I just got back from seeing this film in the theaters, and I would like to ramble a bit about it. I don’t hate it. I don’t think it’s a bad movie. The movie even moved me to tears at times. There are some genuinely emotional moments in A Silent Voice. Nevertheless, it is a thoroughly frustrating movie. I’m going to have to break this down into a lazy bullet list of points, because I’m finding it a bit difficult to organize my thoughts. On the one hand, it’s always a pleasure to experience an anime film on the big screen. As expected from Kyoto Animation, A Silent Voice is gorgeous to behold. It doesn’t sound half bad either. But on the other hand, I can’t take notes in a dark auditorium. I also can’t rewind important scenes to rewatch them from different perspectives. As a result, I feel like rambling.
— First up, if you haven’t heard of A Silent Voice, it’s a film about Ishida Shoya and Nishimiya Shoko. Shoko is deaf, but she’s a sweet and friendly girl who tries her best to be friends with everyone. Unfortunately, the kids in elementary school lack the emotional intelligence to bridge the gap between them and Shoko. Let’s just say there’s a lot of schoolyard bullying. At one point, I think a principal addresses the entire class and asks the kids if they know who’s been bullying the poor girl. The teacher suddenly pipes up: “Shoya, we know it was you.” Dude, you’re the teacher. If you knew, why didn’t you do anything about it? Ugh, I don’t even have time to get into that right now. I have bigger points to address in this post.
— The kids are extremely cruel to Shoko, and you can’t help but feel bad for the girl. You can thus argue that these scenes are effective. After all, I teared up watching the girl suffer through their mistreatment, and the saddest thing is that she kept putting on an innocent smile. She kept trying to be their friend. At a certain point, however, it’s like watching someone kick a poor dog over and over. I’m a cat person, and I’ll always be a cat person, but I still know how loyal dogs can be. Dogs just want to be your best friend, and Shoko was and still is very much the same way. Well, I suppose if you abuse the dog enough, it’ll start to fear you. It’ll start to cower, tense up, snarl, and growl at you. We only see Shoko fight back once and only once.
After this, there’s a substantial timeskip. Shoko is 17 once the story picks back up, I believe? I know she turns 18 by the end of the film. When she bumps into Shoya again, he easily wins her heart. Too easily, I feel. Over the past fear years, Shoya has really matured. To his credit, he is truly remorseful for the way he treated the girl, and he’s worked super hard to repay his mother. He’s even picked up sign language. As a result — as if nothing has ever happened — Shoko is ready to become his friend again. She never fears him nor her past abusers. I just find that odd.
— So I sat there and I thought, “Oh no, are they gonna make the girl fall in love with her former bully?” And y’know, this isn’t bad in and of itself. I just think that these types of stories are really hard to pull off, and honestly, I don’t think A Silent Voice pulls it off. I still don’t understand why she falls in love with Shoya. I don’t feel as if there are enough moments between those two to really justify her sudden feelings for him. In fact, the whole relationship feels incredibly rushed. Again, I feel that she should’ve been more fearful and suspicious of him from the start. Instead, Yuzuru, Shoko’s younger sister, pretty much takes up this role. She’s the one who tries to keep Shoya away, so he pretty much has to win Yuzuru over. If you treat your girl’s siblings right, they’ll probably put in a good word for you. But I almost feel as though Yuzuru shouldn’t exist. Bits of her characters and some of her scenes should’ve just gone to Shoko instead. For example, Yuzuru’s love for photography. On the other hand, I don’t know what Shoko’s hobbies are at all.
— The movie’s focus is on the wrong person. Shoya isn’t a bad guy. As I’ve said, he has matured a lot since elementary school, and he also changes a lot over the course of the film. But guys like him are a dime a dozen not just in anime, but across storytelling in general. Shoko, however, is different. How often do you get to listen to a deaf girl? And I don’t just mean listen in the literal sense, but we don’t get enough of that either. We don’t get to hear Shoko’s voice very much at all. It’s always jarring to hear her speak obviously because she’s deaf. But isn’t that the point? It sounds jarring, because we don’t try to listen. Every time she speaks, people around her cringe. We in the audience cringe. And as a result, she shuts herself up. She’s not just deaf. We are deaf to her. And to fully explore this theme, we have to confront the seemingly alien dissonance of Shoko’s voice. This is not to normalize it, but to appreciate the beauty within the shape of her voice — the way she communicates.
— Communication… yeah. There isn’t enough of it between the characters, but more importantly, there isn’t enough nonverbal communication. One cute and effective moment occurs midway through the film. Shoko has fallen for Shoya, so she tries to reveal her feelings to him. Predictably, he finds it difficult to understand her when she speaks, because he doesn’t listen to it enough. As a result, when she tries to tell him that she likes him (suki), he thinks she’s talking about the moon (tsuki). But this misunderstanding just ties into a much larger point about his deafness to her communication in all its myriad forms. She changes her hairstyle by putting it into a ponytail. Shoya likes what he sees, but fails to understand the implications of the change. She gives him a gift that he completely doesn’t comprehend until the end of the movie.
At this point, you must wonder why she doesn’t just tell him she likes him via text. You have to understand what the voice is to someone like Shoko. You have to look all the way back to elementary school for a moment in choir class. Shoko, perhaps excited and eager to sing with her friends, starts in too early. Her voice not only startles the other children, but it is naked and alone. Realizing that her voice does not sound conventionally beautiful, the other kids mutter that they won’t have much of a chance in choir competition. Don’t think for a second that any of this goes unnoticed by Shoko. Why else does she try to communicate via her notebook? It is easier for the kids to understand her, sure, but it is also because the voice has become a terrifying, traumatic dimension. Time for me to drops bits of Zizek into this post, because I love me that fucking Lacan-worshiping blowhard.
