A Silent Voice: Timeless Adolescence
‘They all try to put us down, just because we get around. Things they do look awful cold. I hope I die before I get old.’ This, the rallying cry for youth since the song’s release in the mid-1960s by the unrivaled rock band The Who. ‘My Generation’, as the opening credits theme of 2016’s A Silent Voice, is the pulse beat that works to immediately draw us back to our own youths as we watch Japanese anime kids stream past upon the screen (hopefully a large one as it continues to run theatrically from time to time in the States).
These dilettantes run and prance along to and from school, home, the mall, and through the streets of Tokyo. We watch them rough house and horse around, we are shown their joyful days before the disruptive and dispiriting death-knell of time that presses so hard upon youth even in high school, well before the brain has even fully developed, and pressures joy into hiatus in the face of such horrendous, insidious forces as exit exams, continued education or training, and the most odious question of all: ‘What do I want to do with my life? With my one shot?’
With the first bars of The Who’s immortal anthem, we are taken back to an innocent time. Our protagonists are young kids who talk and goof off in class, are obstinate in the face of new challenges, and wish nothing more than to escape class and return to play unhindered by study. They write on their desks and fumble with the lead in their mechanical pencils, nod off or have their attentions distracted by their friend’s childish ploys or by the present or hoped attentions of those members of the opposite sex they find interesting for reasons hitherto unknown.
Director Naoko Yamada is a relative newcomer to directing theatrical anime though she has a decade-long history of directing TV anime for Kyoto Animation that reaches back to her work on the acclaimed anime series K-On! in 2009. This series held her attentions for the next three years through a subsequent sequel series, two OVA series, and one theatrical film for the series. From this work, she moved onto direction of another popular series called Tamako Market in 2013 that also produced a theatrical film in 2014. And while Yamada certainly had experience engaging with youth and one’s grade school days through these anime, and though she had some experience crafting theatrical works through these projects, it is an entirely separate beast to create one from scratch without having some hand in the project’s development like she did on previous projects for years before ever attempting such a feat.
But the film succeeds beyond all expectations. The core of the film is a young boy named Shoya and his cast of friends in grade school who bully a new student named Shoko who is deaf and only requires some help, friendship, and understanding to acclimate well to her new school. However, just as youth is often carefree and joyous in a country with a modern economy, so too is it capricious and wont to damage its charges who don’t fit in with the herd. Shoko is mercilessly bullied by most of the members of her class who taunt her often and openly because she is deaf and won’t hear the insults. Her one friend, Sahara, is bullied so badly for becoming friends with Shoko that she eventually changes schools and once again leaves Shoko without an ally. Most viewers can resonate with this feeling of emptiness and alienation Shoko experiences in the absence of a friend (I myself had four friends move away throughout elementary and middle school, all best friends too).
The bullying eventually escalates to kids occasionally stealing Shoko’s communication notebook and hiding it or submerging it in school’s fountain. Others, like Shoya, push her away physically when she attempts to communicate with them. Some students steal her hearing aids and toss them in such a way that they are lost permanently or damaged beyond repair. And one time, when Shoya pulls out her hearing aids during class, he pulls much too hard and blood comes streaming from Shoko’s ears. We all have our stories of physical and mental abuse from our peers throughout school, and this is the dark side of youth that the film expresses so well alongside youth’s superficial idylls. Therefore, we can all sympathize with Shoko and with the emotional pain she experiences: intense and often irrational rage toward our aggressors, self-hatred and suicidal ideation, numbness and emotional distance.
Many of us have also been the bullies at times in our lives. When Shoko’s physical safety is threatened by Shoya pulling out her hearing aids, the class’s teacher who had hitherto avoided addressing the problem (as do most teachers in my experience) is forced by the pressures of Shoko’s mother and the school’s administrator to punish those responsible. Shoya’s mother meets with Shoko’s mother and gives her 17,000 yen (15 to 20 k in U.S. dollars) to pay for the hearing aids her son Shoya destroyed. Shoko’s mother also beats up Shoya’s mother to pay her back for the transgressions of her son. Shoko changes school and Shoya remains behind where he becomes a pariah as the leader of the bullies who forced Shoko to leave.
As Shoya grows up and enters high school, we learn that he has studied sign language profusely to one apologize to Shoko. He has also worked a part-time job and sold all of his comic books and other collectibles to save up 17,000 yen to pay back his mother for the costs she incurred on his behalf. Finally, the damage he wrought to Shoko emotionally and psychologically hung so heavy a burden on his heart that he plans to kill himself after delivering the apology and the money. And again, like so many of us, his nerve and his resolve are too weak and he doesn’t go forward with his plans after all. His mother sees his cryptic messages on his personal calendar at home wherein one day is listed as final day and the remaining months and days in the calendar have been ripped out. She refuses his money and accidentally burns it. Later, Shoya helps a boy named Tomohiro when a bully tries to take his bicycle and thereby Tomohiro earns himself his first friend in years. And what’s more is that his dialogue with Shoko develops into something much more, which helps both the bully and the bullied to overcome their pasts little by little despite the fact that they will never fully escape these spectres.
A Silent Voice won tons of awards and made a sizable return on investment financially for its beautiful portrayal of youth in its multifaceted nature, in both its highs and its lows. Celebrated hack director Makoto Shinkai called the film beautiful, masterful, and an achievement better than anything he could hope to create. And while Shinkai’s 2016 film Your Name topped the box office, it and his entire oeuvre do nothing more than chart the emotional vicissitudes of a particular kind of romanticized-philosophical youth refracted through the mind of a 20-something otaku, while A Silent Voice speaks to all who have experienced youth in an immediate manner that leaps off of the screen and directly into our hearts. Whereas Shinkai analyzes youth, Naoko Yamada merely reflects it and thereby delivers the real thing.