Last night I attended the packed screening of A Silent Voice at the Exeter Phoenix which was being aired as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme here in the UK. For any of you who happen to find yourself in that part of the world, it’s a quaint, arty cinema which is incorporated within a larger arts centre that I can happily recommend. That said, if the women three seats to my right who was on Facebook for the duration of the film is a regular I think I might be a little put off in the future… anyway – I’m getting sidetracked.
A Silent Voice, or Koe no Katachi as it is known in Japan, is not an easy film to watch. The themes it covers are wide ranging but generally focus on the culture of bullying in the Japanese school system. As a result of this, the film draws upon ideas surrounding depression, dealing with disability and ultimately suicide. Knowing that then, it might surprise you to know that I found the parts of this film that focused on bullying much harder to watch than those that focused upon the resultant depression – I’ll come to why after I explained the plot and some of my more general thoughts around it.
Shouya Ishida is a normal elementary school kid with his normal elementary school friends. They attend class with little thought as to why, having fun doing stupid things in their breaks often acting as class clowns but being pretty popular nonetheless. Sounds like a pretty typical, not to mention pleasant, situation to find yourself in as a 10-year old, does it not? One day Shouko Nishimiya transfers into Shouya’s class – the big difference compared to other anime transfer students: Nishimiya is deaf.
Nishimiya communicates with others using a notepad with key phrases as well as space for new ones – it’s objectively a slow and encumbering way to have to communicate, but one that most of the students initially try to get on board with. In these early stages Shouya has little to do Shouka and because of that her school life remains reasonable stress free. Things begin to change when Shouya decides a good game would be to make fun of Shouka by shouting at her, stealing her hearing aids and notebook. It’s not entirely clear how long this goes on for, but we can be sure it’s long enough to have a lasting affect.
Jump forward to high school Shouya. This is a Shouya who is alone, and a Shouya that wants to die. Until his mother steps in, anyone would have thought he was going to carry out his plan of jumping from a high bridge to end his life. There’s more going on here though: Shouya has learnt sign language and feels a level of obligation towards Shouka, who he hasn’t seen since he left elementary school.
And so, this is where Shouya’s story to redemption really begins.
Shouka is in equally as dark a place, though it is perhaps harder to see – a result perhaps of being part of society that relies so much on what people say, rather than anything else. Koe no Katachi’s attempts to deal with Shouka’s impairment is simultaneously the best and worst part of the movie emotionally. The moment on the bridge when Shouka attempts to speak to Shouya unsuccessfully was heartwarming while her desperate attempts an hour earlier in the film to silently make friends with 11-year Shouya is devastatingly hard to watch.
Depression was a common feature of the film and not just from one person. While I can understand Shouka’s melancholy with her life situation – bullying involved or otherwise, I did slightly take issue with the idea that we were meant to sympathise with Shouya at any stage. He was the ringleader of awful group of bullies to a young girl with a disability that she was still working out best how to deal with; the notion that less than ten years later I should feel sorry because he lost his friends didn’t really sit well with me. I understand the idea behind it of course – after being a bully, Shouka begins to be bullied (albeit to a lesser extent) himself by those he called his friends. Of course the films focus on the bullying culture in the Japanese school system is necessary, important even – and no one who suffers from depression should be made to purposely feel worse- but that doesn’t mean I had to sympathise, especially when there is no apology.
I’ll try and put that more cleanly: if I was starting middle school with these two kids, I wouldn’t be bullying Shouka because he was an evil bully, but I certainly wouldn’t be trying to console him for losing his friends either – after all, I’m 11 too. In my opinion, I’m not sure if all of the 11-years olds after the end of elementary school could comprehend that they were wrong to do what they did and why. That, of course, is why the time skip to the end of high school is so important, as it allows Shouka, in particular, to mature and come to terms with what he did to get into the situation he found himself in.
I will stress that I don’t think bullying of any kind of is acceptable regardless of context – however, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if society isolated and condemned adults in similar situations, so why is it odd that an unrepenting middle schooler is treated in that way?
There is definitely a fable quality to this story which begins to be realised when Shouya wakes up from a dream, knowing where Shouka is and somewhat unrealistically makes his way immediately to her. While the practical elements of the final parts of the story are a little farfetched, I felt that the writers did a good job at drawing the dots together, completing the film’s bittersweet path of redemption for the cast.
I’ll finish as I began. A Silent Voice is not an easy film to watch. While the themes are dark, such a film – particularly an anime – was necessary. Bullying and the problems it can cause are real and prevalent and shouldn’t be ignored or taken lightly. I somehow find that I’ve written very little about characters, plot or production values, all of which are very good, even by the standards of Kyoto Animation – but even if they weren’t, this is a film that you shouldn’t miss.