Review: A Silent Voice

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Let’s get this off my chest. A Silent Voice was totally snubbed at the 2018 Oscars! Boss Baby and Ferdinand? Really? Coco was a phenomenal film and probably deserved the win, but still, fuck the Academy and their nominating process. A Silent Voice is not only a great animated film with heart and emotion, it is great film that addresses real world issues that transcend cultures. And for those that heap scorn on Japanese animation as a legitimate medium of art, I would gladly hold this movie up as an grand example of fine animated film that is not done by Studio Ghibli.

A Silent Voice is a personal story about regret, redemption, and above all friendship. Many of us probably regret some things we did in our youth. I know I do. And we seldom get to make up for it. Shoya was 12 years old when he took a path that deeply effected his life and many around him. Now, six years later, he seeks to turn that around.

While in elementary school. Shoya is a class clown, and wild, jumping off low bridges into rivers with his friends, raising hell as many kids do at that age. One day, a new girl transfers into his class named Shoko. She uses a notebook to communicate because she is deaf. Unfortunately, this opens her up to not just teasing but straight up bullying led by Shoya. Even though their teacher sees it going on, he intervenes with disinterest. Yet dispite all this, Skoko does not complain. In fact she tries to use sign language and her limited ability to speak to ask Shoya ” Can you and I be friends?” Shoya just thinks she’s a freak. It isn’t until Shoko’s mother suspects something because she keeps losing her hearing aids that the school becomes involved. Shoya is forced to transfer out. And because of this particular shame and the teacher especially pointing Shoya out, he himself is targeted for bullying by the other students that were formally his enablers.

Now, a senior in high school, we see that Shoya is getting his affairs all in order. He’s closed out his bank account, sold everything, quit his job, marked off days on his calendar, and left his money next to the bed of his sleeping mother with a thank you note. The last thing he was going to do was return Shoko’s notebook to her which he still had from when they were young. But upon finally catching up to her to return her notebook he blurts out the sign language that he had learned, “Can you and I be friends?” This was not something he had planned on saying. His return of the notebook was supposed to be his last act of squaring his debts before suicide. Yet it will set him and us on a journey about redemption, love, friendship, and forgiveness.

Shoya, in the years since Shoko had to transfer schools, was ostracized by classmates, and subsequently labeled a bully which would follow him around to the present day. He grows up with no friends and even has trouble looking people in the eye. He actually starts a friendship with Tomohiro, a fellow student and social outcast himself. Yet he will go on to be come a great friend to Shoya when he needs it. Tomohiro is a pure soul of a person who does render judgments on anyone and is very protective of Shoya.

One of the plot points of Shoya’s burgeoning friendship with Shoko is her wish to want to reconnect with other classmates from when they were in elementary school. Shoya is a little reluctant in trying to reconnect yet is willing to do so, though it works for the most part, except for one girl, Naoko, who still dislikes Shoko and blames her for breaking up the fun group of kids that they once were.

The results will bring back up old memories of not just those that participated in bullying but also comments on those who were either enablers, or those that were complacent. Falling in between and walking a thin line is Miyoko who also transferred after Shoko did because the bullying made her upset. Reconnecting with Shoko, it turns out that she also had been learning sign language over the years and has always felt bad for running away instead of supporting her.

There is an incredible depth to this film that transcends the anime medium and elevates it to genuine art. The production by Kyoto Animation is full of color and subtle lines of beauty based on real locations in Japan. The music is subdued and at times sparse with a solo often melancholy piano. Outside of the opening title sequence using The Who’s “My Generation,” there is one other song performed by Aiko called  “Koi wo Shita no wa” (恋をしたのは).

Director, Naoko Yamada’s previous work has mainly been in slice of life animes like Clannad and K-On, and it is that experience of character focused anime that and glimpses of everyday life that offer subtle yet significant insight into the personalities of the gathered ensemble.

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What stands out though, is the phenomenal voice work by both the Japanese cast and the English cast. I would like to think that the performers knew that not only did they have a really good story and script to work with, they also knew that they were participating in something that was special and significant.

If you listen to the English dub, the performance by Lexi Cowden (listed on IMDB as Lexi Marman) as Shoto is particular emotional, even wrenching, as Lexi is deaf herself. She has said in interviews she reached into her own past experience of being bullied while young to render her performance. And while we are all the better for it, we also feel her pain as she haltingly and desperately says, “I’m trying to do my best.”

Robbie Daymond as Shoya, may be best known as the re-dub actor of Tuxedo Mask for Sailor Moon and Mumen Rider for One Punch Man, portrays a reserved and damaged young man teetering between self loathing and depression.

Be warned, there are points in the movie that may be difficult for people to watch, especially the bullying that occurs in the early parts during the flashbacks to elementary school. But beyond that it is ultimately a beautiful complex film that tackles me heavy subjects. It is told using the medium of animation that allows for some great artistic expression, especially with the symbolic POV of Shoya who when he sees faces of others, he just sees X’s on their faces, until he begins to make a connection to them.

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A Silent Voice is adapted from a manga by Yoshitoki Oima. As complex and layered as the anime is, the manga is even more so delving more into the side characters and their relationships to each other and their background. Certainly Naoka’s and Miyoko’s relationship as high school classmates. Tomohiro’s side story of an aspiring young film-maker is especially well fleshed out. The film does a very good job at the adaptation but if you are looking for more, the manga is available in both print and digital versions.

It had actually been a long road for A Silent Voice to make it to us. It received several limited theatrical runs in the United States, but was held up for a long time in home release.  It did receive a UK Blu-ray release in 2017 which I had imported because I had a region free player. But it was not until 2019 that it received a release stateside. Presumably it was a rights issue over the usage of The Who’s “My Generation.” Nevertheless not only can this remarkable piece of art be appreciated on home media, it is also available across digital services and is currently available to stream on Netflix.

There are few films that can take on, let alone, balance the heavy themes as well as A Silent Voice. It is a genuinely emotional and handles its complex subject matter with nuance that I don’t think can be found a live action equivalent. I have no reservations about giving this film my Highest Recommendation.

Final Score 9/10

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