A Silent Voice: Remembering the Past and Improving the Now

While the 2016 film A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi) spotlights topics like solitude, bullying, and death, much of the story plays out on our common desire to connect with one another. Connections by blood, friendship, rivalry, and even animosity all begin with the self, accepted or not. The lessons play out beautifully in the film through characters whose expressions and emotions seem almost tangible in their vividness—especially important for a central figure suffering a hearing disability and who rarely speaks. Nishiyama Shouko’s desires come to life in her body language. Conflict arises from a combination of her classmates’ discomfort and insecurity, and their teacher’s neglect.  Their experiences show not only how easy it is to misunderstand one another and to perpetuate the mistreatment of others, but also how it is never too late to confront your mistakes and learn from them.

I first encountered deafness in fourth grade when I was nine-years-old. A student transferred into my class and was introduced alongside his interpreter. This was also the first time I learned of a language spoken through hand movements. I look back on that time fondly, because it was a period of learning that joined together students, parents, and educators in a way that affects me to this day.

As grade school students, we were curious and friendly. My parents never described Nick’s full hearing disability as anything to be feared or disliked. Our teachers folded in daily sign language lessons into our regular curriculum as naturally as any other subject. We had homework learning the alphabet and simple commands. We practiced with one another, and eagerly spoke to Nick whenever possible. If he didn’t understand us, we would spell out the word we were trying to sign and he would teach us the correct motion. I looked forward to every one of our classes, and was proud to be Nick’s classmate. Sign language became not only a way for us to speak with him, but also a secret language the rest of us used with each other even after we graduated into higher grades.

Krista came along when I was twelve-years-old and just joining my school’s soccer team. Unlike Nick, she was only partially deaf; she could faintly hear if you spoke loudly and slowly enough, and could also read lips. Sign language was still faster for most communication. We quickly bonded over our mediocre athletic abilities. She, too, had an interpreter for school lessons, but her home life felt just as normal as mine. Her family did not treat her any differently than her hearing sister, expecting them to both chip in for chores and other activities.

The keys to their successful integration into public schooling and the community were the people, preparation, and continued guidance. A failure in any one of those areas could have easily resulted in a situation like portrayed in A Silent Voice. Nishimiya Shouko’s early experiences revealed shortcomings on all three fronts where her classmates bullied her, lessons excluded helpful courses and practices, and teachers overlooked and even encouraged the problems.

The first and most prevalent injustice displayed in the film is the rampant bullying Nishimiya endured shortly after transferring into her grade school. What started out as novelty turned to annoyance. Her classmates began to resent helping her day to day, with some students like Nao throwing verbal slurs and others like Ishida getting physical. It all comes to a head once everyone—including Ishida’s friends and homeroom teacher, Takeuchi—turns on Ishida and blames him for the majority of the bullying. After Nishimiya transfers away from their school, Ishida becomes the new target and finds himself alone in a sea of noise.

It’s easy to put the blame of everything that led up to the bullying on Ishida’s group of friends. They were the poster children with their teasing. Simply doing that, however, ignores the many factors leading up to the confrontations. The second injustice was that the teachers should have led the charge on how best to welcome Nishimiya and educate and guide their impressionable students. The homeroom teacher, music teacher, and principal all demonstrated varying degrees of inconsideration and incompetence. When a representative from the hearing classroom offered to help students learn sign language, Takeuchi should have supported her. And without an interpreter present during daily lessons, he should have found ways to assist Nishimiya in understanding the material rather than having his students shoulder all the responsibility.

While I hold the adults largely accountable for these events, I cannot excuse the actions taken by the classmates. Anyone could have stood up to Ishida or Nao, especially with Sahara taking an active interest in learning sign language and befriending Nishimiya. Silence in these situations is not keeping one’s “hands clean,” but rather complicity.

I’m thankful works like A Silent Voice and studios like Kyoto Animation cast light on disability and discrimination. Through the movie’s beautiful art and characterization, viewers are immersed right from the beginning into the world and its conflicts. KyoAni has always excelled in background art and blurring for depth perception and atmosphere. That style adds an intriguing layer to Ishida’s isolation, where people’s faces are replaced by x’s and the chatter of everyday life is muted. It reminded me of my old habit of sometimes removing my glasses when I felt self conscious or nervous. The immediate blurring of my surroundings was strangely calming, but did little to help any given situation.

Whether or not you feel like you have a personal connection to the events of A Silent Voice, the film is a must see. Someday that could be you, or someone you know. Hopefully it doesn’t take a reversal of positioning like with Ishida to teach us to care for others and to treasure ourselves.

Rating: 3 dango


*Rating system:

  • 0 dango – average and forgettable.
  • 1 dango – very good in its category.
  • 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
  • 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.
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7 thoughts on “A Silent Voice: Remembering the Past and Improving the Now

  1. My main thoughts while watching the movie were on a different subject from yours, seeing mostly the effects of depression on people, rather than the source of the bullying. I don’t know if you’ve read the manga, but my impression from that was more that Ishida was pretty much an irredeemable punk, and by far the ringleader in elementary school, and it was much more of an inevitability that he would pick on Shouko than it felt in the movie, and I think that most of that was left out due to time considerations (and it got pretty repetitive). So I don’t know that there’s really anything that the adults could have done to stop Ishida, without some early intervention with him in particular.

