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A Silent Voice (2016)

It’s difficult to know where to start with this review. I can’t, hand on heart, recommend you see this unless you are a pathological devotee of anime, because unless you are, its languid pace and melodramatic soundtrack will have you thinking this is 129 minutes of your life you could usefully have spent doing something else.

Where to start. Where to start. As something of a devotee of Things-Nippon myself, I’m quite used to excusing – and making excuses for – anime predilections, but, the animation aside, I found this an awkward watch, for all the wrong reasons.

Let’s start with the good bits. There’s some nice animation in it. Nothing we haven’t seen before, mind. Trains disappearing into blurry distance, fireworks blurring the sky, water running blurrily down polished surfaces, that kind of thing, but the often-charming visual effects are usually ruined by each vignette’s over-lengthy exposure and the ponderous piano score. I don’t think I’ve ever shifted so much in my seat during an animated feature, and I’ve seen the reboot of Fantasia.

Yamada's Basket of Deplorables
There is the odd attempt at more textured visual play, for instance the blue crosses which hover over the faces of characters our “hero” is too ashamed to talk to, while some of the lighting effects throughout will delight, though not sufficiently to make up for the rest of the work. 

Then there’s the, well, let’s be charitable and call it ‘plot’, taken from the “smash hit” manga.

The action – such as it is, because honestly you could kaleidoscope the whole plot into about five minutes without losing a single scintilla of meaning – follows the horrific-to-angelic redemption of a teenage tyke called Shoyo Ishida, who sports the standard Japanese schoolboy wardrobe and spiky manga-haircut (do shamed wretches trying to pretend they’re invisible really wear their hair like that? But I digress…)

The early, pre-transformation Ishida loses no opportunity to bully the new girl in his class, Shoko Nishimiya, a profoundly-deaf, profoundly-pink-haired-pre-pubescent anime-tronic cute thing, corralling a number of his classmates into the crime while their teacher does precisely nothing. Nice.

Other reviews you’ll read will call this movie “poignant” or “moving”.  Now, call me old-fashioned, but the things I find genuinely poignant are those things which kind of creep up on me unawares, reaching rapier-like into my soul and my memories to unlock a well of emotion, maybe bringing a tear to my eye and a catch to my throat.

The trouble with  A Silent Voice is that it tries too hard to convey its message. Way too hard. 

Would you bully this girl? Really? Would you? 
Director Naoko Yamada, rising star at Kyoto Animation, never misses an opportunity to drop a tear into a puddle, to have us watch raindrops dribble achingly-slowly down a window pane or have a koi carp drag a breadcrumb from the meniscus of a lily-strewn pool.

Storks fly, eggs fry, fireworks blast into the sky and yet the – SPOILER-NOT-SPOILER-ALERT – death of a cherished relative and multiple suicide attempts are incidental compared to the languorous drift of cherry blossom in an autumn breeze (or whatever). Ah how worthless life is. O tempora! O mores! Oh the Humanity (or lack of it)!

The deflection of human emotion into nature’s fearsome beauty might work if all the characters were not, essentially, ciphers, and some pretty misogynistic ones at that. If ‘A Silent Voice’ is a play for anime’s female audience, I think most (Western) women I know would find it insulting at best. I was shocked to find out, after having seen the movie, that the director is a woman, so dim a view she takes of the fairer sex.

Nishimiya apologises to everyone for being deaf with such a winsome smirk you almost want to slap her yourself. Her arch-nemesis, Uedo, is utterly malicious and unrecoverable throughout, so much so that late on in the movie she even takes the opportunity to beat up Nishimiya while the poor deaf lamb is nursing a broken arm. It’s ok, though, because Mrs Shoko comes out and starts beating up Uedo, only to have Ishida’s sister – who has already had to pay off Mrs Shoko – join the cat-fight. Other female classmates are variously cowardly (Sahara), fake (Kawai) or colluding, while Ishida’s sister is so stupid she sets fire to the 1.5m Yen he has earned pushing shopping trollies around the local supermarket car park.

Only Nishimiya’s little sister, Yuzuru, comes out of it with any dignity, but this is mostly when she’s in her tomboy phase, a roving spy with her Nikon, before her descent into dutiful Japanese schoolgirl (with multiple uniforms).

At times ‘A Silent Voice’ is painful, whether it be watching Ishida’s continual failure to apologise through shyness or his half-arsed attempts to learn sign language as a substitute for apologising and then failing to learn (or at least say) the word ‘sorry’ until the last five minutes of the movie. But the pain, alas, is not our empathy for Ishida but the pain of contrived storytelling and ciphers where characters should be, wallowing in too much budget.

The most painful part of the movie is surely its treatment of disability, which, having grown up with about 25 years of disability awareness here in the UK I found quite shocking. Honestly, I have no idea whether Japan is the unreconstructed hellhole for the disabled this movie seems to intimate, full of careless teachers, bullying classmates, shamed parents and a general mocking disregard for the deaf whose lack of audial ability serves only to dishonour those around them, but if it is, things need to change!

And it’s not just the disabled who’d be better off dead, eh? What about that fat kid? When Nagatsuku says he too has thought of killing himself, you think he might have a point given how lithe and cute all his classmates are and how lumpy and dumpy he – alone – is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where so many characters wanted to end themselves for such a variety of reasons.

Judging by this movie, the author of the original manga, Yoshitori Oima, has some serious issues around guilt, and the issues he couldn’t get sorted in therapy are given way too much rope by Yamada. Early on I thought “wow, this guy needs help”. After two hours I no longer cared.

Sometimes even those with A Silent Voice need to learn when to shut the hell up.

FORMATSUK Cinema Release From March 15th
See list of screenings here

FROM Anime Limited
2hr 9 minutes

For a very different perspective on this film,  check out our alternative  review or our podcast review