Reviewby Kevin Cirugeda,
A Silent Voice
Ishida Shouya has been drowning in regret ever since grade school. He's been living in self-imposed but also external isolation for years, ever since he caused a deaf classmate to transfer out due to increasingly serious bullying incidents. It wasn't until that turned him into a target and victim that he truly understood the pain he caused. Now, the only thing that keeps him alive is the desire to make up for his sins.
It's only appropriate that after announcing the plans for an anime adaptation – quickly detailed as a film – this project went silent for about a year. The idea of a beloved award-winning manga being animated tends to be as exciting as it is unnerving, and this one carried extra layers of uncertainty; it didn't simply depend on the presence of excellent staff to handle the material properly, it wasn't even clear what they would be making – would it be an adaptation of the concise, rough and impactful one-shot? Would they adapt the fully realized serialization, with a more compelling narrative but slightly meandering focus? Arguments for either choice popped up, as the movie was never officially addressed from December 2014 to October 2015.
No amount of time would have been enough to let fans prepare for the news that hit at that point, though. The movie was being produced at Kyoto Animation, with their rising star Naoko Yamada leading the project. At this point it feels wrong to talk about her as an up and coming director rather than an established one, considering she has already lead many hit projects and received multiple awards. Some of them, like the New Face Award for Tamako Love Story, were accompanied by very effusive comments, as even the critics felt it was awkward to still refer to her as just a promising creator. But her very young age for a household industry name – still 31 as of writing this – is a constant reminder that she still has room for growth, which meant that a project like this was a good chance to see her evolve further as a director.
And she sure took that chance.
A Silent Voice is a movie about many things. About regret, self-worth, friendship, redemption, learning to love… But for starters, about bullying and the many forms it takes; physical and violent, systemic and deeply unfair, silent and cruel. Ishida Shouya's last wish is to make up for his past sins. As we see in an immediate flashback, he took the most active role in abusing his new deaf classmate Shouko Nishimiya. But he wasn't alone; he also witnessed teachers who willingly looked the other way and friends who decided to go along with the joke. The thing is – it was not a joke. The playfully edited montage of Ishida's pranks is reversed after a tense scene where he turns into the single scapegoat for all these incidents, which becomes the turning point of his carefree life. Yamada's elegant approach to the film is already obvious after these sequences; the limited screentime becomes her weapon rather than a limitation, and the succinct delivery only makes the content more effective. The original story's rough edges are smoothened, but also sharpened – the manga was so eager to convey emotion it blunted the readers’ senses, and at its most passionate it bordered on histrionic. This adaptation envelops Ishida's story with tenderness instead, something more coherent with the work's message. It's still full of deeply unpleasant topics, but it hits with precision rather than with vehemence. This restraint only increases its emotional strength.
Yamada's job wasn't simply to rein in the material though, but rather to thoroughly make it her own. That obviously entails disregarding all existing layouts, and also as many structural changes she could get away with without actually undertaking big narrative changes. Alongside her scriptwriting buddy Reiko Yoshida she made liberal cuts and changed the flow, which benefited from her exceptional skill at editing time itself. While her direction is too graceful to ever feel obtuse, it's also not exactly straightforward. The movie would rather whisper once than yell twice, and is perfectly content with not speaking at all. Some scenes feature sign language with no voice over whatsoever – something the screening thankfully respected by not attaching the subtitles they actually were given – leaving the viewer to infer what was said. Shouko loses one ear's hearing entirely halfway through the film, and a silent visit to the doctor plus the fact that she starts using only one earphone are the only elements establishing that. It's obvious that Yamada can attract huge mainstream audiences, as her two top films have already proved, but her unconventional style is always going to be polarizing. After seeing the movie I immediately understood why Japanese review aggregators are an ocean of praise and delight with isolated, furious 1 star reviews. Definitely not for everyone.
