Of the many films touching on the topic of bullying and mental health in the movie industry, the Japanese animated film “Koe no Katachi” (or “A Silent Voice” as translated for Western audiences) presents a particularly exceptional take on this commonly mentioned yet rarely confronted problem. Centred on a former bully Ishida Shouya’s experiences as a high-school student years after the victim of his harassment, Nishimiya Shouko, a deaf girl, transferred away from his grade-school, “A Silent Voice” brings in a deeply touching, emotionally stirring story from the perspective of a former bully and his desperate attempts to redeem himself. The film, directed by Naoko Yamada, is an adaptation of a manga of the same name, written and illustrated by Yoshitoki Oima, first published and serialised in 2011.
Although the storyline of the film may not seem particularly eye-catching for some due to its rather typical setting of “Boy bullies girl as a child, and the two fall in love afterwards”, “A Silent Voice” definitely abolishes this initial ‘teen romance’ expectation as its storyline is primarily dominated by the character development of its protagonist, Ishida Shouya, and his attempts to atone for his mistakes, to finally succeed in moving past his deep feelings of guilt.
What “A Silent Voice” succeeds in executing phenomenally is its realistic portrayal of classroom relationships and attitudes, as Ishida, after seeing how other friends excluded Nishimiya from their circles, begins to bully her for fun, as if to impress other classmates, shouting into her ear on purpose, ripping up her books, tearing out her hearing aids and breaking them in front of her. As viewers, most would hesitate to excuse Ishida from his actions, although admittedly his behaviour can still be explained by his young age and inability to empathise with the girl, who despite all of his harassment and mistreatment, still insisted on befriending him and forgiving him. The 12-year-old Ishida couldn’t understand her, and so when she finally transferred from his school only a few months after her arrival; this cued the beginning of his transformation.
He soon becomes the victim of bullying himself, used as the scapegoat by his complacent teacher and self-serving friends for the bullying suffered by Nishimiya. He is labelled as “A Bully” for the rest of his time in grade school and middle school, a name which he carries all the way to high school. Only then does he begin to understand the severity of his actions, and as a mature, regretful teenager, the film starts with him standing on the ledge of a bridge about to hurl himself off it, before finally stopping himself, and resolving to properly find her and redeem himself for his past cruelty.
The whole film’s plot revolves around Ishida’s journey out of social isolation once he succeeds in reconciling with the kind and forgiving Nishimiya. They begin to spend more and more time with each other, with Ishida forming a firm friendship with her younger sister Yuzuru, and finding a new friend in his old classmate, the overdramatic but caring Nagatsuka.
What “A Silent Voice” really illustrates exceptionally is the deep guilt felt by Ishida throughout the story. He never puts aside the fact that he’s a “horrible person” (although it becomes clear to the audience that he wasn’t one from the start), and suffers an extremely grating mental burden of shame throughout his daily life. His simple mannerisms of avoiding his classmates’ eyes and the self-disgust he experiences whenever his past bullying is brought up all show his deeply ingrained shame, all of which cause viewers to inevitably sympathize with him and his agony. The movie also brilliantly explores the extent of his guilt-inflicted turmoil as he resorts to a form of escapism by visualizing “crosses” on people’s faces surrounding him, ambiguously symbolic of how he avoids interaction and doesn’t talk to his classmates out of fear of moral condemnation, just as his classmates had done to him before, post Nishimiya’s transferal from his school. He symbolically removes his hands from his ears by the end of the film, suggesting that he’s finally stopped running away from the judgement of others (which was the root of him setting a wall between himself and all other classmates), and has decided to stop blocking out other people’s voices out of fear for what he might hear being said about himself. This heart-wrenching epiphany moves him, and most likely the audience, who have accompanied him from the start of his journey to the end, into a torrent of tears.
Nishimiya Shouko, the female lead of the story, and the deaf girl who was the victim of Ishida’s bullying as a child, serves as another focal point of the film’s message, as throughout the whole film it is clear that she is trying her best to make friends, and stop herself from being alienated by those who cannot understand her, as shown through her ever-forgiving kindness and never-resentful attitude despite all of the hardships she’s suffered. More realistically, the film portrays how she herself has lost a huge part of self-esteem and love for herself, and is incredibly pained by her disability, with the film’s most heart-wrenching moments depicting the way she blames herself and apologises for the “misfortune” other people have experienced, when it is clear to the audience that nothing is her fault. “A Silent Voice” powerfully conveys the importance of standing up against bullying and misconceptions, and helping those lacking self esteem regain their confidence and sense of value, just as Ishida does for Nishimiya throughout the course of the film, and it is this beautiful message delivered in such a natural, yet touching way that truly sets this film apart from so many other ones of the same genre.
