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