By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Hot on the heels of Makoto Shinkai’s wonderful Your Name comes Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice (also credited more appropriately as The Shape of Voice), a delicately handled drama that involves and moves, tackling difficult subject matter in a way few contemporary live-action films are able to do.
After a brief prologue which follows the routine of determined-but-sullen teenager Shoya Ishida, the story takes a step back to when he was in grade school (voiced here by Mayu Matsuoka), where a moral choice was made that severely impacted on several lives around him.
Confident and aggressive, Ishida is popular with the other boys, and is also well-liked by the girls, who are fond of his carefree attitude. One day a new student, Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami), joins the class, and the other children are initially shocked to find out she is deaf. Using a notebook to make introductions easy, Nishimiya wants to make friends, and does her best to ensure there is no awkwardness between her and the other students. They all seem fascinated by her condition at first, asking questions and giving her a lot of attention. She immediately strikes up a friendship with Miyoko Sahara (Yui Ishikawa), who is assigned to help Nishimiya assimilate into her new environment. But when the teacher wants to introduce short sign language lessons, as well as Nishimiya’s continually upbeat and forgiving nature, the class begins to tire of her.
Riding this wave of growing discontent and annoyance, Ishida starts to ridicule and bully Nishimiya, while the female students quietly torment Sahara. The level of humiliation increases, to the point where both girls transfer to other schools. Ishida’s uncaring demeanour backfires, as the rest of the class now turn on him, not wanting to share responsibility for allowing his abhorrent behaviour to flourish in the classroom.
Years later Ishida is now in High School (now voiced by Miyu Irino), and he is a shell of the person we were introduced to earlier on. Totally cut off from everyone around him, Ishida can’t even look his fellow classmates in the eye, barely managing to focus on their legs or shoes. Drowning in guilt and self-loathing because of his past misdeeds, the ostracised teenager considers the thought of living on wearying, but everything changes when he bumps into Nishimiya, who is getting on with her life at another school. Seeing this as a chance to apologise, Ishida tries to re-enter Nishimiya’s world, hoping to be the friend that she wanted him to be all those years ago.
A Silent Voice takes its time setting up characters and the world in which they inhabit, wanting the various themes and dramatic developments to resonate as much as possible. Screenwriter Reiko Yoshida (who penned the adorable teen drama Tamako Love Story, the epic Buddha: The Great Departure, and the Studio Ghibli family hit The Cat Returns) adapts Yoshitoki Oima’s successful manga with graceful intelligence, treating each individual with care, no matter how flawed they may be. The interaction between students, siblings, teachers, and parents is skilfully woven by Yoshida, making sure no one topic or person is pushed to the side.
Director Yamada, who collaborated with Yoshida on Tamako Love Story (2014), as well as K-On: The Movie (2011), keeps the pacing deliberate and the atmosphere subdued. Her approach is compassionate and thoughtful, not only presenting its issues believably, but also the manner in which the young characters deal with them. A number of stylistic choices to symbolise Ishida’s state of mind are simply brilliant. At just 32 years of age, Yamada is already a strikingly assured film-maker, and I can’t wait to see what she will do next.
The voice ensemble have all been perfectly chosen, with Aoi Yuki scoring a double bonus by working on this and the mega-hit Your Name. To fully appreciate all the vocal nuances, it is best to see this with the original language track intact.
Last but not least, the animation itself is superb. While slightly less dazzling than Shinkai’s Your Name, there is a beautiful amount of detail, capturing time and place with gorgeous, relatable accuracy. The combination of largely hand-drawn animation with some CGI elements is exemplary, bestowing the kind of imagery that is unique to Japan.
A Silent Voice continues Japan’s long-held theory that animation doesn’t solely have to cater to very young children. Backed by a multi-layered script and helmed by a genuinely talented director, this is a film that deserves to be seen by a wide audience, young and old, who want to immerse themselves in a story that can enlighten and entertain.