Last week we looked at Your Name, the most successful anime movie internationally of all time. Whilst it is an absolutely amazing film, I offered the opinion that it is not quite the best anime ever, despite being arguably the most successful. I’ll go further than that. It’s not even the best anime of 2016, because here we have a strong contender for the best anime ever made: A Silent Voice, released theatrically in Japan at the same time as Your Name. It’s not often that a film can completely change my perspective on something, or achieve something I would have thought was impossible, but A Silent Voice does exactly that.
Let’s take a step back first and look at what this one is about. Shoko is a girl with a hearing impairment who transfers to a new school and gets mercilessly bullied. The ringleader is a boy named Shoya, and he takes things so far that his co-bullies even start to feel uncomfortable about things. Shoko is unwavering in her attempts to befriend the bullies, despite a barrage of cruelty. Eventually things become so serious that Shoko has to transfer away to another school, and the teachers need to identify the culprit. Shoya’s friends are quick to betray him and scapegoat him to hide their own involvement, leaving him friendless and bullied himself. A few years later, having pulled himself back from the brink of suicide, Shoya tries to make amends for his past.
The film was made by Kyoto Animation, who are the makers of some of my very favourite anime television series, which I will be discussing on the blog over the next few weeks: The Melencholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Clannad, Hyouka, etc. Whilst A Silent Voice lacks the beauty of Clannad or the quirkiness of Haruhi, the story it tells tackles probably the most important issues children could ever have to face, and does so in a way that is completely amazing, and a million miles away from the obvious route to take with the subject matter.
In the English dub, Shoko is played by Lexi Cowden, who is also hearing impaired, giving the film an authenticity that would otherwise have been impossible to replicate. Shoko is an amazing character, a gentle soul to the point of blaming herself for being bullied, and for the damage that being a bully actually did to the lives and friendships of the bullies. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment: it’s surely true that being a bully harms the bully as well as the victim. For Shoko to recognise that, and for her to long to befriend and to help her bully, makes her a very special kind of person. I’m not sure it could ever be true to life, but it does make the viewer stop and think how life is all shades of grey.
I’m also not sure such a cruel bully could ever grow up to be somebody like Shoya, but perhaps the perspective of being on the receiving end of bullying himself makes that possible. There are so many details that add up to a coherent picture, too many to mention here, but I just want to highlight a standout moment of the movie, when Shoya calls out his friends on their own culpability. This comes at a time where life is improving for him, he is no longer a loner, and has reconciled both with Shoko and his former friends, and has also made new friends. He has acknowledged his past but his co-bullies are still in denial. The individual characters are skillful representations of the kaleidoscope of different real-life reactions to bullying, and Shoya calls out each and every one of them on what exactly they did. There is Naoka, Shoya’s partner in crime who remains unrepentant; there is Miyoko, the girl who didn’t bully, but allowed her friend to be bullied without intervening because she was nervous; there is Miki, who insists on her innocence and thinks she is a lovely natured girl, although she sat back and watched. Suddenly the scapegoating doesn’t work any more, and they must all face up to the truth of their past.
In the meantime, Shoko and Shoya both hate themselves. Shoya hates himself for obvious reasons. Shoko hates herself because of the trouble she believes she has caused for others and her inability to communicate her feelings to Shoya. Both are suicidal at different points in the film. This is strong stuff, as emotional and powerful as it gets, and at times it is a film that it hurts to watch. The suffering the main characters endure is often uncomfortable viewing, but ultimately it is a film about hope and how past wounds can be healed by facing up to the past and embracing the future.
To return to my original point, that A Silent Voice does something I would have thought impossible, here’s the thing. If somebody recommended to me a film that is about a girl being mercilessly bullied by a boy, the boy making amends, and the two of them falling in love, I would have said this: what a revolting idea. Bullies don’t get to make amends and live happily ever after with their victims. Heck, bullies don’t turn into nice enough people for that to happen, unless it’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome. They don’t deserve happiness. That’s what I would have said. Astonishingly, A Silent Voice takes that premise and not only makes it work, but makes it work so well that I ended up rooting for Shoya, and for the relationship to work out in the end. It’s a film that takes your preconceptions and slaps you round the face with them. It takes a storyline that seems like it would be impossible to achieve convincingly, and turns it into one of the most convincing and emotionally real movies you could hope to watch. For that reason I’ll go out on a limb for this film: it’s the best and most important anime ever made. RP