    It’s a wonderful movie, and thanks for reviewing it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have not read the manga, but from how you describe it, I think I may like the angle of the movie better! I don’t like to think of people, particularly children, as irredeemable, and I hope that the manga has him learn his lesson as he gets older like he does in the film.

      I do wonder if the manga does a better job explaining why Ishida, and also Nao, is the way he is. He seems to have a pretty stable home and loving family with his mother and sister, so perhaps something about the father has Ishida distrustful of others. Kids so easily reflect what they see and hear and given how disappointed Ishida’s mom was in his actions, I’m surprised he was as bad as he was.

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      • I probably shouldn’t have used irredeemable. It’s more like inveterate. The main point it gets across is that Ishida was *always* going to pick on Shouko, from the instant they met. There was zero chance that he would not, he was just waiting until the others were a little tired of her to take his chance and be the ringleader.

        It’s interesting you bring up his home life. That was not explored that much in the movie, things like his older sister having 1 child with one guy, and then having had a string of other boyfriends that she brought home. Some were good to Ishida, some were bad, or even beat him up. It gives the impression that their mom, while caring and trying to be the right role model and bring them up right, just doesn’t have time with running her salon and keeping food on the table (which also makes the money that she pays to Ms Nishimiya for Shouko’s hearing aids much more dear, yet his mom still does it with no hesitation, and even accepts the physical punishment from Ms. Nishimiya).

        The movie also doesn’t go into the circumstances of Shouko, Yuzu, and their mom living on their own, which were pretty darn horrible. I would recommend the manga if you liked the story. It is well written (unlike some that make good movies), although it goes too far in on a storyline that I like better having been dropped in the film.

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  2. As a manga reader I have to echo Highway’s thoughts … Ishida comes across as WAY nastier in the manga, but to be fair that is also what makes his eventual reformation more powerful (for me).

    I think that situations like this are one of those things that are almost always present in some degree, and I chalk it up primarily to the weakness of the less inspiring side of human nature. It is powerful, it really sets the default tone extremely quickly, and it almost instantly drags many people along into it’s wake.

    Interestingly there have even been scientific studies done that “prove” (something common sense experience has shown many people for millenia XD) that it even shows on a physical level of things it actually IS easier to “take the ‘negative’ angle on things” and it is harder to ‘build new pathways and patterns of thinking” where one takes the ‘positive’ angle on things. As the old saying goes, swimming upstream against the current is … hard. But not impossible.

    Movies and stories like Koe no Kotachi show both modes of being, of traveling, as it were, of getting from place to place, of coping, of responding to others, and so on. But they also show not just one person or two people’s struggle with this, but rather a spectrum of varying levels of beginning to face these qualities in oneself and others (or even not facing them to varying degrees).

    In other words? It is thought provoking. And while I agree that the adults in the story bore a larger part of the blame, I would not say it is much larger or even that in a black and white way that excuses in any way, shape or form the other characters in the story proper. Or even in some ways excuses US.

    I think that if all of us took a really hard look at ourselves we might see that we are weaker than we normally consider ourselves and have much work to do. Not that that should get us ‘down’ but rather that we should be honest with ourselves and realistic while perhaps restraining our impulse to “just react” through being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. I know I fall into the category of needing to work on myself….

    Thanks for the review! ^^

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    • I find that a lot of the realization I had after watching the movie and reading the manga again about the adults is that while we get this judgment of “the adults let Shouko and others down”, the reality is that they’re just people. Could they do better? Sure, we could all do better in just about every situation we come across. But for the most part, they’re doing the best they can with the information and resources they’re given, and the situations they find themselves in. Like Mrs. Nishimiya goes from sympathetic to an ogre and back and forth a few times, finally landing on the sympathetic side for me after we learn how she ended up a single mom with two kids, one of them with hearing loss (easily the most infuriating part of the manga, and still very believable). And it’s not excusing her behavior at times, but her actions are usually not done out of malice (well, ripping Mrs. Ishida’s earring out is probably done out of malice). But overall, it’s just people, doing what people do.

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      • This is another truth that the movie did such a great job of illustrating, that these kinds of actions and consequences are universal. That whole situation with Ishida’s mom and her earring was unclear to me from just the film. I wasn’t sure if she had ripped it out on her own as atonement, or if it was Nishimiya’s mom who did it. I guess I’m glad they left that out in the movie since I think it would have made me feel far less sympathetic.

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    • True, as positive as I try to be in word and action, my gut instinct usually starts with the negative. As a kid, I know I complained a lot and, like so many others, was terrified of sticking out in any way. I can say all I want about how I wish Ishida and his classmates had acted, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s often much easier to push the blame on others no matter your age.

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