“Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”-Oscar Wilde
I have this residing tinge of guilt, not caused by my actions but as consequence of my inaction. The truth is, in regard to fairness I have found myself unimaginably fortunate. It really is taken for granted sometimes, how adversity has been often shy towards me. A fully formed mind and body, a perfect bill of health, an intact lower middle-class family, and the chance to have experienced life for as long as I’ve already gotten to and crossed paths with so many wonderful individuals. I don’t necessarily live an extraordinarily exuberant or luxurious life. I couldn’t imagine anyone would want to be me; still how many deserve to be me. How many of the lives gone to soon, burdened with poor healthy, or downtrodden by fate could become so much more than I have if given the chance. I don’t know what my true potential looks like, or how it would play out if someone more worthy was at the helm. All I know is from my vantage I can do just one thing, aspire to be better.
After watching Koe no Katachi, or A Silent Voice, I have discovered a glorious inspiration to continue towards becoming “better”. Naoko Yamada (K-On! the Movie, various work across KyoAni series) directs with a masterful intent behind the visual direction of the film while strengthening the emotional resonance of the original manga by Yoshitoki Ōima. The story of the bully who tries to make amends with the frail deaf girl he once tormented is one of a unique and daring perspective. It takes delicate craftsmanship to maneuver the pratfalls of this concept, to present a nuanced and ambiguous morality. Attempting to tow a delicate line between sympathizing with despicable behavior and overly pitying our victim, what Yamada achieves deserves to be considered nothing short of one word…perfection.
Confronting Our Bully
A Silent Voice does something I’m sure that many would be hesitant to praise or accept and that’s that the main perspective of this harrowing tragedy is from the perspective of a bully. Why should we as an audience care about this delinquent who’s made it abundantly clear through heinous act after heinous act that he is remarkably cruel? Doesn’t it go against the pleasures of karmic justice, to see the villain earn redemption?
The clever distinction is that A Silent Voice is not a story of sympathy, but one of learning empathy. Similar narratives often misstep by trying to garner audience sympathy (to agree with a sentiment or opinion) by conjuring up a justification as to why a character acts the way we perceive as being morally askew. Shoya isn’t given a backstory, at least not explicitly. Like many elements of the film you can conjure up speculation about the absence of Shoya’s father and the hidden presence of his sister but there’s never a moment that explains away his behavior (abusive parents, victim of his own bullying predating his own behavior, or any forced explanation that wouldn’t surmount to justify the vile acts committed). Even in the manga where they elaborate on Shoya’s mental state more than the film, they use it to make an empathetic appeal. There we sort of understand that Shoya is motivated by an adherence to boredom and a fear of being isolated and alone.
This makes his trajectory all the more tragic when it really becomes apparent that this is a naïve child, lusting for social approval and then becomes abandoned by the people he desperately acted to be in good graces with. As much as Shoya’s harassment towards Shoka is horrific, it’s never lost on me that he is a child and maybe you don’t know this, but children are pretty awful people who don’t fully understand consequences their actions always bring.
Shoya never has to be lectured on the cruelty of his actions but instead learns through firsthand experience by how much his life reciprocates what Shoka experienced in his class. The same societal group that foster his behavior has just as quickly forsaken him. By gaining this perspective into the cruelty of others, does he gain one step closer to empathizing with someone who he couldn’t communicate and understand because he had no frame of reference of the horrible things she went through. The movie offers multiple motives for Shoya’s desperation to make amends, holding each up to scrutiny of challenging his desire for heroic chauvinism. While maybe each viewer gets to interpret Shoya’s true intentions as well, it does come across that Shoya is portrayed as sincere and selfless in his efforts. There’s a clear distinction that Shoya was never malicious but unable to empathize, that’s why his slow journey towards truly connecting, and understanding the world around him is a journey worth listening to.
Everyone Has a Part
I never knew I wanted to see Sid from Toy Story, Toph, and Steven Universe in the same movie but boy was it something to see it happen. What impressed me was how complete of characters each person is within the story, having their own distinct philosophies that future expand up the major themes of empathy, redemption, and understanding. Not only that, each character perceives one another differently, and that makes each scene compelling is witnessing how each one interacts and conflates thematic discussion.
That’s why I believe that one of the more unlikable characters really glues the story cohesiveness and grounds the narrative to not shy away from the harsh reality it hopes to portray. Every scene with Naoka (I referred to her as KyoAni girl as her design seems almost commonplace for the studio. See Mio [K-On!], Mitsuki [Beyond the Boundary], and Reina [Sound Euphonium]). I found Naoka fascinating, and really is someone the audience should reflect heavily on. The only character to fluctuate in having the clever visual marker of the x, she is also the one person whose ideals seem genuinely unique to her. She bridges the gap between Shoya’s past and is the character that actually resents Shoka and sympathizes with Shoya.
I understand the many are going to demonize Naoka greatly, and fair enough she is an extreme heat magnet, but her presence is necessary. Again, it demonstrates to the audience how misguided sympathy with Shoya’s past self is wrong. Yet, Naoka’s closeness to Shoya allowed her to know despite Shoya’s actions he is not a terrible person. She’s able to offer Shoya a return to normalcy through reconciling with the past instead of growing from it. I’m sure in another film the climatic character moment would reside on this decision Shoya can return to life as it always had been but ultimately seeing the need to move on. However, this ultimatum is just one small moment, and is only a brief query. This tale is far from this narrow conflict and instead addresses so much more.
