya seeks out Shoko to make amends and hopefully become friends, the film fleshes out their existence with other voices, most harking back to their earlier times together, and all similarly conflicted, complex and craving a secure place in life.

Teenage frustrations, motley crews of disparate characters linked by shared problems, and recognising that every youth tussles with forming their identity may be frequent movie fodder, as is the topic of bullying, but frequent collaborators Yamada and Yoshida ensure their latest addition to the fold  with the pair working on the teen-centric TV shows K-On! and Tamako Market, as well as the film offshoots of both  never suffers under the weight of familiarity. Instead, using recognisable archetypes gives the duo, and their material, room to examine the preconceptions around arrogant tormentors, sweet newcomers, brooding loners, gossiping ringleaders and everything in between, and dissect their fears, wants, needs, desires and motivations. Just as the comparable Your Name found common ground in the battle of the sexes and the city-country divide, A Silent Voice approaches a cross-section of typical adolescent figure to lay bare their intricacies. 

In addition to painting an emotionally detailed portrait of coming-of-age and the high school politics that go along with it, not to mention a universally relatable one, the feature benefits from compiling a lavish display of sound and vision. Fittingly, and by design thanks to an acoustic landscape that expertly expresses Shoya and Shoko’s respective forms of isolation, A Silent Voice is a quiet film. Just as aptly in its animation, heightening its reflective, introspective mood, it’s also a soft effort. Both echo loudly and shine boldly, though, when it comes to putting the audience in the characters’ shoes and conveying their experiences.


Rating: 4 stars out of 5

A Silent Voice

Director: Naoko Yamada      

Japan, 2016, 129 mins

Release date: April 6

Distributor: Madman

Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Monday 10 April, 2017

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay