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The ripple effects of bullying come back to haunt a high school student years later — and over the course of two ambitiously overstuffed hours — in A Silent Voice (Koe no katachi), which was adapted from the popular manga series by Yoshitoki Oima.
Packed with drama, laughter, tears and at least two suicide attempts, this third animated feature from director Naoko Yamada (Tamako Love Story) does its best to condense a seven-volume series into one feature-length film, though it tends to suffer under the weight of so much material. Already a hit in Japan, where it grossed close to $20 million last year, Silent Voice has been released in several other territories (including the U.K.) and should embark across Europe after playing competition at Annecy.
Impressive in the way it takes a single incident and shows how it can damage both the victims and the perpetrators for a long time to come, the story (written for the screen by Reiko Yoshida) follows Shoya Ishida, a taciturn teenage boy who tries to jump off the bridge at the start of the film. Soon after, we learn that when he was back in sixth grade, Shoya terrorized a new classmate named Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf-mute girl who couldn’t be more gentle and kind, even when she’s the brunt of everyone’s jokes.
A decade later, Shoya has never managed to shed the bully label of his youth, becoming an outcast in his own right who’s now shunned by the rest of his school. He tracks down Shoko, who he hasn’t seen since they were kids, in the hopes that she will pardon his terrible behavior. Their very long and awkward friendship — or courtship, if you can call it that — occupies the majority of the film, with the two damaged souls searching for some kind of solace in each other’s company. But communication between them is not that simple, even if Shoya tries to learn sign language, while the lasting effects of their trauma seem to leave permanent wounds.
Like a very dark and twisted Mean Girls, Silent Voice chronicles the cruelty and isolation of Shoya, Shoko and their friends or frenemies in ways that can sometimes grow exhausting, with several moments of major drama — and a few hair-raising stunts — punctuating the narrative. These are definitely some highly emotional adolescents, melting under the sinister looks of others or hurling themselves into a local river without warning. A few stabs at humor involving Shoya’s newfound buddy, Tomohiro Nagatsuka, help to lighten the overall tone, but while the film has lots of qualities, subtlety definitely isn’t one of them.
Where director Yamada excels is in depicting the interior worlds of the two main characters, paying particular attention to details, whether visual or sonic, that seem to place a constant divide between Shoya and Shoko. In one sequence, he creeps up behind her and she only realizes he’s there when a bunch of pigeons suddenly fly away. In another, he places his hand on a railing, and the reverberations signal his presence to a waiting Shoko. And when Shoya becomes the school loser himself, he sees everyone else with a big “X” across their face, as if they’ve become abstract manifestations of his own rejection.
Alongside the rich animation work by Futoshi Nishiya, the sound design by Yota Tsuruoka and Hiromune Kurahashi uses lots of ambiance to contrast the audible life of Shoya with the silent one of Shoko. It’s such a chasm that seems to keep them apart, while their shared positions as teenage pariahs — not to the mention the fact that neither of them seems to have a father figure in their life — is what ultimately may unite them.
Production companies: A Silent Voice – The Movie Production Committee, Kyoto Animation, Pony Canyon, ABC Animation, Quaras, Shochiku Co. Ltd., Kodansha Ltd.
Director: Naoko Yamada
Screenwriter: Reiko Yoshida, adapted from the manga series A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Oima
Cinematographer: Kazuya Takao
Art direction: Mutsuo Shinohara
Editor: Kengo Shigemura
Composer: Kensuke Ushio
Casting director: Jenny Duffy
Animation: Futoshi Nishiya, Kyoto Animation
Graphic design: Mutsuo Shinohara
Venue: Annecy Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Viz Media Europe
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