Title: A Silent Voice (a.k.a. Koe no Katachi a.k.a. The Shape of Voice)
Production: Kyoto Animation
Film Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: 9/17/2016
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
17-year-old Shouya Ishida stands on the ledge of a high bridge, intending to jump after having left his mother a sum of money and quitting his job. He marked today on his calendar as the last day. The source of his anguish stems from grade school, when a cute but deaf girl named Shouko Nishimiya transfers into his class. When the students can't deal with her disability and the difficulty of communicating with her, they (spearheaded by Shouya and classmate Naoka Ueno) begin to bully and harass her. This culminates in Shouya ripping out Shouko's hearing aid, injuring her and prompting her family to transfer her to another school. The teachers can no longer turn a blind eye, and Shouya unwillingly shoulders the blame and ire. Now an outcast himself and perched over the bridge, he finds he cannot jump. Instead, he decides to embark on a path to redeem himself and make amends with the girl he once relentlessly bullied.
The Good: KyoAni's usual aesthetic mastery, memorable and complex cast, hits hard with some gut-punching drama...
The Bad: ...that could've and should've punched even harder, spreads itself a little thin.
The Ugly: Those early bullying scenes are legitimately hard to sit through.
It's rather amusing to me that 2016 is remembered by the anime community for the most pressing debate of our time: Your Name vs A Silent Voice. Both films were hyped to hell and back, both were produced by big names (auteur director Makoto Shinkai was behind the former, Naoko Yamada and the animation titans at KyoAni for the latter), both provided super-feelsy teen dramas, and both have achieved international critical acclaim. The similarities end there, however, because while Your Name told a more fantastical story with supernatural elements, A Silent Voice is more down-to-earth and, barring the fact that it's animated in a stylized fashion, is completely realistic. And I must confess, I didn't find this movie to be quite as enjoyable as its competitor. That does not, by any means, make it a bad film. On the contrary, it's pretty damn great. But I have this nagging, irritating feeling that it could have been so much better, even more than its rival. Especially when you consider the subject matter.
But of course, if you've read my reviews before, you know how this goes. We start with the high points, because I believe in giving you the good news before the bad news. And the first bit of good news is that, as per usual, Kyoto Animation are flexing their animation muscles with this film. And boy are they ripped. This could very well be the most gorgeous thing KyoAni has given us, and their standards are sky-high. Tremendous amounts of attention have been given to animating minor gestures and fidgeting, as they usually do. But director Naoko Yamada takes it a step further with one clever little trick. The main character, Shouya, finds that he can't look people in the eye anymore due to his past deeds. The film shows us this fact first-hand—there are countless shots of feet, distracting background objects, floors, and ceilings. Anytime we see a classmate's face, they're obscured by a big blue X, an obvious visual representation of his refusal to look them in the eye. When Shouya does look someone in the eye, the blue X peels off their face and falls to the floor. That's a really clever visual metaphor, and the cinematography avoiding faces whenever possible is a great touch. Oh, they also accurately and beautifully animate Japanese sign language. I can only imagine how much of a monumental task this was.
The backgrounds are, as you might expect from KyoAni (and on a movie budget, no less), absolutely wonderful. Rich in detail and lush with color, there's no doubt that the scenery was inspired by a real place. You can almost map that place out in your head once you've seen the whole film. As far as the character designs go, they look a little different from their manga counterparts, but in my eyes, they're a huge improvement. I really like Shouya's permanently-guilty expression and wild hair, along with other little touches like Shouko's hair being slightly shabby and her eyebrows being rough. There is also Mashiba's mischievous eyes and that both he and Sahara are heavily freckled. Sahara is also really, really tall. There is also Nagatsuka's comical face and floofy hair. I could go on for forever about the designs. Naoka is the only character who's a little plain, but she still looks fine. She is just a little too close to being a Mio clone for my money.
As far as the film goes aurally, it's generally very strong, though occasionally odd. For instance, the film starts off with My Generation as its theme song, which is a strange choice. Not just because it's an English song in a Japanese film, but also because it's not really that relevant to the story's thematic focus. But hey, The Who is always nice to hear, so I can't complain. Much of the background music is nice and pleasantly melodic, though it's sometimes used at odd times. Just like with Your Name, the voice acting is actually stunningly on-point in the film. Saori Hayami, in particular, turns in a convincing performance as Shouko, whose speech is (realistically) almost incomprehensible due to the nature of her disability. Studying to play the role must have been a little awkward, but whatever she did to hone her character, it certainly paid off.
Speaking of character, this movie performs a near-miracle. There are more than a dozen named main characters, and in the short span of just over two hours, they are all given time to be fleshed out. They are complex people instead of cardboard cutouts. Everyone has multiple aspects and dimensions that are clear and easy to understand. Hell, even Shouko's mom gets a full character arc, and I don't think we're ever told what her name is! And that's not even considering the fact that the lions share of screentime is given to Shouya and his development. Without getting either too off-the-rails in going over each character's arc or too deeply into spoiler territory, I can guarantee that there will be several characters you'll come to love by film's end. In my case, I desperately wanted more Nagatsuka and Sahara.
Now, the biggest draw for many (including myself) is its subject matter and the accompanying feels it will surely evoke. Bullying has always been an issue in school environments, but the problem is more pervasive than ever here in the States. Evidently, the situation hasn't gotten any better in Japan either. This film charges into the meat of the issue, unflinching in its goal to depict children being nasty little demons to each other. The film shows just how terrible the aftereffects can be. One of the most heart-wrenching shots in the film is a full-page splash of Shouko's conversation notebook. It's full of insults and other nasty stuff from the other kids, followed only by meek apologies in Shouko's handwriting. As usual, I don't want to give more examples of when the film hits hard because that's wandering into grievous spoiler territory, but this does lead me to the thing that bugged me the most about this movie. It could have hit even harder.
The aesthetics are perfect, the score is immersive, I'm invested in all of these characters, and the story sets up some potentially agonizing feels. So why are you holding back, KyoAni?! The entire way through, I was waiting for a world-shattering gut punch to absolutely destroy me, but it never came. I wanted this feels trip to be the greatest trip of them all with an orgasmic explosion of catharsis and bittersweet ecstasy, but the movie did not quite deliver. Well, for me, anyway. I've seen other reactions to the film where people were inconsolable once it was over, and I wanted that too. It's like I went to a burger joint where some acquaintances told me the burgers were the best in the state, only to take a bite and find that it's merely a good burger and not The Best Burger in the State(TM).
The other issue I had, which I alluded to earlier, was that the movie tries to do a lot of things within its two-hour runtime. While it gets all those things done, it runs itself ragged and exhausts itself in the process. As much as I liked all the characters, was it really necessary to have so many of them? Like, I get that they're all in the original manga, but the manga had much more time to devote to the side characters and their stories. Did the movie really need Mashiba and Kawai? If some of the more minor elements were cut out, we might've had time for the film to deliver the bone-breaking punch I so desperately wanted!
On the whole, my complaints are pretty minor. Wanting a movie to cut the fat and deliver even more of what makes it great doesn't take away from the overall quality. As a competitor to Your Name, it falls a little bit short. However, this is still very much worth your time and there's no reason why you can't watch both! If the subject matter of bullying is important to you, or even if you just happen to like a good down-to-earth drama, then there's really no reason you shouldn't be adding this one to your watch list.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. A Silent Voice impresses with its gorgeous aesthetics and its skillful handling of a touchy and relevant subject. Its large cast of memorable characters make its emotional storyline all the more worthwhile.