If you haven’t heard of this 2016 film from director Naoko Yamada, you’re not alone. It wasn’t until I was weeks deep in quarantine that it popped up on my Netflix. A Silent Voice: The Movie is about Shoya’s (Miyu Irino) sincere efforts to redeem himself for his past behavior against his former classmate, turned friend, Shoko (Saori Hayami). At the core of the film is redemption, forgiveness, and learning to love yourself, which are qualities we can all strive to work on.
Communication is complicated and messy. There is verbal and non-verbal communication, and both get explored during the film. When Shoya is in elementary school, he is aggressive and violent and doesn’t know how to communicate with Shoko. Throughout the film as the audience, we are privy to Shoya’s intrapersonal dialogue with himself. In real-time, we see what Shoya’s thoughts and feelings are on everything that is going on from his frustrations to his questions regarding Shoko.
From the beginning of the film, we can discern Shoya’s personality and how he carries himself. Before meeting Shoko, he walks confidently with his head held high and a massive smile on his face. He is the leader which comes back to hurt him later in the film. As the alpha male leader, he walks slightly in front of his friends. This is a stark difference in his post-Shoko reality. After they ostracize him for bullying Shoko, he is always looking down at the ground. Instead of looking people in the eyes, he looks down at their legs. When he puts his hands over his ears, the voices of his fellow students get muffled; the faces are blurred with ‘X’s through them. After hearing all the hurtful things people have said about him, he now imagines they are saying those things all the time about him. It isn’t until the end of the film when he can lift his head high again, look people in the face, and hear their voices. He asks his group of friends to go to the school festival with him. The muffled sounds and blurred out faces become clear, and the ‘X’s removed that he gets his spirit from the beginning back.
Shoya has the advantage and disadvantage of hearing that Shoko doesn’t have. Shoko may read lips but doesn’t understand tone. It isn’t always what you say but how you say it. At the beginning of the film, Shoko tries to use her notebook to communicate with other students. The school brings in a sign language teacher to show the students how to sign as another way to communicate with her. When the sign language is met with resistance, Shoko gets hearing aids to help her hear. Shoya is brutal to her and continuously teases her or steals her hearing aids. She can hear but doesn’t understand the subtle nuances of speech. When Shoya writes something mean on the blackboard and Shoko sees it, he sarcastically mentions that it is mean and erases it. Shoko can hear the words but not the meaning behind his tone.
Yamada does an excellent job of framing the scenes to highlight what is important. Typically, our eyes go to a person’s lips, and this is not what Yamada wants our eyes focused on. The solution of showing everything necessary and excluding the face adds to this unique storytelling. Despite Shoya learning sign language, when Shoko tells him she loves him, she doesn’t say in a sign she speaks it. Shoko is pretty much mute and has an arduous time talking, Shoya is interested in what she wants to say and urges her to sign it. Instead, she runs away crying. Later at home, we see her upset on her bed, but we see only her legs flailing in a tantrum on screen.
During most conversations, the camera angle changes to a shot of the character’s legs, we don’t see the facial reaction of a character. Showing how someone is moving during a conversation can tell us far more than what the lips are saying. How Naoka Ueno (Yuki Kaneko) moves around when she is talking to Shoya shows us she has a crush on him. There are entire scenes that only show the lower half of the character’s bodies. The camera angle also captures the social anxiety within Shoya. How the camera shows Shoya to the far left of the screen when he is sitting on someone’s right is the perfect representation of social anxiety. Whenever this is done, it is in situations that Shoya doesn’t know the right move and is questioning himself. When he is sitting with his new friend, sitting is Shoko, or his mom is questioning him about attempting suicide. Another ingenious camera shot is when Ueno is talking to Shoko. There is a tree that is separating them, and it frames Shoko in between many bars. Shoko is very much trapped in certain ways. Her disability traps her from communicating, and she is trapped being Ueno’s villain.
Music and the absence of music plays an important role in the film. “My Generation” plays and fits the scene with Shoya feeling happy. The happy song stops when Shoko enters the classroom, which is an auditory clue that joyful times for Shoya are over. When Shoya looks down on the ground and gives up on everything and everyone around him, a muffled version of “Black And White” is playing. This song choice solidifies that there is no room for a grey area, everyone will always see him as the villain that made the deaf girl transfer to a different school. Shoko knows that everyone is talking about her but cannot hear what they are saying about her, and she cannot speak properly herself. She can, however, feel the vibrations of the surrounding noises. There is a song being played on a piano and was recorded inside of a piano. This effect was a choice to highlight the vibrations of the instrument and highlight the muffled world Shoko is experiencing in this scene. Sometimes the absence of sound is also intentional in the film. Shoko’s classmates are uncomfortable with her deafness. When there is an absence of sound, we, as an audience, feel uncomfortable with the characters.
I hope after reading this; you are inspired to add A Silent Voice: The Movie to your Netflix watch list. There are many other great things about this film, like the use of fireworks and flowers. We all have baggage in our past we would like to change. This film can teach us all to show ourselves and the people around us with more compassion and understanding.