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Silent Voice, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/02/17 14:48:32

"Builds interest in its characters along with its case for forgiveness."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Redemption stories are hard, whether in fiction or real life, and this one probably has a tougher uphill climb than most, taking the perspective of a boy who bullied a deaf girl in elementary school and flipping it so that he winds up the outcast. It's not easy to get the audience behind him, especially when she is often the one still desperate for his interest and approval. Fortunately, "A Silent Voice" has time to get the audience there, even though it's easy to dig in and say you'll never forgive.

The film starts ominously, with 17-year-old Shoya Ishida (voice of Miyu Irino) putting his affairs in order in preparation for April 15th, the day he plans to jump off a bridge. He's shunned at school now, but he was a popular kid back in sixth grade, at least until the deaf but eager-to-please Shoko Nishimiya joined his class and was given the seat in front of him. Kids don't make accommodations well, and while most of the class talked about Shoko behind her back, Shoya was the worst, eventually ripping her hearing aids right out of her ears and eventually crossing a line that had Shoko transfer schools and the rest of his class turn on him. He's trying to be a better person now, stepping in when he sees classmate Tomohiro Nagatsuka (voice of Kenshio Ono) being bullied and trying to make amends to Shoko (voice of Saori Hayami). She seems receptive, but her sister Yuzuru (voice of Aoi Yuki) is very protective and not the only one suspicious of Shoya.

The rapprochement between Shoya and Shoko seems to happen awful fast, maybe with a step or two missing from the story (director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida seem to have a little trouble deciding where the present-day story should pick up). But, then, it's not like teenagers have ever made a whole lot of sense, and one thing A Silent Voice does right is to let its kids be changeable and over-emotional, way too willing to place blame in the wrong place. Eventually, the filmmakers come up with a way to make their unlikely connection work - it must be a hell of a thing to be that young and feel you've got such little worth - and they've played it out at just the right pace to make the audience go with it. Mostly, though, they do well in observing the mechanics of blame; the moment when young Shoya sees all the responsibility falling on him is true, as are later ones where people are trying to parse motivations in ways that will inevitably see them fall short.

The relaxed pace for an animated movie that doesn't have something bigger to push toward at the end helps somewhat, too - at 129 minutes, it's got time to establish and play things out with the characters as fifth-graders but still make the present day the focal point of the story. There's room to consider Yuzuru's photography hobby so that she's got a personal arc of a different sort that the characters who were together as little kids without it feeling crammed in, for instance, and a group outing to an amusement park has enough time to feel like a real, organic thing rather than a way for the important, plot-advancing events take place. The filmmakers seldom ramp things up to create false urgency, but even with the time they've got, they don't waste scenes.

As might be expected when telling such a grounded, real-world story in animation, A Silent Voice is kind of unusual visually. Not in its basic character design - it looks like a lot of cel-style anime, with eyes that dominate the face and skinny limbs - although the different hair colors and exaggerated differences in height will let the audience quickly pick out characters that might run together in a sea of identical uniforms. More interestingly, the imaginary camera points to a lot of legs and off to the side, something even more important in a movie where one character is presumably lip-reading, and Yamada uses a lot of different devices to make sure that the audience doesn't miss that sort of isolation the characters feel rather than much in the way of flashy CGI or fantastical imagery. It's tremendously grounded, although it uses its medium most often associated with fantasy well.

The serious subject matter is probably part of why it seems to primarily be receiving a subtitled release (at least in this area, there is usually some sort of split between English and Japanese soundtracks, though that does not seem to be the case here). The voice-work seems strong, with Miyu Irino putting a strong desire for forgiveness in the older Shoya's voice without making it his only personality trait, while Aoi Yuki backs up the pugnacious independence of Yuzuru. Though Shoko mostly communicates via signing, Saori Hayami does easily-overlooked work in getting her spoken lines from just the right sort of jarring as a kid to something a bit more comprehensible as a teenager.

The basic plot of the film may be a stumbling block for some - there is no universal standard for atonement, and it's easy to say that this film skips over important parts. It's at least able to get the audience to want to pull for these folks, though, and that certainly makes it work as a film even if it doesn't quite work as a lesson.

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