By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“A Silent Voice” hits the big screen in and around Seattle as one of the most widely-praised anime features in recent years — and from one of the very few female anime feature directors. It approaches the lives of the handicapped in Japan, what’s going right and wrong, and bullying issues to boot. It’s been supported by the Japanese deaf community. While I found the film uneven in its approach and its overall tone, it deserves attention and support for the following reasons.
Derived from a manga masterminded by another female artist, Yoshitoki Ōima, and written for the screen by another female manga artist, Reiko Yoshida, the story opens in a grade school, with the arrival of a deaf student, a girl named Shōko Nishimiya (voiced in Japanese by Saori Hayami, in English by Lexi Cowden, aka Lexi Marman, who actually is deaf).
Shōko’s shy, understandably, and because her speech is hard to understand, she usually communicates by writing on a notepad. She’s hopeful that she can find friends, but she soon falls into the harsh realities of grade school culture.
The male protagonist’s name sounds almost, but not quite, like Shōko’s: Shōya Ishida (voiced in Japanese as a smaller boy by Miyu Irino, as an older boy by Mayu Matsuoka, and in English by Ryan Shanahan and Robbie Daymond). Shōya’s brash and quick to speak out, and quick to take offense. He loves being the center of attention, but lacks the self-awareness to see how his behavior conceals anxiety and low self-esteem.
Shōya isn’t the only one who makes fun of Shōko, tossing her notepad around, mocking her attempts to speak, lampooning her behind her back so that she has no idea what’s going on. Some of the bullying in the film is hard to watch. I think it’s important to remember that such things go on every day against people perceived as weak, as different, as unable to fight back. This is something deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and we need to accept that before we can consider what to do about it.
But in an all-too-realistic turn of the cards, the bully ends up being bullied. Shōko grows manifestly unhappy, and her parents feel she’s not safe, so they pull her out of the school. Shōya, for his part, ends up with the blame for everything bad that’s happened. The other kids deny any of their own responsibility. Suddenly he’s on the hook for everything, and the ones he thought had his back, desert him. He’s left miserable, resigned to life as an outcast, mistrustful, and hostile to anyone who tried to get close.
The action switches to high school. Shōya, still sunk in shame and anger, can’t look at any of his peers in the eye, and he shuffles along staring at the floor until a chubby, very excitable fellow named Tomohiro Nagatsuka (voiced by Kenshō Ono and Graham Halstead) enters his life.
Tomohiro knows he’s small, heavy-set, and unattractive, and he reacts by lashing out and threatening violence, though often in a comic manner. He’s grateful to Shōya for showing him any attention at all. The ups and downs of having his first new friend in years inspires Shōya to reform his life, and to try to reconcile with Shōko, whom he hasn’t seen in years.
The film features many blaring emotional crises and people threatening to destroy themselves. The film devolves into melodrama at such points.
When it concentrates on the dynamics of young people, though, the ways that they scheme and justify themselves, the way they attack what they fear and fear what they don’t understand, it hits spot-on. I’ll be interested in what the different members of this creative team bring to us in the future.
“A Silent Voice” plays Jan. 28 (subtitled) and Jan. 31 (dubbed into English) at 7 p.m. both nights, Regal Thornton Place 14, 301 N.E. 103rd Place, in Seattle. There will be additional showings at Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue and Regal Bella Bottega 11 Cinema in Redmond. Consult local listings for more details.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.