A Silent Voice (2016) is a Japanese animated film that won the Japanese Movie Critics Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2017. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida illustrate a cathartic narrative that is brilliantly told through its visuals and story structure. Most notably, they are delicate and respectful with issues that are so genuinely raw and human — anxiety, depression, isolation, and self-hatred. The story of Shouko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) and Shoya Ishida (Miyu Irino) is a tale that can universally resonate with all audiences no matter their culture and upbringing.
A Silent Voice takes place in modern day Japan, featuring high school students as they navigate through the harsh realities of everyday life. The opening sequence of the film sets a haunting, yet melancholic tone of what is to come. Shoya Ishida stands above a bridge, about to jump off. It is silent and there are no inner monologues or dialogue to completely clue the viewer into what he is thinking. As Ishida prepares to jump, the silence is interrupted by the sound of people playing with fireworks nearby, and it stops him. The first two minutes of A Silent Voice demonstrates to the audience, through a dreamlike sequence, a vital detail to not only Ishida’s character but of the film’s overarching thematic questions: What does it mean to live with your mistakes? Will anything ever take away the shame? In death, can you finally find the peace you’ve been looking for all this time?
The first quarter of the film is a cruel portrayal of how society considers those who have a disability to be lesser-than. Shouko Nishimiya transfers to Ishida’s elementary school. At the school she begins to burden her classmates as it’s clear that the school is not properly equipped to accommodate her disability. Eventually, she is ostracized and harassed for the fact that she is deaf. Ishida becomes the ringleader of the harassment taking place. The teacher is shown to be well-aware of the harassment, but takes little action. It is also the blatant apathy of the authority figure in this situation that represents society’s indifference to ableism.
The rest of A Silent Voice follows Ishida in high school. He is remorseful of all the suffering he had caused to Nishimiya during their time in elementary school. Ishida completely isolates himself from his peers, and the visual portrayal of his loneliness, anxiety, and depression is masterfully rendered in the animation. It is because of his past actions that he doesn’t have any friends, and he fails in trying to make any new ones because of his anxiety. It feels like nothing he could do would fill the void due to the shame of his past.
This was until he sought to make amends with Nishimiya — the person whose life he inflicted such horrible childhood trauma onto. It is throughout the rest of the film that Ishida is shown to be unwilling to forgive himself for what happened, even though Nishimiya already had. The visuals of the film masterfully conveys Ishida and Nishimiya’s inner turmoil and self-hatred. The viewer is allowed to see the perceptions of both characters through the lens of the narrative direction that the film has taken. Most notable is how Ishida’s character in the beginning of the story is one that could only be despised, but because of how it is shown that he deeply regrets his past and attempts to right the wrongs committed that he is redeemed in the eyes of the viewer.
It is also to be noted that despite Ishida’s willingness to change, it is realistic to portray that people may not be so welcoming or accepting of his growth. For example, Naoka Ueno (Yuuki Kanako) and Miki Kawai’s (Megumi Han) lack of acceptance of Ishida’s attempts to make amends with Nishimiya.
Eventually, Ishida nurtures an authentic friendship with Nishimiya and feelings of romance begin to stir. In the end, the movie concludes with a satisfying culmination to Ishida’s character arc: Ishida overcomes his anxiety and self-hatred and experiences life how it was meant to be felt. A Silent Voice is a stunning and nuanced rendition of a truly beautiful empathetic human experience.