A Silent Voice is an optimistic, humanistic film. You might not expect that level of optimism from a story bracketed by a pair of suicide attempts, a story of bullying and trauma and self-hatred. This story begins with Shôya Ishida (Miyu Irino/Robbie Daymond), a smart young man, carefully clearing the bench for his intended suicide; he quits his job, he pays off the debt, he owes to his mum. He stands on the edge of a bridge and looks down.
Shôya doesn’t jump, but the film does – back into the past, into elementary school where we come to understand the guilt and self-loathing wracking him. His Grade Six class greets a new student, Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami/Lexi Cowden), who’s deaf and utterly lovely. Of course, these are children, so trepidation turns to mean jibes turns to outright torment. Shôya quickly takes up the mantle of lead bully, relentlessly teasing and assaulting Shoko until she’s forced to leave the school after a prank turns bloody. It’s hard to watch these scenes and feel anything but contempt for the young Shôya, who revels in the muted admiration earnt from his peers through his cruelty.
That quickly collapses in the wake of Shoko’s departure, and Shôya’s former friends and fellow bullies – in need of a new punching bag – soon turn their ire onto him. Years later he remains an outcast, shutting himself from social interactions to limit his own guilt and suffering. His need for completion before his aborted suicide sees him reunite with Shoko, now eighteen, and the tale shifts into a complex reflection on trauma, justice and blame.
This hardly sounds like a light-hearted film. And, indeed, A Silent Voice is grounded in a melodramatic approach that’s unafraid to mine the depths of human darkness. But the film’s sunny spring aesthetic – all fireworks and rose blossoms – suggests the screenplay’s fundamental positivity. The film is generous with its characters, finding time to suggest (if not quite explore) the interiority of the pair’s elementary school peers, Shôya’s mother, and Shoko’s sister and mother. Human cruelty is acknowledged and foregrounded, but it’s balanced with a recognition for our capacity for kindness and forgiveness; the power of understanding and listening (somewhat on the nose, given Shoko’s deafness, but I’ll forgive the cliché of disability being used as thematic scaffolding in this instance.)
Reiko Yoshida’s screenplay (adapted from Yoshitoki Ōima’s manga) never strays into simplicity, either. Shôya’s situation poses troubling questions about guilt and responsibility. We sympathise with him as a young adult; he’s pleasant, troubled and means well. He’s even gone to the effort of learning sign language to better connect with the girl he once tortured. And yet A Silent Voice refuses to let him off the hook entirely; as the film progresses, we come to understand the extent of the trauma visited upon Shoko, the aftershocks still reverberating today. There’s no suggestion that Shôya doesn’t deserve forgiveness – the film is too open-hearted for that to be a plausible reading – but we understand that such forgiveness is not trivial.
A Silent Voice is an imperfect film; its reliance on melodrama is sometimes to its detriment (particularly in its third act), and some of its contrivances are, well, contrived. Even in animation, it’s never once plausible that Shôya accepts Shoko’s sister’s explanation that she’s her elder sister’s boyfriend (!). But it’s so thoughtful and beautiful in its interrogation of human experience, about the bad things we do and the good things we do to try and fix them, that it makes it easy to forgive such flaws.