Naoka adds a vital piece to the narrative, the willingness to change and the inability to inspire change in others. Redemption is a major component of A Silent Voice, and the story clearly illustrates that it can only be achieved to those willing to be redeemed. This tale isn’t trying to be ultra-optimistic and saying that change is easy, or that it can be achieved by everyone. Most people are lost in their ways but can eventually learn to tolerate even if they won’t accept. To upright decide that Shoya and/or Naoka are despicable people and don’t deserve to be content in life is a very narrow-minded way to look at things, almost like saying one spouse is in the right when watching Marriage Story. To speak in absolutes, diminishes the achieved complexities of all the relationships in A Silent Voice. There’s no heroes or villains, no right or wrong; just a group of young kids lost in the world and trying to be found.
A Silent Voice is one of those films that not only stirs enthusiasm in me to re-watch but implores you to do so just with how detailed and imaginative it is throughout. Littered with visual metaphors, excellent visual direction, and details a vivid sonic landscape that layers this tale nicely. It is one of those rare instances where the dialogue and acting is great that it’s phenomenal at telling you what you need to know. At the same time, it’s confidence enough that what you can identify by how scenes are framed, edited, the body language of characters, the subtly changes in expression all contribute to fleshing out your experience. The scoring, the sound mixing, and appropriate moments of silence all interact in an interesting fashion that it certainly amplifies the mood of every scene without being overbearing or manipulative. This film earns every moment, yet flavors each impact with so much expert craftsmanship and emotional honesty that each beat weighs on you.
It’s one of those rare movie experiences where the movie thematically is not only able to demonstrate its themes but make us actively engage with it. We are actively judging the characters and their actions and become openly liable with how we process the piece. Do we accept Shoya’s arc towards redemption, do we genuinely empathize with Shoka or do we pity her for our own self-satisfying reasons. There’s a graceful way in which A Silent Voice portrays it’s tales to be applicable to everyone. Because as much as this is a story of a bully and his victim, it’s a story of social anxiety, self-loathing, and engaging with others and committing self-reflection to work towards the goal of making ourselves better. That’s something that transcends the movie and can resonate with just about anyone.
So Even I Can Become Better….
It feels strange to do a non-spoiler review after so long, hopefully I didn’t come across as too out of my element. I want to do this film justice yet know that it’s so phenomenal I never could… so you just have to have faith in my word and give it a chance yourself. As much as I’m sure I only could preach to the choir, it’s a pity that it takes one bad seed to poison the patch. The KyoAni Arson attack is such a tragedy, and not because they have made many works that I’ve sung my praises to the heavens numerous times how spectacular it is. It’s a tragedy because life is precious; no matter how dark our outlook maybe, or how haunting our past maybe, or how afraid of the future or the world we are. We always cling to the hope that another day among the insurmountable goodness of people and within ourselves is too valuable not to cherish.
So, maybe I’ve had my fair share of shortcomings and haven’t reach my full potential. Maybe someone would do a better job of being me. Still, what’s a defeatist attitude going to accomplish? All I know is that I still got time to spread my influence and try and make the world a better place being me and being all I can be. Be honest, be funny, be vulnerable, be fair, be what you can be and don’t apologize for it.
Maybe one day, I can become a leading voice, an influential voice that can encourage and inspire better. I don’t think I’m quite ready for the responsibility of that quite yet, but I’m glad to feel I have great examples of strong character if that day comes. Regardless, I’m going to make a conscious effort to be the best I can be.
This film has put an emphasis on bettering one’s self and the importance of communication, so as my New Year’s Resolution I’m going to try to learn some American Sign Language (ASL). I don’t really believe in resolutions considering everyone abandons them by February, but I am going to make a conscious effort to try and stick with it. I don’t expect to become proficient in sign, but I think being able to know something to form a bridge/close the gap and at least have a welcoming gesture. I found a website that has a “sign of the day” and have found a couple videos and have already been trying to learn some basics such as the alphabet and numbers.
One thing, A Silent Voice is not my only inspiration, I had seen a Syrmor video that demonstrated the deaf culture inhabiting VR Chat as well as actually wanting to challenge myself to continue to educate myself beyond formally structured education. I don’t want it to seem disingenuous that I’m doing this just because a movie touched my heart.
The other thing is I’ve already been impressed with how much I’ve learned. I don’t know why, but I guess I never considered facial expressions being a part of signing so learning that raising your eyebrows is a way to indicate asking a question was interesting. I love that the sign for “What” is just that weird cat thing, and then you shake your hands like your doing an offensive Italian impression.
Wish me luck, hopefully we all can grow and thrive this year. I appreciate you spending this time with me, and I wish you the best of luck wherever you are on your journey and I hope you find your voice along the way.
Images used are from KyoAni’s A Silent Voice, a heartfelt joy to watch so please do
Thanks to Sign With Robert who has uploaded hundreds of GIFs that depict common words in ASL, he also has materials available for purchase to learn ASL. Thanks for uploading a wonderful teaching tool
Thanks again for stopping by, leave a comment or a follow and I’ll see you around, here at the movies.