In our newest weekly series, Cold Coffee Press writer and self-described anime expert Andrew Carroll will endeavour to take us through the wild, weird, and wonderful world of Japanese animation.
No one has it tougher than Japanese teens. If there’s one thing you take away from watching even one anime episode or movie it’s that these kids have it rough. The worst part is it’s mostly true to life if you take away the giant robots, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and flashy superpowers. There is an enormous amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of Japanese young people. They are expected to succeed in work, at school and at their hobbies. Their parents, grandparents and siblings rely on them as the torchbearers for the next generation and for their family’s own security. A Silent Voice shouts itself hoarse about these issues and then keeps whispering long after the credits roll.
Shōya Ishida is a suicidal young man ignored by his peers and crippled by self-hatred. A former delinquent and bully his treatment of deaf girl, Shōko Nishimiya, in sixth grade was unacceptable to his classmates who, despite being complicit, scapegoat him leading to his ostracisment. Years later he reunites with Shōko after a failed suicide attempt. Together they attempt to reconcile the past and strive to make the most of their new friendship. A Silent Voice is a beautiful melodrama rivalled only by the likes of mega-hit Your Name and Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
Director Naoko Yamada is no stranger to popular anime. She directed the incredibly popular K-ON! and Tamako Market TV series’ as well as their tie-in movies for animation powerhouse Kyoto Animation. However, she is relatively new to the heavy and often upsetting themes of A Silent Voice. Suicide is never a subject to be taken lightly nor is bullying or isolation but Yamada handles all three with panache and tenderness. Yamada understands teen angst and what makes young people tick. Rebellious themes have featured heavily in her work from the girl-power garage pop of K-ON! to Ishida’s own delinquency as a brash child in A Silent Voice. Of course, the imagery should reflect the theme and Yamada’s team of animators do stellar work in this regard.
It is in its quieter moments that A Silent Voice soars. A girl standing alone by a reflecting pool. A white-knuckle grip on a roller coaster safety bar. Blood on a white collar. A former friend’s shaded, dull eyes. All of these and more play into A Silent Voice’s strengths. One particularly brilliant touch is the X’s placed over people’s faces by Ishida. His anxieties refuse to let him look people in the eye meaning he rarely, if ever, sees what’s staring him right in the face. His perception of the world is one that would be better off without him but he fails to see the difference he makes until it is almost too late.
This leads me to what is perhaps A Silent Voice’s biggest and most unavoidable failing: magical realism. A popular and overused trope in anime magical realism is the mostly realistic setting of a story but with small or big deus ex machina moments of magic. Popularised by the Kyoto Animation series Clannad as well as by the literary work of Haruki Murakami magical realism is a constant fixture in more grounded anime. Events such as resurrections, astral projection or, in A Silent Voice’s case, rapid recovery are commonplace. It’s not a huge gripe but it is an easy fall back for such a beautifully realised and well-written piece of work to have to use.
A Silent Voice is heart-breaking from the very start. Watching a deaf child being bullied is, obviously, incredibly difficult to watch but it’s the after effects that are the worst. Past traumas are things that haunt us often decades after they occur. High pressure environments at home, at work and at school often compound these experiences. A Silent Voice does something few Japanese films do; it advocates bravery in the most human sense. True bravery is standing up and speaking out not watching some poor boy or girl being hounded on account of a disability or past actions. The story of Ishida, Nishimiya and their friends will stick with me for a long, long time thanks to its stunning imagery, well realised characters but mostly because everything can hinge on reconnection or turning to someone and asking “Can I talk to you?” Andrew Carroll