A Silent Voice review: an intricate, beautiful account of teenage politics 

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A Silent Voice
A Silent Voice

Director: Naoko Yamada; Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, Yuki Kaneko (voices). 12A cert, 130 mins.

With the end of Studio Ghibli seemingly close at hand, where should lovers of Japanese animation go next? The happy answer, on the evidence of the last year or two, is all over the place: to Makoto Shinkai’s supernaturally gorgeous dream-escapades, Mamoru Hosoda’s splashy techno-folklore, and soon enough, the pastoral fairy-tales of Studio Ponoc. A Silent Voice gives hungry westerners another name – Naoko Yamada – to add to their must-watch lists.

Yamada has been with the studio Kyoto Animation for 13 years, but A Silent Voice is her first feature not to have been spun off from a cartoon series, and also her first to gain a British cinema release. Intricate, romantic and bright as a jewel, it’s a high-school melodrama which follows the changing relationship between Nishimiya (voiced by Saori Hayami), a deaf teenage girl who arrives at a new school, and Ishida (Miyu Irono), the class clown who picks on her then comes to regret it. The screenplay was adapted by Reiko Yoshida from a manga, or comic-book series, created by Yoshitoki Oima – and the fact its creation was steered by three women in an overwhelmingly male business makes it something of a rarity.

It begins with a punchy, quick-cut collage of the young Ishida messing around with his school friends, set to the sound of The Who’s My Generation. But the film’s pace soon slows, as Yamada fleshes out the complex teenage politics which drive the film’s unexpectedly expansive plot. Nishimiya’s new classmates show varying degrees of insensitivity about her deafness – the fact she has to communicate with them via a notepad, for instance, is mostly seen as a novelty. 

But Ishida takes things much too far, snatching her hearing aids and bellowing behind her head. His bullying is bad enough for Nishimiya’s parents to eventually move her to another school, a development that turns Ishida into an outcast, and spurs him into a funny, often circuitous quest for redemption.

Yamada and her artists work in a style that’s not as bewilderingly detail-rich as that of some of her contemporaries, but its vividness and clarity really pop, particularly in the cinema. Ishida’s pariah status extends to the way he’s drawn – all long and loose, with the sketchy outline of one of Hosoda’s gawky teens from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, or Summer Wars. In a low-key stylistic masterstroke, A Silent Voice’s own bashful gaze reflects its cast’s adolescent self-doubt. The film rarely seems able to look its characters directly in the eye, and its gaze often wanders to rest on telling incidental details, like anxiously clasped hands and nervously scuffing feet. 

A Silent Voice

And in a flourish that’s probably only possible in anime, Ishida’s social standing is kept track of with symbolic blue crosses that cover the faces of his classmates, and which flap loose from anyone he feels able to talk to, then fall to the ground like a discarded crisp packet. As Ishida sets about turning over a new leaf, a mismatched friendship group keeps threatening to cohere around him, but it remains intriguingly in flux. Yamada makes a point of contrasting the agonising complexity of high-school life with the clean simplicity of the moments that really count: hushed conversations on a bridge in springtime, a shared roller-coaster ride under empty blue skies. 

That the bully, rather than his victim, remains the focus of the story throughout never really feels in the moment like the risky narrative strategy that you realise it must have been in retrospect. Compared to, say, the metaphysical leaps and bounds of Your Name, the premise of A Silent Voice may seem modest. But its approach leads an old story down a little-trod, languidly beautiful path.

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