Most films about teen bullying are horror movies, but this is something completely different. Probably the most mature and sophisticated film to address bullying since it became a high-profile media issue happens to be an anime adaptation of Yoshitoki Ōima’s hit manga series. Any adult or reasonably empathetic teen will appreciate the drama and artistry of Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice, which opens this Friday in New York.
Shōya Ishida bitterly regrets his elementary school years. He was hardly the only student who bullied Shōko Nishimiya, a deaf girl, who briefly attended their school, but he would be the first to admit he was the worst offender. When things really got ugly he took the fall. As a way to save face, his classmates blamed him for everything and shunned ever since Nishimiya withdrew from their school. All but giving up on redemption, Ishida plans to commit suicide, but first he makes a final attempt to make amends with Nishimiya.
Much to her surprise, the remorseful Ishida has even learned sign language. It is an awkward meeting, but she does not completely give him the Heisman. Once Ishida convinces Yuzuru, Nishimiya’s tomboyish little sister and self-appointed gate-keeper of his honorable intentions, he starts to meet her often. However, communications problems and their mutual low self-esteem constantly sabotage the potential romance viewers are rooting for. Meanwhile, two additional former classmates re-enter the picture: Sahara, the only student who genuinely befriended Nishimiya and Ueno, the queen of the mean girls.
The way this group of students are constantly drawn back together might sound contrived, but life really seems to work that way. Regardless, Silent Voice is not a pat and predictable afterschool special. This is an emotionally sophisticated film that never lectures its audience. Frankly, there are several logical junctures where Voice could have started wrapping things up and letting its characters off their hooks, but instead the film just gets even messier.
One point that jumps out of Voice is just how much damage Ishida’s bullying does to his reputation and his self-image. For years, he has to live with being that guy. It definitely distinguishes the film from other more conventional anti-bullying films. Visually, it is also quite appealing, sort of representing a stylistic cross between the mostly realistic Your Name and the graceful pastels of Doukyusei. In fact, Yamada has a keen eye for visuals, incorporating a number of striking water motifs. Yet, more importantly, Ishida, Nishimiya, and many of their classmates are unusually complex and well-developed characters, who cannot be reduced to mere victim and tormentor stereotypes.