What Shoya wants to express — love and friendship for her classmates — does not match up with what actually comes out of her throat. So in effect, her voice doesn’t feel like an organic part of her body. It does not feel like “the sublime, ethereal medium for expressing the depth of [her] subjectivity, but… as a foreign intruder.” So why now? Why, after all these years, does Shoko insist on confessing her love to Shoya with her voice? Because whether or not it feels like “a foreign intruder,” the voice is nevertheless hers. There is no getting rid of it. And “since we cannot simply get rid of it,” then she must “domesticate it and transform this voice into the means of expressing [her] humanity, love” and so on. This is the most touching and vulnerable aspect of Shoko’s character that doesn’t get explored nearly enough by the rest of the film.
— But back to the topic of nonverbal communication, I wouldn’t have had Shoya just show up one day with working knowledge of sign language. It’s too easy. Instead, the story should’ve had him learn it over the course of the year as a way to bridge the gap between him and Shoko. And in the meantime, he would also learn other ways to understand her. Because let’s face it, communication goes beyond words. Two lovers can spend an entire day in silence, and yet understand each other completely. It’s more than just the way she does her hair. It’s the way she looks at you, the way she moves around you, the way she plays with her hair or your hair, the way her touch guides you, the rhythm of her breathing, the way she smiles and so on. There aren’t enough moments where the characters communicate to each other via body language. They may as well be deaf to it as well.
— Instead, the film primarily explores social deafness. We are cowards at heart, so we tune each other out. We are afraid to hear what they have to say, especially about us. Tomohiro is so desperate to play the best friend that he doesn’t really know Shoya all that well, Miki tries so hard to be a saint that she’s really self-absorbed, Naoka is afraid to admit her insecurities so she makes assumptions about others rather than listening to them, so on and so forth. Most of all, even though Shoya is remorseful for his former sins, he’s still afraid of his peers’ judgment. As a result, he shuts them out before he can even hear what they have to say. I get it. This part is not so bad.
— But even so, I think the story is too long and unfocused for a movie. We drag in too many side characters that don’t get enough development to stand out on their own, and as a result, they just needlessly pad out the film’s length. Had this been an anime series instead, we could then fully explore these characters and their issues. But in a two hour movie, the drama felt too forced between the characters, especially with Naoka.
— Speaking of being way too long, I thought the movie would end at the bridge. Wouldn’t that have been the perfect spot? Shoya wakes up from his coma, finally apologizes to Shoko, and confesses his feelings for her. The end. But he doesn’t really confess to her, which is par for the course with anime romances. Instead, he asks her to help him live. Okay, fair enough. That makes him even more vulnerable to her, so you can argue that this is even more intimate than a straightforward confession. But the film doesn’t end there. We wake up the next day to see Shoya return home. To see Shoya have a short talk with Naoka. To see him make up with all his friends, then attend the school festival. To see him finally shed his deafness to his peers and finally hold his head up high. Sure, I can see how this ending completes Shoya’s character arc. But as I’ve argued earlier in this post, A Silent Voice should’ve focused more on Shoko instead. I just wasn’t all that invested in Shoya beyond his relationship with the girl, so this ending fell flat.
— All in all, I thought the movie was maybe 30 to 40 minutes too long, and it didn’t commit to the relationship between the two characters. The relationship didn’t get the proper attention it deserved. It started off dysfunctional, and it should’ve been rebuilt from the bottom up. But our two protagonists became friends way too easily. You can chalk that up to Shoko’s almost angelic patience and understanding. You can also argue that she tries so hard to fit in that she’s deaf to people’s frustrations with her. Their frustrations with her isn’t her fault, but even so, it’s important, for example, to listen to what Naoka is trying to say even if she’s a huuuuuuuge bitch.
(And she is a huge bitch. Again, in an anime series, we could properly explore her mindset. In this movie, though, she’s like a hammer that proceeds to smash every fragile relationship within the friend group.)
— Out of all the bullet points above, I guess my biggest disappointment is that Shoko wasn’t a more fleshed out character. She’s too innocent and pure-hearted that at times she felt like a concept. At times, she didn’t feel real. Shoya is the prototypical anime protagonist, so we hear his thoughts, anxieties, frustrations, moments of bliss and joy, so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the one unique and interesting character is forced to always put on a smile and act like an innocent child that everyone gets to batter. She’s 18 by the end of the film for Christ’s sakes. She’s on the cusp of adulthood. She has to be more than just a saint who begs for forgiveness. Only when it got to be too much — when she tried to throw herself off a balcony — did the story rein the character in.
— I like Tomohiro. Despite the fact that I think she’s unnecessary, I also like Yuzuru. But I could do without the other side characters. Imagine if we had dragged in Kazuki’s drama as well.
— In the end, I really wanted to love A Silent Voice. And some part of me actually likes it. I like Shoko (and Shoya’s okay). I think, however, this just explains why I’m so frustrated by the movie — frustrated enough to write over 2400 words over the past two hours. The story really had the chance to explore deafness from every dimension. But I feel like A Silent Voice got scared. It was afraid to see how far it could really go if we just focused on Shoko, Shoya, and their relationship. So in the end, we got an the all-too-familiar ending where Shoya and his tomodachis embrace the joys of youth at none other than a school festival.
— I don’t regret watching the movie, though. And on the way out, I got this print for free. You’ll have to excuse my blurry camera phone, thumb and poor framing. I am clearly not meant to be a photographer. The print’s not much either, but I like it.
— I do apologize if there are lots of typos, or if the post just doesn’t make much sense in general. It’s almost midnight, and I’m exhausted. I tried as best as I could to extract my thoughts on the film while it was still fresh on my mind.