In 2016, Japan’s highest grossing film was the fantastic “Your Name,” an award it well deserved. From its rich artwork, deep and complex story, lovely music, and excellent character cohesion. However, it was not the only anime film which earned large amounts of cash in the Japanese market that year. A bit less promoted overseas was “A Silent Voice,” a film which according to my friends could also hold its own to its much more well-known competitor. Color me intrigued as those were high standards to live up to when the film came over to the United States.
It would be a stretch to call the film an anthesis of “Your Name” but the difference in feeling and approach is immediately apparent when the film begins with the main male character Shoya Ishida attempting suicide before the film enters a flashback to his elementary school years. This is the root of the entire story, and the interactions that take place here amongst all of the characters plays a role in all future events, starting with the introduction of the main female character, the deaf Shoko Nishimiya. Nishimiya becomes the victim of bullying and ostracization because of her deafness and not being able to speak well, the main perpetrator being Ishida but other classmates join in as well. Nishimiya responds by acting meek and apologetic until school staff intervene and Ishida gets blamed for all of the bullying despite claiming that his classmates were accomplices. Now, the first thing one notices in this film versus “Your Name” is the art style. The colors are relatively matte, subdued, and neutral, with very simplistic character designs and the borders between objects are relatively thin and light. There is much less contrast in regards to the film’s color choices, only a little bit of shadow texture and most scenes are a bit overexposed. The next thing one notices is the mood and overall theme of the film: bullying. Despite the laughter in certain scenes from some characters, the overall mood of the film is melancholy and shameful, as the previously brash Ishida becomes meek and sullen when his reputation of being a bully carries from elementary school into high school, and both he and his mother become the victims of bullying because of Ishida’s prior actions.
The film portrays and makes a strong statement not only on the bullying itself, from the perspective of both the perpetrator and victim, but also the long path towards finding forgiveness and atonement. In fact, at most ¼ of the film was devoted to the actual bullying itself not only in elementary school but also in high school, with the rest of it focusing on actions that characters take in response and how each individual has evolved. This ranges from Ishida seeking out Nishimiya out to try and apologize to her (the failed attempts are numerous), to other characters still blaming Nishimiya’s disability for ruining their social dynamic years ago. The contrasts between these attempts plus the unequally apportioned blame and punishment towards Ishida and his classmates really hit a nerve, especially since Ishida is portrayed as both the perpetrator and victim in the film. The film touches heavily on shame, shunning, suppression, blame, acceptance, atonement, and understanding, using them as pillars to drive home the consequences one’s actions may have even years later. Both main characters and their family members are strongly portrayed and heavily relatable, and thankfully there is a very Japanese feel to the bullying and atonement approach. For those who don’t understand what I mean, do pay attention to Ishida’s mother.
Whereas “Your Name” makes its impression on its story and appearance, “A Silent Voice” makes its impression because of the strength of its message to everyone. The plotline makes occasional jumps from place to place but is very easy to follow because of its relaxed pacing. The animation itself is smooth but simplistic, and the film makes few attempts at injecting action into the story. In fact, there is a sense of hesitation and lethargy in all of the characters’ actions, from walking to reaching out after one another to speaking, so any potential opportunity for action is stymied when the opportunity to take it disappears. The dialogue is oftentimes broken not only because of Nishimiya’s speech disability and apologetic nature, but also because Ishida’s brash nature has been suppressed if not eliminated during the years that he is bullied. The other characters have to also hold back their actual thoughts, which when brought to light results in raging outbursts. Add in the fact that a majority of the film is centered on individuals trying to mend relationships and come together again and one can see why there is a need for this broken and coarse dialogue.
If I had to criticize this film, it would be the classmates themselves. It’s not the lack of remorse that they portray throughout most of the film that irks me, it is that they are not distinctive enough as individuals personalitywise and all of them tend to get mushed together. Now, this could have been fixed if flashbacks to prior scenes during elementary school were used, but in the end, with the exception of Tomohiro Nagatsuka, these characters get regulated to being just “Ishida’s classmates.” There is also little music in the film, but this is not too much of an issue as most background music would have instead diluted the raw moods that the film portrayed.
So the big question remains: is this film as good as “Your Name?” See, that’s the thing. They are two very different films, with two different messages done in two different styles and serve two different purposes. Most importantly, they are both good but for two very different reasons. Whereas “Your Name” wins you over with its craftsmanship and beauty, “A Silent Voice” forces you to pay attention through its powerful and well-honed message. This film touches on a very sensitive issue and portrays it and the subsequent consequences in a very relatable format. The message, story, and characters are solid and well-crafted, and though the visuals and animation lack bite, the other elements make up for it. This is a show to feel first and watch second, then discuss afterwards about the reactions to the movie. It is not one to enjoy, but instead it is one to reflect on. But is it recommended? Absolutely, yes. Just check out this preview: