Few people would think a grown man who does hurtful and destructive things again and again will at some point no longer be a candidate for redemption. But few people would also look at someone barely into their teens who's done something hurtful and destructive and say, no, you don't deserve any more chances either. A Silent Voice is about nothing less than the problem of sin and redemption — how those things take place both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, about who has the right to be saved and who has the nerve to ask to be saved. Its drama sometimes loses out to melodrama, even by the standards of anime or a Japanese production generally. But it understands the gravity of what it's tangling with, and addresses it in part by way of visual ingenuity that only animation makes possible.
The victimizer, victimized
There’s a silence surrounding me
I can’t seem to think straight
I’ll sit in the corner
And no one can bother me
-- Pink Floyd, "Keep Talking"
Shōya's a kid at the upper end of grade school who has little to distinguish him other than his restlessness and boredom. He hangs out with his friends, plays video games, does this trick where he extends the lead on his pencil to make it look like a hypodermic. One day a new girl is brought into his class, Shōko. She's deaf, ostensibly the only person in the school with such a prominent disability.
Shōya, and in turn the rest of the class, treat Shōko with the kind of thoughtless, I-was-only-playing cruelty that comes depressingly naturally to kids. He steals her hearing aid and throws it out the window (at one point tearing her earlobe). He snatches her talking notebook, which others are invited to write in to communicate with her, and throws it into the water. Everything about her pisses him off: the flat, nasal diction she uses when attempting to speak (which he also makes fun of), the way she smiles, but most of all the way she tries to actually communicate with him as if he was a potential friend. He wants none of that. And it's not like Shōya doesn't have his fellow students to back him up — especially Naoka, the girl who sits next to him and instigates some of the most brutal of the bullying. If the deaf girl can't keep up, Shōya rationalizes, that's her problem.
Then everything changes. Shōko is yanked out of school, and the rest of the class waste no time in closing ranks to finger Shōya as the culprit. This time it's his books that are thrown in the water, his desk that's defaced with graffiti, his mother given grief — a hairdresser who's barely able to hold together her own household, let alone deal with something this difficult. He's a pariah. And over the years of isolation that follow, he realizes he deserves it. He works a part-time job, sells off most of his stuff to save enough money to pay back his mother for having to replace Shōko's ruined hearing aids, and then prepares to kill himself.
The movie opens on this last unnerving note, and intercuts it with all the shameful things Shōya did to arrive at that point. By the time we reach the present moment, with Shōya's suicide plans scotched, we understand now why this bratty sixth-grader with restless energy has become a gangly, timorous high school student who can't even look his peers in the eye anymore. The movie employs a clever visual device to express this self-ostracism: whenever he's around his fellow classmates, they all appear with cartoon Xs over their faces. It's persistently unnerving, not silly. If you want one go-to example of how animation as a medium can accomplish things that simply could not work anywhere else, this is it.
One day Shōya swallows his fear and steps in to stop another student from being bullied — a short, rotund, endlessly energetic kid named Tomohiro. He doesn't know anything about Shōya's ugly past, and he bonds with him quickly and effortlessly. (The X covering his face falls off like a used Band-Aid.) He helps Shōya attempt to do something that was originally intended to be his last gesture before his death — return Shōko's water-damaged talking notebook to her. Maybe from there he'll be able to find a way to say he's sorry, whether or not he's taken seriously.
At first nobody wants to hear it. Certainly not Yuzuru, Shōko's tomboyish and deeply protective little sister. The stress of helping out her sister has taken a toll on her: she's dropped out of school, and her love of photography has devolved into either stalking for photos or just taking snaps of morbid and depressing things. Shōya has to demonstrate to her he's sincere, that his pain has educated him, as it were. To that end, he also has to endure accusations from Yuzuru that he's not sincere, that he's just doing this to assuage his guilt. Yuzuru functions as a mouthpiece for the wormy truth of such things — that if Shōya really is trying to undo evil and do good, he doesn't have the right to expect anything in return for it.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word
Yuzuru is correct, but Shōya does what he can to make it that much less about him, and that much more about Shōko. He's most astonished by the way Shōko does in fact accept him — not just as someone to be forgiven, but as an actual friend (something Shōya has rehearsed, so to speak, with Tomohiro). He meets with Shōko to feed the carp at a certain bridge she frequents, and then to do other things that anyone else would call dating. His circle of friends grows to include Miyoko, one of the few in Shōya's class who treated Shōko well. He no longer thinks of suicide as a solution. Besides, by that point he has killed himself in a way: the brat who tormented Shōko no longer exists. The problem, again, is getting everyone else to believe that, something they are well within their rights to never care about.
