Beautiful and gut-wrenching, a portrait of adolescence.
[Content Warning: This film deals with suicide. If you need help please call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.]
A Silent Voice is a film that gently reaches in and shakes us awake. It may be beautifully drawn and elegantly stylised, but its subject matter is raw, tangible, and ever so real.
The film concerns a bully, named Shōya. He’s scruffy and rude, and the cruelty he inflicts upon his peers is absolutely brutal and almost difficult to watch. We shouldn’t be drawn to like him, but we are. This isn’t a two-dimensional villain, this a child coping with a lot of pain. One of the most confronting scenes involves his mother trying to burn his earnings out of desperation – she loves him, but she hurts him, because she herself is hurt, and so it goes around in circles. As a teenager, Shōya buries his own suffering by refusing to even form connections, never peering too closely at those surrounding him – indicated by the literal crosses scrawled carelessly over the faces of everyone he can’t see. The camera in this film mimics the claustrophobia of social anxiety – it skates dizzily past dozens of Shōya’s peers. The only time the camera pauses is when it captures a glimpse of the isolated-yet-charming Shōko.
Shōko is the other key character, a deaf girl who was Shōya’s primary victim as a child. She is bewilderingly kind despite her suffering, and bravely refuses to sink to the level of her tormentors. Her patience is the perfect bridge to teach Shōya how to become friends with others and to forgive, even if that is something she cannot do for herself. Her sweetness is something of a double-edged sword, however. At times, it is as though she has almost no agency, and for a character who ought to be a central protagonist, she is often sidelined. Similarly, the secondary character Ueno has a complicated developmental arch that doesn’t necessarily result in her redemption. She floats somewhere between enemy and friend throughout, but perhaps that is exactly the point. The film also has some difficulty with pace, occasionally feeling drawn-out, particularly towards the end.
A Silent Voice is a film of actions and consequences. The protagonists are so unable to forgive themselves that they both attempt suicide – and the topic is undertaken with extraordinary self-awareness. Suicide is not a mere plot-point, it is the film’s undercurrent, constantly threatening to rear its ugly head. From this pit of internalised hatred, the question is posed of whether one can be absolved of past misdeeds, and whether one should be. Nevertheless, this film is visually beautiful, with a springtime colour palette and appropriate scenic design. One of the most tragic scenes is Shōko’s clumsy attempt to convey her affections for her friend – an awkward manifestation, but a very true-to-life one. It seems strange that a film bound by the unreal conventions of animation could possibly be so palpable, but it is. A Silent Voice will tug at your heart-strings until there is nothing left. Its strongest point is that it never strays too far from its authentic vision of young people, their struggles and salvation.