Deafness becomes a metaphor for isolation and miscommunication in Japanese anime “A Silent Voice,” which tracks the fracturing friendships in a school class when a hearing-impaired girl enters the mix. Narcissism, self-loathing, secret crushes and longing for acceptance — all the trademarks of puberty are vividly evoked in beguiling hand-drawn visuals. Moreover, the film boasts a fresh and engaging approach in tackling the ubiquitous Japanese subject of school bullying from the perspective of the bully rather than the victim. The third feature directed by Naoko Yamada has roped in nearly $20 million domestically and reverberated into cinemas in territories all over Europe, Latin America and Asia; it may create as much noise internationally as Japanese phenomenon “Your Name.”
Yamada, whose first two TV-spinoff films “K-On!” and “Yamada Love Story,” were highly rated, is regarded as a rising star in Japan’s competitive anime industry. Her screen rendering of Yoshitoki Oima’s multiple award-winning manga is written by anime-adaption guru Reiko Yoshida and produced by Kyoto Animation, an emerging anime studio founded by Yoko Hachida. With this all-female combo, it’s no wonder the film exudes a delicate, reflective sensibility, especially in its light-handed treatment of the romantic undercurrents flowing between the three main characters.
Sometimes, Yamada is so finely tuned to the adolescent mindset that the narrative becomes choked with conflicting emotions. Still, by narrating the entire story from the viewpoint of protagonist Shoya Ishida (voiced by Miyu Irino), audiences can peer into his troubled, often defensive psyche, daring the them to continue to empathize with him even when his behavior is inexcusable. In fact, the film opens with the high school boy attempting to commit suicide but doesn’t connect the dots till the second half.
Set in Oima’s hometown Ogaki, in Gifu Prefecture, the story proper begins at elementary school when Shoko Nishymiya (voiced by Saori Hayami) arrives as a transfer student. The teacher encourages the class to befriend her, but after a few half-hearted efforts, everyone soon tires of having to communicate by writing in her notebook. In a few casual scenes, the film traces how social-ostracization doesn’t happen overnight, but begins with the victim’s ‘difference’ which triggers minor irritation, impatience and eventually intolerance.
In the manga, Shoya’s initial attitude toward Shoko is one of curiosity, but he doesn’t know how to reach out to her. Of course, it’s common for prepubescent boys to tease girls they daren’t admit they fancy. But this is not as clear in the movie version, making some of Shoya’s actions, like tearing her hearing aid away so her ear bleeds, quite disturbing.
Even more insidious is the peer pressure at work, such as with Shoya’s buddy Shimada who never initiates but laughs along with his pranks, Naoha Ueno who’s a willing accomplice, and Miki Kawai whose insincere protestations on Shoko’s behalf only egg the bullies on. When Shoko, who’s finally had enough, flares up in one scene, the impact is heart-stopping.
The film’s unflinching depiction of teenagers’ covert cruelty culminates in a riveting turning point when Shoya realizes that whatever goes around comes around. The advantage of the audience experiencing this from Shoya’s vantage point is that one sees the psychological impact of bullying — that it scars the bully as much as the victim. While Shoya is consumed by anger from the start, the later part of the film slowly chips away at his outward persona to reveal his unconventional family background and other insecurities vis-a-vis his more popular classmates.
The saga continues five years later, when the protagonists have gone on to different high schools. Shoya, who’s become a loner, unwitting wins the undying loyalty of Nagatsuka, a bullied boy, who helps him reconnect with Shoko. Since Shoko’s still got a chip on her shoulder about her disability, Shoya tries to re-assemble the old gang from junior school. Sadly, the reunion only rips open old wounds and reignite rivalries. In the manga, the group was brought together through a filmmaking project, which provides a stronger plot structure. With this omitted in the movie, the characters’ confrontations seem a tad random, but their emotional trajectories unfold more organically.
The non-realist nature of animation makes it an ideal medium for conveying the sensual and sometimes scary experience of growing up. For example, Shoya’s sense of his outcast status is quirkily symbolized by his vision of big blue crosses slashed across his classmates faces. During a confessional scene that takes place atop a roller-coaster, the frame practically vibrates, echoing the protagonists’ inner turmoil with the tensile sensation no live-action wobble-cam can.
Ilustration supervisor Futoshi Nishiya reportedly tried to create a style that’s somewhere between super-realism and Deforme. The lush, softly outlined hand-drop of rivers and bridges showcases Ogaki’s reputation as a City of Water, while his pretty character designs provide impressive continuity through hairstyles and body language as they transition from tween to teenager. Although the movie’s midsection could do with some tightening, Kengo Shigemura’s editing is racy and cinematic. The lightly electronic vibe from composer Kensuke Ushio concocts just the right mixture of peppy and romantic.
The Japanese title, which means “The Shape of Voice,” reflects the central theme that communication and bonding can take many forms.