If we're going to bring up potential controversies for a moment though, I would like to briefly poke my head outside the film itself. It's an understandable marketing move, but I feel like all the promotion leaning heavily on the romance aspect is misleading and possibly damaging the movie to some degree. People expecting standard and definitive resolution when it comes to the romantic relationship will only be disappointed. A Silent Voice is largely a film about affection, but what the characters learn to love is the world, as well as themselves. In that regard it feels like curious viewers who want to know everything about the entire cast and their circumstances even after the curtains come down will have the most issues with the movie. It's not just the main couple who may or may not end up together, but their group of friends whose destinies aren't spelled out. The secondary cast has partly been stripped of their backstories and overt goals, which feels like the only genuine flaw of the film when it concerns cases like the now shallow Mashiba. If that was the price to pay for an actually focused story though, the changes are more than welcome; the source material suffered from inherent manga serialization issues, so getting rid of the aimless movie-production arc and ending at the most thematically poignant point feel like excellent choices. The monumental final scene is a better payoff than any calculated aftermath detailing the lives of the entire cast. Emotion triumphs over mere trivia.
This is all conveyed through an endless barrage of expressive motion, which eventually makes you stop noticing the countless individual instances of delicate character animation. When so much care is put into every scene, outstanding craft becomes the norm rather than appreciable highlights. The illusion of life is so strong that you quickly lose yourself in the film, and the perfectly articulated character acting starts feeling natural – as if it were a given that the cast, actual people, would act like that. A heavy focus is put on hands, as the film is full of sign language conversations from beginning to end; there is no intent to cut corners by obscuring those, and so much care is put into them that they even correctly animate a character getting a gesture wrong. If you look at anime's absolute best offerings you can find some instances of technically stronger animation, but very few are also accompanied by this sublime understanding of body language and attention to detail.
As it tends to happen with anime of this caliber though, dissecting the production is doing it a disservice. The tenderness imbued into the film is transmitted through Futoshi Nishiya's delicate take on the designs. Characters are drawn with soft yet not smooth lines, forming painstakingly detailed drawings that still embrace stylization for the more experimental sequences. Yamada directs TV anime as if they were movies, as the notoriously diverse lighting in K-ON!’s second season and stunning postprocessing work in Sound! Euphonium can attest. And we she has the privilege to lead a theatrical production, she ups the ante with ease; A Silent Voice's photography work is very extensive, meticulous effects constantly bathing the film in pleasant light. The soft palette and backgrounds, rendering the city of Ogaki more beautiful than it is allowed to be in the real world, also coexist in harmony with every other element. As the director explained in a special preview, she had all the clouds directly covering the sky removed from the artboards to emulate the headspace of the protagonist. The lines between character and world are blurred. This is what animation actually is.
And as per studio tradition – and unlike the way the anime industry as a whole operates – virtually everything was achieved through in-house production. The exceptions are more anecdotal than significant, but there is a reason they occur; the last time KyoAni had to outsource any in-betweens animation was in 2011, for the K-ON! Movie. 5 years later they had to once again ship a tiny fraction of the workload to another company for A Silent Voice. Yamada's films really seem to push the studio to the extreme, and it's entirely worth it.
And of course, a project like this specifically required special treatment when it comes to the audio as well. This is something Yamada understood, and the reason why she worked so closely with the composer Kensuke Ushio. There are some notable exceptions like My Generation by The Who – licensed to act as the opening sequence defining Ishida's quest for entertainment as a child – but the movie's otherwise accompanied by soft piano, ambient tunes and pure silence. There aren't that many specific tracks in the score I would consider memorable by themselves, but as a whole the film is a tremendous sensory experience. The sound effects play as big of a role as the background music – Shouko relishes opportunities like fireworks exploding that she can actually sense, and the viewer gets to feel those vibrations as well. And at least to the untrained ear, Saori Hayami's limited performance is painfully believable, thus totally unlike what you're used to hearing in anime – and commercial media altogether.
I don't expect everyone to walk away from A Silent Voice feeling satisfied. It's not that kind of film. An inherently polarizing subject matter acts as the foundation of a tender but unashamedly uncomfortable movie. On top of that sits an adaptation with quite the personality. Manga readers might be overjoyed when they see the series rendered with breathtakingly beautiful visuals, but the most die-hard fans won't get the slavish non-adaptation they desire. And on a more general level, I don't think Yamada heavily prioritized accessibility; if her peculiar direction doesn't personally resonate with you, it feels like you could easily zone out and start missing all the understated character motivations.
If it does though, this might be one of the most powerful animated movies you'll watch. Worth the gamble I'd say.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A-
+ Tremendous production effort that feels like more than the sum of its already excellent parts.
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