Note: This review contains spoilers for both the film and the manga. Characters will be introduced family name first as per the original Japanese, and subsequently referred to by that name, unless in instances where obvious confusion would occur.
I was once bullied. I was once a bully. When I first read Oima Yoshitoki’s manga, A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi, lit. “Shape of the Voice”), I was rendered a quandary of emotions, as I recognized so brutally, so bitterly, an emotional state unfolding in each protagonist that had once so mimicked my own. It swiftly became one of my favourite series, simultaneously strenuous, heart-breaking, and beautiful. When I learnt of Kyoto Animation’s film adaptation, I was euphoric, yet full of trepidation. It was never going to be an easy story to view.
For the uninitiated, A Silent Voice revolves around Ishida Shōya, a vociferous young boy in elementary school, perpetually in search of activities to satiate his boredom. Alongside his compeers, Shimada Kazuki and Hirose Keisuke, Ishida strives to combat mediocrity by being a troublemaker, albeit a largely benign one. That is, until Nishimiya Shōko transfers into their class, and inadvertently disrupts the dynamic through the sheer, audacious virtue of having one particularly innocuous feature: being severely deaf. Communicating solely via a notebook and requiring her classmates to write everything down for her, Nishimiya is regarded as a pariah by her peers, and becomes a fresh panacea for Ishida’s ennui. With the encouragement and assistance of his class, Ishida makes Nishimiya’s life hell; graffitiing her notebook, destroying her hearing aids and mocking her deafness in general. However, having exhausted $15,000 (USD) on her daughter’s damaged hearing aids, Nishimiya’s mother eventually demands answers, to which the school responds by naming Ishida as the sole culprit. Ishida’s classmates retaliate in the fashion that children seemed to be most adept in, bullying at first, before completely ostracizing him. Publicly disgraced after Nishimiya leaves the school, and ashamed to have made his beleaguered mother pay so heavily for his mistakes, Ishida becomes a recluse.
Now, in his final year of high school, Ishida has grown into a solemn and depressed young man, and, having accumulated enough money to pay his mother back, plans to kill himself. As one last deed of atonement, he tracks down Nishimiya at her high school to apologise and return her old notebook, having forced himself to learn sign language in order to finally communicate with her. However, upon impulse, Ishida echoes Nishimiya’s request of friendship from years earlier, and finds himself spending time with her instead. Deciding that he hasn’t been punished enough for his past sins to die yet, Ishida opts to recompense by trying to give Nishimiya a part of her childhood back, reconnecting her with those she wanted to call friends in elementary school, and through giving her new memories. To this extent, he employs his old elementary school classmates; the sycophantic Kawai Miki, antagonistic Ueno Naoko, the once-equally derided Sahara Miyoko, and comes to befriend the bombastic Nagatsuka Tomohiro and mysterious Mashiba Satoshi.
Obviously adapting 62 chapters of manga for a 129 minute film doesn’t come without its natural impediments, and as such, there have been a number of subplots that don’t make the film. The focal point of the film remains Ishida and Nishimiya in a steadfast manner, but the screen time of their friends has been depreciated in relation to their roles in the source material. This can readily be attributed to the culling of one of the narrative’s biggest subplots, their film project, which helped focalize and position the characters, their dispositions, and their motivations. Nagatsuka wanted to prove himself in spite of his curlicued nature. Ueno struggled with an inferiority complex, her guilt over Ishida’s treatment over the years, and her feelings for him. Mashiba wanted to become a teacher so that he could help circumvent children from experiencing as lonely a childhood as his. Kawai was narcissistic, and wanted Mashiba’s attention above all, but was blithely naïve in her striving for the greater good. Sahara struggled to shake off her feelings over the past, and her tempestuous friendship with Ueno.
Alas, only a superficial microcosm of their original depictions remains. Ueno comes across as more odious and detestable than ever, Kawai is ever the matyr, and Mashiba seemingly decides to be Ishida’s friend because he arbitrarily felt like it. As Ishida’s closest male friend, Nagatsuka blessedly retains much of his bluster, but his t-shirts emblazoned with “HOLLYWOOD” end up serving as the sole, cursory nod to his love of film. Admittedly, though, it would have been almost impossible to adapt the exceptionally episodic nature of later manga chapters, which, whilst placing crucial focus on the deuteragonists, were ultimately more ponderous in pace. Whilst these characters still largely serve the same functions as they did in the original manga, they are, unfortunately, disproportionately less-compelling in comparison to the two protagonists. It’s quibbles such as these that make me wish that the film had been a short television series instead.
