A Silent Voice is about Ishida Shoya (Mayu Irino), a teenager who in elementary school school bullied the hearing impaired Nishimiya Shoko (Saori Hayami) along with the rest of his class. He was later blamed for everything, and was treated as a pariah by his classmates. Now in high school, lonely and seeking some sort of redemption, Ishida attempts to befriend Nishimiya. But the wounds inflicted don’t heal so easily, especially when other people get involved. And all the while, Ishida questions his own motives, wondering if he deserves redemption at all.This film is a pretty nuanced look at the effects of bullying, and the story is anchored on the very simple truth that self-loathing comes easily. The film takes the rather bold approach of showing empathy for everyone involved, digging into the insecurity and the guilt that emerges in all of these characters as they develop a measure of emotional maturity. No one is acquitted of his or her wrongdoing, but no one is totally condemned, either. There is a radical streak of understanding that gives this story its compelling heft.The movie opens on a blitz of action that has the audience playing catch up to the main character’s emotional state. What at first seems like random scenes of him doing errands and marking dates off a calendar takes on bracing new meaning in an instant. The film offers the same economical storytelling as it takes a detour into the past, a credits sequence detailing happier times establishing what exactly was lost. Shoya was a carefree kid that everybody seemed to like, but that would soon go away as everyone gets taken out of his or her respective comfort zones.The film slows down considerably as we move back to the present and start sketching out Shoya’s path to penance. But the deliberate pace feels necessary. The movie seems to recognize just how much these characters are unable to say. All they can do is make clumsy attempts at trying to fix things, their actions never directly addressing the problems at hand. Because within these limited contexts of teenage interaction, where relationships are fuzzy and strange and new, it is difficult to just be honest. Frankness, it seems, quickly becomes harshness, and there is a fear that being forthright will only lead to more wedges being driven between people.It’s a really smart depiction of teenage politics, of the social barriers that prevent young people from confronting their problems and push them to take drastic, often tragic action. The film takes its time, and lets the quiet reality take the fore as it paints out the roiling emotions just underneath these teenage exteriors. It might have done more on the animation side to visualize those feelings. It takes a surprisingly conservative approach to the visuals. While the art is pretty, it rarely strays from literal depiction. Given the subject matter, it seems to squander the opportunity to give shape to its more abstract ideas.A Silent Voice gets to some really interesting places. It’s a pretty small story when all is said and done, the whole thing occurring within the very limited context of teenagers and the way they interact with each other. But this is a film that understands how everything can be amplified at that age; how little bits of everyday unkindness might burrow in a psyche, eventually becoming a matter of life or death. The film could have taken a much more daring visual route in translating these concepts, but its narrative approach in itself feels rather bold. In its smallness, it allows its teenage characters to be more than the usual archetypes. They are living, breathing creatures with inner lives that are never adequately expressed by their words.
A SILENT VOICE IS NOW SHOWING IN SELECT CINEMAS.