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
- 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.