Ishida and Nishimya’s mothers also fall victim to time constraints, and whilst they are present in a number of pivotal moments, the full force of their dynamic is missing. This in particular is such a shame, considering the allegories and allusions present in the original. Despite their names being written in entirely different characters, the fact that Ishida and Nishimiya’s first names are phonologically a syllable different bespeaks the similarities in their experiences. That their mothers never get to connect over the shared experience of being jilted and their struggles to support their children is somewhat of a tragedy, especially considering that it is in these interactions the fierce love Nishimiya’s mother has for her. Whilst cutting some of her interactions with her daughters isn’t inherently a bad choice due to their questionable morality (which can easily be construed as abusive), it does deprive of her of some of her complexity and the pity that would have otherwise been evoked towards her.
Another facet that ended up being altered was the ending, which, whilst thematically the same, will no doubt make shippers weep. The removal of the original’s timeskip to the Coming of Age Day celebration (Celebrated in Japan for young adults turning 20) is a conflicting choice. On one hand, that could easily constitute another 10 minutes of an already lengthy film, would have less impact owing to the depiction of the friendships throughout, and skew the film’s thematic focus on redemption. The chapters that proceeded the dramatic heights of Nishimiya’s suicide attempt and Ishida’s reunion with everyone could never have aspired to be as poignant or as narratively imperative, and, consequently, they felt somewhat superfluous. On the other, time-skips form an integral part of demonstrating the way relationships diminish or solidify in A Silent Voice, and the manga’s final one was its most poignant. The jump from Ishida’s childhood to adolescence was demonstrative of his isolation; the final chapter a counterpoint, fast-forwarding to a future with optimism, contrasting with the first timeskip in that he was able to retain his connections with friends. Despite this, I can respect that the transition from one medium to another is fraught with challenges. The manga format was perfect for encapsulating a soundless medium; one that allowed for more intricacies and gradual pacing.
By comparison, films are perfect for encapsulating so much more in terms of sound and visual imagery, and in that respect, it’s easy to see why this was the film that went toe-to-toe with Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name at the Japanese box office. The aesthetic of the film still manages to faithfully capture Oima’s characters, and enliven them with so much pulchritude. Whilst evidently not a shot-for-shot portrayal of the manga, settings are beautiful, and scenes are expertly composed. The editing, of shots occasionally broken up with abstract imagery, and the more in media res nature of the narrative might alienate some fans, but it grew on me. Most importantly, the more powerful moments of the manga have been brought to life with the most reverential care, in a manner that evokes nothing short of wonderment. Ishida’s mother arguing with him after she discovers her son’s intentions to die is one thing in the manga, but nothing is more potent than witnessing the melancholia, anger and fear brought to the fore in animated form as she screams at him. It’s a testament to the voice work at play too- Yukino Satsuki, despite her character’s brief screen time, is fantastic as Ishida’s mother, and Iruno Miyu brings a humbled, softly-spoken edge to Ishida that is a brilliant foil to his brash childhood self. However, it is Hayami Saori as Nishimiya that is the real star, managing to deferentially effectuate the intonations becoming of a character with hearing loss without seeming parodical.
If there’s an especially flawless element to A Silent Voice, it’s how, for a film focalized around a young woman who’s deaf, the audial facets befit it so. I purchased the soundtrack on a whim after hearing one of the initial Japanese trailers (featuring the gorgeous track “Sunlight”), and in spite of being composed of relatively short tracks, the two discs worth of music is sublime. If I had to implement a singular descriptor order to delineate the overall composition, it would be minimalistic, although rather than being a criticism, I mean this as an esteemed compliment. The instrumentation is sparse, yet methodical, alternating between aplomb and diaphanousness, muted enough in tone that the gentle thud of instruments is a frequent sound. Silence is also at the nucleus of the music, with many pieces bearing a warped, muffled distortion, emblematic of Nishimiya’s severe deafness, and Ishida’s social anxiety. Ushio Kensuke is the composer responsible for such profoundly apropos refrains, and his methodology for combining the themes at play in the narrative and his own musical practice is nothing short of brilliant. Utilizing hearing aids as inspiration based on their ability to amplify different levels of sound, Ushio resolved to deconstruct music down to the simplest of decibels, and resorted to methods such as dismantling a piano and recording the reverberations from the strings and pedals. It’s clever, modern musicianship at its finest
Whilst aficionados of the original manga will share some of my gripes with narrative, overall, A Silent Voice is too resplendent and impactful a piece to ignore. It remains momentous for myriad reasons in addition to its technical mastery; a focus on disability and bullying in societies that still have far to go in hearing their collective voices, not to mention being written, directed and scripted by women. It is a sumptuous audio-visual treat, and anyone from diehard KyoAni fans to those drawn towards the more aesthete to anime fans will enjoy it immensely.
A Silent Voice is currently screening at selected Hoyts Cinemas and independent theatres until the 12th of April.