Movie Review: A Silent Voice (聲の形)

A Silent Voice

Based on a popular manga comic, Japanese director Naoko Yamada’s (K-On) affecting drama about the tempestuous relationship between a boy who hears and a girl who doesn’t; this is a beautiful Japanese animation which has themes around living as a deaf person at its core.

When Shoko, a young deaf student, transfers to a new elementary school she finds herself being bullied for her hearing impairment. The source of the teasing is her new classmate Shoya, who leads the class in poking fun at Shoko. But before long the class starts to turn on Shoya for his lack of compassion and he gets a taste of his own medicine.

After graduating, Shoko and Shoya do not speak to each other until an older, wiser Shoya – tormented by his past behaviour – decides he must see Shoko once more to make amends for what he did. But is it already too late to atone for his sins? (Watershed)

Despite being pretty tired and not really in the mood for watching a subtitled film, I had a free ticket to see A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi / 聲の形) at the Watershed this afternoon and I’m so glad I went along. The film was being screened as part of the BBC See Hear Weekend 2016, which is a celebration of all things related to sign language and the deaf community in film and television, and walking around the Watershed before the film started was an interesting experience. I have never seen so many people using sign language, and I was absolutely fascinated. It’s a language I would love to be able to understand.

The film was fantastic. It was beautifully animated, and the story was very interesting, if a little intense in places (all viewers were warned that the film contained themes of bullying and suicide, so not exactly a lighthearted story). Despite being a heavy topic, the themes were handled well and the film was funny in places as well as being sweet and sensitive. I felt my usual ‘natsukashii’ (nostalgic) feelings for Japan too, with simple things such as the sound the road crossing makes (although I suppose this might have been lost on the half deaf audience) and the simple day-to-day scenery of Japan. I smiled to myself when I saw one of the characters eating orange segments in jelly – one of my favourite convenience store snacks!

I won’t go into the details of the story as I don’t want to spoil it for those that haven’t seen it (this was a preview screening and the film isn’t being widely shown in the UK yet), but I thought it was a really interesting story and well told. At one point I found myself sitting forward and almost holding my breath with anticipation, and at other times having to wipe away a tear. Bullying is never easy to watch in movies, and being animated makes it no less distressing, but what I actually found most heart wrenching was when characters were apologising in typical Japanese fashion with deep bows right to the ground, practically curled into a ball on the floor begging for forgiveness.

The topic of deafness isn’t something I’ve seen in a film before, and I found it especially interesting to see how it was handled in a Japanese context. In my experience in Japan, disabilities were not widely talked about and in my three years living in Japan I don’t recall coming across many people with any kinds of disabilities, and certainly none in the schools I worked in. A lot of bullying comes from ignorance and fear of what is different, and it was clearly this ignorance and fear which caused the children in this movie to behave so cruelly at times. One child in the film was simply angry because they couldn’t communicate with the deaf girl and frustrated by not understanding her – sadly I could easily imagine this situation in any school environment, but especially in one where difference and disability are so rare.

A Silent Voice works on so many levels, and I hope it appeals to a wide audience – not just those interested in Japanese animation. The only thing I felt let the film down slightly was the subtitles not covering everything comprehensively, although I wonder if that could have been intentional. At times there were conversations which included signing (presumably Japanese Sign Language) and where there was no speech there were no subtitles. I wonder if the Japanese original would have had any subtitles for the signing which the English version was missing, or if that is just part of how the film is meant to be. I don’t know how different Japanese Sign Language is to British Sign Language, but I wondered if the members of the audience who could sign would have understood those parts of the film which I could not understand.

All in all, an excellent and unusual film, which I highly recommend seeing if you have the chance!

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