Kids are cruel, and there is no shortage of depictions of this cruelty in the world of film. The annals of cinema is littered with bullying heels, and under-aged villains who ridicule the protagonist for their perceived differences. Whether it’s this year’s realist Eighth Grade, the bountiful Hughes-esque teen-comedies of the 80s, or the hyperbolic mass murder of Battle Royale, this ground is well covered. But what causes these bullies to behave this way? Do they ever feel guilt over what they’ve done? For Shoyo Ishida, the central character in Kyoto Animation’s latest picture A Silent Voice, the answer is a resounding yes.
It’s an idyllic summer afternoon when Ishida gets his affairs in order, quitting his job, and setting a bundle of money on his mother’s bed. His ominous calendar is missing the dates for the next week, and as he heads to a local bridge his intentions become clear. As he approaches the precipice the sound of fireworks reminds him of his childhood, and we flashback to the last time his life was in a good place, sixth grade. He has a group of close friends, their adventures turning the days into a transient blur of light-hearted fun. But when Shouko Nishiyama transfers into their class things begin to irreversibly change, as Ishida reveals his true nature.
Nishiyama is deaf, and while her class mates make gestures towards accepting her, Ishida uses the extra attention she garners to begin bullying her. He mocks her, insults her, and steals her expensive hearing aids, all the while encouraging his classmates to do the same. Although he catalyst of the bullying, his friends and classmates are almost entirely complicit, and the disaffected teacher makes little effort to stop them. But eventually the principal finds out, Ishida is punished, and the class’ bullying turns towards him. Nishiyama transfers schools, and Ishida is left as a social outcast. After reminiscing, the now high school age Ishida decides not to jump, instead attempting to achieve some amount of redemption through reconciling with Nishiyama, and facing some of the causes of his social anxiety head-on.
Naoko Yamada’s latest directorial effort is an intensely emotional journey, based on the 2013 manga of the same name, and it intimately documents the lives of two teenagers who are racked with self-loathing. For Ishida this comes from a combination of intense guilt over what he did to Nishiyama, as well as the social isolation that came about as a result. Nishiyama unfairly blames herself for the perceived burden she places on those around her, and finds it hard to completely accept who she is due to her disability. While Ishida, having learned sign-language as an act of repentance, reaches out to Nishiyama to try to fix the past, this newfound relationship isn’t enough by itself to free the two from their deeply seeded hangups. Slowly, Ishida begins to reconnect with his old-classmates, which allows for a deeper dive into the many faces of bullies and bystanders. Ishida’s growth is contrasted with the trajectories of his former classmates. Some are deeply ashamed of the fear that prevented them for standing up for Nishiyama, others deny being a part of it at all, and others are completely unrepentant for what they did.
For fans of KyotoAni, it will come as no surprise that arming the talented studio of in-house animators with the budget of a feature-length film has resulted in a world-class production. Given the intimate storytelling, the intricacy of character animation present is absolutely essential to conveying the more subtle details of exchanges. Ishida’s transition from childhood to young adulthood is only believable due to how his entire demeanor shifts. While his motions in childhood are loud, exaggerated, and obnoxious his cadence as a high schooler is far more pensive, withdrawn, and contemplative. In addition to the subtler touches, the bigger emotive moments (of which there are many) are given an extra degree of hysterical intensity due to fluidity of motion, matching many of the frantic and emotive performances. But the film isn’t just beautiful from a technical perspective, there are also several inspired stylistic touches that take advantage of the animated medium. Ishida’s social anxiety is represented by purple crosses that cover the faces of his classmates, representing his unwillingness to look his peers in the eye out of a combination of guilt and fear. Character’s emotional states are captured through the framing of their body language; waist-down shots of clenched fists accentuating frustration, and lonely compositions capture isolation. It’s these aesthetic touches that convey the turmoil of these troubled characters, visualizing their interiority brilliantly.
While some will undoubtedly find the almost relentless barrage of teen-suffering to be overbearing, Yamada is always sure to find some degree of silver lining amidst the pain. Moments like when Nishiyama first realizes that Ishida has learned sign-language, or when Ishida makes his first high school friend, act as releases from excruciating circumstances of our two leads. Ultimately, we are shown that despite the suffering that these kids inflict on themselves, and on one another, it’s made clear that none of this is permanent. Despite how hopelessly hateful people may seem towards those that are different, this ignorance can always be reconciled. A Silent Voice is a visual feast that conveys its character’s quest for redemption and self-acceptance beautifully.
Image Source: The Verge