Based on a manga series by 27-year-old Yoshitoki Ōima, A Silent Voice is a delicately told coming-of-age story of transgression, redemption, and romance. Ishida Shouya has 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 in primary school; 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 atone for his sins. Kyoto Animation produced A Silent Voice, with award winning animator Naoko Yamada (Tamako Love Story) as director.
Ishida Shouya desires to make up for his past mistakes. In an immediate flashback, the viewer is witness to the bullying Ishida takes part in towards his new deaf classmate Shouko Nishimiya. He wasn’t alone in the bullying; he also witnessed teachers look the other way and friends who took part in the abuse. The light-hearted montage of Ishida’s pranks is reversed after a tense scene where he becomes the single scapegoat for all these incidents, thus becoming the turning point of his life. The director Yamada’s sophisticated approach to the film is already clear after these sequences; the limited screen time becomes an advantage rather than a disadvantage, and the concise delivery only makes the content more effective, smoothing and sharpening the original manga’s rough edges. This adaptation envelops Ishida’s story with tenderness instead and rather more articulate of the work’s message. It’s still full of deeply unpleasant topics, but it hits with precision rather than blunt force.
The only genuine flaw of the film is that the secondary cast has partly been stripped of their backstories and clear goals. Characters such as Mashiba come across as shallow in the film compared to the manga counterpart. This however, is a price worth paying for a well-focused story and the alterations are more than welcome, as the source material experienced natural manga serialisation issues. The final scene has a better payoff than an aftermath detailing the lives of the entire cast.
The story is beautifully visualised through an uninterrupted barrage of expressive motion, which eventually makes the viewer stop noticing the countless individual instances of delicate character animation. So much care is put into every scene; exceptional craftsmanship becomes the standard rather than noticeable highlights. 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.
Futoshi Nishiya’s design work saturates the film with tenderness. Characters are drawn with soft but not smooth lines, forming meticulously detailed drawings that still embrace stylisation for the more experimental sequences. The soft colour palette and backgrounds, beautifully rendering the city of Ogaki, also coincide in harmony with every other component.
Apart from notable exceptions like My Generation by The Who – licensed to act as the opening sequence defining Ishida’s quest for entertainment as a child – Composer Kensuke Ushio creates a beautiful mix of soft piano, ambient tunes and pure silence. There aren’t many standalone tracks in the score I would consider memorable, but as a whole the soundtrack is a tremendous sensory experience. The sound effects play as big of a role as the background music – Shouko relishes opportunities that she can actually sense, like fireworks exploding, and the viewer gets to feel those vibrations as well. Actress Saori Hayami delivers a limited but painfully convincing performance as Shouko.
Not everyone will walk away from A Silent Voice satisfied, as a fundamentally polarising subject matter acts as the underpinning of a tender but unapologetically uncomfortable movie. On top of that sits an adaptation that manga readers might be ecstatic to see, but the most die-hard fans won’t get the unflinchingly faithful adaptation they desire. If it does though, this might be one of the most powerful animated movies you’ll watch.
I would give it a chance.