Movie Review: A Silent Voice
Initial release: September 17, 2016
Directed by: Naoko Yamada
Production Company: Kyoto Animation
When it comes to stories told through animation, Japan stands apart from the rest of the world. For decades the country and its artists have given us characters and worlds unlike any we have seen before. Telling stories, which are equally vast and otherworldly, as they are intimate. Animation isn’t only made for children in Japan, but are simply another canvas to tell a story. And this is not only true for the behemoth that is Studio Ghibli (though they are arguably the masters), but for smaller named studios and artists as well. The greatest benefit to using this medium, for me, is not the ability to have the freedom to create the most grandiose of adventures, located in unreal settings with creatures and environments that would otherwise take millions of dollars to recreate in live-action. But rather, the ability to have the slightest movement of a character‘s eyes to portray a specific emotion, that if done by a real actor, would seem ‘unnatural’; to have a shadow be cast in the perfect angle, or a camera movement to be done in the swiftest manner without needing an overpriced dolly rig. It’s these ’little things’ that may not be fully possible if it were done via traditional film that make animation unique. And Japanese creators have been at the forefront in using this medium to tell compelling stories.
A Silent Voice, however, is a rare example that showcases both when animation can be at its most effective, but also when certain usages can lead to narrative moments feeling forced and overdramatized.
WE NEVER REALLY FORGET OUR CHILDHOOD
This story is about a young man named Ishida who begins the film on the precipice of committing suicide, but at the last second decides not to and instead to tie up a loose end with a former elementary school classmate: Nishimiya. After this introduction, we are transported to their elementary school to see how their relationship began, with Ishida and his sixth grade classmates tormenting Nishimiya, primarily due to the fact that she is deaf. The film does not hold back in presenting how cruel children can be, and the writing surrounding the characters - at least in these early scenes - is honest and apt. But it’s through the animation, and the use of certain shots coupled with subtle piano melodies, that tells these beginning moments so effectively. Like using closeup shots of hands, eyes, and slight mannerisms, which express the children’s curiosity of ’the new kid.’ Or a low-angled shot of a huddled group of girls when Nishimiya hands them a notebook, asking them to write what they would like to say to her in it, causing an uneasiness to emanate through them. Or seeing Nishimiya in the distance through the space between the handle bars of a jungle gym, lagging behind a group of classmates during a rainy day, struggling to catch up. Or a non-linear sequence of images splicing in during one of Ishida’s tyrannical bouts against Nishimiya, which (possibly) reveals a sense of loneliness on his part. It all culminates to we the audience experiencing the myriad of emotions these kids - specifically Ishida and Nishimiya - are going through, and it’s done impeccably well through the beautiful animation and storyboarding work.
It’s in the second half of the film, or if I’m being fair the latter third, where my compliments begin to wane. Aside from being a half hour too long, it’s in the progression of the plot, but more specifically the characters where things take a turn. Ishida being haunted by his actions as a kid, and now wanting to make amends with Nishimiya, which eventually evolves to him wanting to give life a chance with new friends, is a well-enough plot progression. What stifles it, unfortunately, is in the writing and portrayal of these characters. ‘Forgiveness’ eventually becomes the driving theme of this movie, but with the extremity in which this film portrays the faulty actions of these character’s, both during their childhood and adulthood, the writer’s seem to forget that there are steps, conversations, and beats between ‘apology’ and ‘forgiveness.’ An example being Nishimiya‘s unwavering belief that the spiteful actions of others against her is somehow her own fault, leading her to be the one to apologize (or forgive with an apology of her own) in an instant, and carry this trait throughout the entirety of the film without an iota of nuance. I was excited to see the development of her character as an adult, to see how all the things she’s had to endure (and continues to endure) now rests in her being; but was disappointed to see little to no development. Ironically, the best scene in the entire film was during her as a child where she, in a quiet classroom after school, unleashes her anger at Ishida. The scene has no discernible dialogue, and is simply an excess of emotion by both characters. It’s unnerving, potent, and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. I wish more moments like this existed throughout the film.
It’s also in the second half where the movie luxuriates unnecessarily with its own animation. A somber moment between Ishida and another character turns into an exaggerated sob-fest with overly dramatized music and facial expressions. Scenes that could have been powerful if it remained, momentarily, on a static wide-shot, are instead turned to haphazard closeups and inserts. Every scene like this, which seemed to become more frequent as we got closer to the end, kept reminding me of that one scene between Nishimiya and Ishida as children I mentioned just a moment a go.
And the more I think about that particular scene, the more I feel slighted by the ending moments of this movie. Whereas the writer’s portrayed these character’s as children with such honesty, and crafted each moment with beautiful subtlety; they forgot to bring those qualities to the adult versions of these characters. It’s almost as if we can see children carry all the depth of emotions that they obviously have, but yet fear seeing those depths portrayed in adults. It makes me wonder if this is not also a reflection of Japanese culture as well. With my distant familiarIty of Japanse culture through media, it’s common for me to see certain behaviours be viewed poorly by the adult population. Whether that be an outpouring of anger in public, or a refusal to apologize and/or forgive. Obviously this can pertain to people and communities outside of Japan, but I feel it’s an interesting conversation to have; to see how our culture, background, and surroundings have an affect on the way we create art. Back to the movie, I didn’t need characters screaming at one another, bashing and lambasting each other for their actions from the past and present; even though that does happen during one of the final scenes, and yet I somehow felt the dialogue taking place during that scene was...hollow. I wanted to see an understanding of these character’s growth, portraying their realities and perspectives through the techniques used in the first half of the movie, and propelling those moments with animation; all of which could have led to incredibly moving, and nuanced narrative and character beats. But unfortunately I didn’t. Now, that‘s not to say I didn’t care for these adults, or didn’t enjoy my time with the rest of this movie. Far from it. It’s actually because I cared for these characters that I wanted the film to do them justice, and to showcase the full breadth of their being.
A Silent Voice portrays the realities of children, bullying, and the evolving relationships they have with one another with honesty, sensitivity, and beautiful animation. Unfortunately, animation quality aside (though there are specific caveats here), those qualities are not kept as the film progresses with the stories of the adult characters.