Kyoto Animation has always been known for its godly animation and visually outstanding art style, demonstrated in its other exceptional series “Violet Evergarden” and “Hyouka”, and the studio’s production of “A Silent Voice” is no exception to this rule. The film is full of emotion, subtle, yet inexplicably powerful, and the vivid and striking colour schemes along with the production team’s skilful usage of scenery and natural images (particularly the shades of green and blue of water) transmit striking emotions throughout every second of the film, whether quotidian and carefree, or heart-wrenching and bittersweet. This visual heaven is further enhanced by the selective choices of background music to accompany it, whether it be the calm, even flow of the piano playing behind the scenes showing the transitioning of time and development of relationships, or the sudden crescendo of powerful instruments to build up to a moment of silence to express bursts of pent up emotions, all of them combining to construct an awe-inducing mixture of emotions throughout the film, brimming with childish memory and nostalgia, crammed with sadness and bittersweet regret, and woven with touches of warmth and contentment to draw out a fulfilling end.
What was perhaps the most powerful scene of all is actually one that happens early on in the story when Ishida’s mother confronts him casually about his suicide attempt, after deducing it from his strange behaviour. His reluctance to admit it causes his mother break down into tears and fury as she bellows at him to swear to never think of doing it again, threatening him by holding a lighter next to the bundle of money he had earned over months to “repay” his mother before committing suicide. An emotionally stunning scene brimming with maternal love and a child’s desperate attempts to not worry her, this was the only time in the film where I was genuinely brought to tears, the pain and desperation felt by Ishida’s mother upon finding out that her son wanted to kill herself strikingly transmitted in the most moving way. “A Silent Voice” draws compelling demonstrates how suicide isn’t in fact the end of everything; it has an effect on everyone around you, from family, friends, simple acquaintances, everyone, and once more reiterates the message of how people in need of support should not be left alone, and that should anyone have thoughts of suicide they should always rethink these decisions by considering those people who love them and wish them to live.
The title of the film “A Silent Voice”, is actually an inaccurate translation of what it actually means in Japanese - “Koe no Katachi”, literally meaning “The Shape of Voice”. This difference is incredibly significant in the understanding of the film, as it is evocatively symbolic of the film’s inspirational driving message. Whilst it can be taken as a phrase representative of how Nishimiya would probably perceive ‘voices’ as someone unable to hear or speak articulately, hence how the “shape” of her voice alone when she tries to speak is enough to transmit her raw emotions, it can also hold a deeper meaning in the eyes of Ishida himself. He couldn’t understand the girl he ‘d bullied as a 6th grader, and only tries to do so once he experiences bullying himself, and just as he blocked himself off from all the people he felt had turned against him in condemnation he had blocked out the voices of everyone around him because of his regret and shame. The journey throughout the film as he begins to open up more and more and allow these imagined ‘crosses’ on people’s faces to peel off is symbolic of how he gradually allows their voices, the shapes of those voices and what is said by these voices, to reach him, as he stops wandering in an abyss of guilt to move forwards as a new person. “A Silent Voice” is by no means a perfect production with a flawless story; of course, like most films it overdramatises a lot of the scenes and the sequences of events that follow them, and viewers may find themselves thinking “not everyone is as good of a person as Ishida turned out to be”. Nonetheless, it certainly does convey an important message of support for those being bullied as well as for those that do not understand the severe consequences of their bullying, and with the torrent of emotions induced by its brilliant scripting and use of cinematographic and animation effects, “A Silent Voice” is definitely a wholesome film to watch for those anticipating a bittersweet, yet strangely fulfilling ride.
Winner of The 2016 Japanese Movie Critics Awards for Best Animation Feature Film and The 2017 Japanese Academy Awards for Excellent Animation of the Year, as well as five others coupled with 11 nominations from different film festival awards.
Sharon W, Year 12