What complicates all this is how the original dynamics of Shōko's bullying re-emerge. Naoka, one of the other original bullies, re-enters Shōya's life with a brutal grudge still held against Shōko. In Naoka's mind, everything was just fine until that stupid deaf girl showed up; the way she sees it, she's got nothing to apologize for. Her selfishness and malice are sickening, and provide that much more visible a contrast to Shōya: If you wonder what unrepentance would look like, search no further.
All that only contributes further to Shōko's long-standing, unresolved feelings of guilt. Shōya may have been bad because of something he did, but she feels she's bad because of what she is. And a problem that existential tends to only have one solution, the kind that Shōya is now that much more equipped to recognize and do something about — if he can shift his attention away from his own navel long enough to do it, that is.
A Silent Voice was adapted from Yoshitoki Oima's manga, available in English, although I confess I only read part of it before getting sidetracked. Some of that was because there were other things going on in my life at the time that made it difficult to read the story and not turn away from it shaking. (The same thing happened to me with Wandering Son, another story I have to revisit in a better state of mind.) From what I can tell, the movie compresses the entire story quite efficiently into the space of two hours. It doesn't feel rushed.
Whose story is it anyway?
There are three areas where the movie can be criticized. The first is minor: it's the way the movie handles the details about an injury Shōya sustains late in the film. It verges on being silly, in particular a scene where he claws his way out of his own hospital bed to see Shōko and finally asks openly for her forgiveness. Nice idea, but unnecessarily goofy execution. (Was there no one on night duty at the nurse's station?)
The second issue, one that stayed with me through the whole film on and off, is how Shōko runs the risk of being a variation of the cliché of the Saintly Disabled Person. One of the liberating and essential things about the film My Left Foot, about artist and author Christy Brown, was how it showed someone with a disability didn't necessarily have to be an angel to be sympathetic or interesting. At times Shōko felt like a throwback, someone portrayed as being too good for the rest of us, who cannot bring herself to say "I hate you" to someone who torments her, and instead can only say "I'm trying as hard as I can."
But then there are moments when we look at the way Shōko smiles straight into the camera, and we realize it's a smile someone wears only because they are trying not to scream or sob. The default assumptions about behavior in Japanese society would require someone like Shōko to be an angel whether or not she wanted it. She has no choice, lest she suffer ostracisms even worse than what she already has. It's a testament to the talents at Kyoto Animation that they are able to communicate such things to the audience through the animation work, and not simply drench us in lush sunsets as seen from rooftops.
Still, I wish the movie supplied us with as much about Shōko's own growth and change as it did Shōya's. Movies are more interesting when they are about what people do (dynamic) rather than just who they are (static), and to have Shōko shortchanged — even if that's theoretically in line with the more retrograde cultural assumptions about the disabled that surround her — is frustrating.
To that end, even before I ever watched the movie, a third potential criticism of its approach came to mind: Why make the film mainly about Shōya, instead of Shōko? Why focus on the offender instead of the offended? It's a variant of the same criticism I have about, say, films that deal with an infamous crime where one person murders many, and the focus is on the perpetrator and not the victims. Isn't the wrong story being told?
Then I realized A Silent Voice is constructed the way it is because there are that many more of us who might well be Shōya than be Shōko. Shōko did not choose to be deaf, but Shōya chose to be a bully — and also chose to undo that. The film seems to be saying: You out there who can still choose, or wonder why you chose badly, can look here to see why that matters. It is an alternative to the easy feel-good morality of redemption, where we say to people it's never too late to right one's wrongs. The movie's answer is more like: You never know if redemption is possible until you try to find out. But don't expect it to be anything like what you can imagine. Because by that point, you won't be anything like what you can imagine either.
Postscript: For some time the most convenient way for English-speaking audiences to watch A Silent Voice is by way of the Region 2 (UK) DVD/BD edition from AllTheAnime.com. Its release in the U.S. has been announced by Eleven Arts, but for the longest time was delayed by a prohibitive (if also ridiculous) music licensing issue — the use of The Who's "My Generation" over the opening credits. With a movie like this, if I were Pete Townshend, I would have let them use the song for free.