A Silent Voice Isn't Supposed To Be About Bullies, But It Is

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A Silent Voice is a gutpunch of a film. It depicts acts of bullying with the same unflinching honesty as it does acts of suicidal intent, emotional self-sabotage and self-harm. All presented as part of an honest portrayal of troubled teenage coming of age. This honesty can be hard to watch, but unlike the emotional torture porn of 13 Reasons Why, this protagonist retains his dignity throughout the film.

“I was determined to confront this topic with integrity and treat it gracefully. We humans possess many things in our hearts that others will not understand. It is even difficult for us to understand ourselves,” said director Naoko Yamada.

The film centers on a young man named Shoya and a young woman named Shoko. Shoko first crosses paths with Shoya when she transfers to his elementary school. Shoko wears hearing aids, and young Shoya soon learns that ripping them out will entertain both him and his little friends. A female student, Naoko, also leads the way in ostracizing the deaf girl.

Though Shoya does everything in her power to fit in, communicate and make friends, she is ultimately forced to transfer after Shoya rips out yet another set of hearing aids so forcefully her ears bleed.  He is scapegoated as the only bully in the class despite how many of his classmates said nothing, laughed or otherwise silently contributed to Shoko’s suffering.

Years later, Shoya can’t look anyone in the face, which is strikingly represented by x’s over the face and eyes of all the students at school. He’s alone, but accepts this as his punishment for what he did to Shoko. He considers killing himself, which is conveyed by the simple and chilling way he cuts out the rest of a calendar after the date he chooses to die.

One day, he goes to a local sign language school to return Shoko’s old notebook to her. The rest of the film follows the new relationship they build, along with the reactions of their old classmates.

“What I have given a lot of attention to when portraying Shoya’s position and circumstances was to portray Shoya as an individual character – to carefully understand and stay true to the intentions of what he saw, what he felt and what actions he took.  I have tried to build the character so that Shoya will be able to act as himself, no matter what the circumstances,” said Yamada.

It’s hard to argue that Shoya is not worthy of redemption: he works for years to pay back the cost of the hearing aids, he almost kills himself, he accepts his own isolation and misery, and he reaches out to Shoya to make amends and help her wishes come true.

Does A Silent Voice argue that Shoko owes Shoya this hearing, this attention, the time of day? Is a victim of bullying required to forgive their aggressor if their aggressor has a change of heart or comes to them seeking redemption? Or is it a mistake to generalize the particular characters of A Silent Voice and seek to moralize what is simply one specific story?

“I have tried to understand what Shoko thinks of Shoya in the first place. Shoko accepted Shoya’s friendship out of guilt toward her, which she feels as she is the source who has caused Shoya’s isolation, even though he was nonsensical and she detested him. It isn’t a matter of forgiveness, and she accepts it as her own issue. This leads to their miscommunication, and they enter the endless loop of wanting to understand each other but never reaching that mutual understanding.  Most of the characters in this film are too constrained by various assumptions,” said Yamada.

Though Yamada is firm about the film’s theme being coming-of-age rather than bullying, it is impossible to excise bullying from the story’s narrative. Shoko and Shoya’s lives are forever affected, not only by how Shoya bullied her, but by how others bullied her, by how Shoya himself was bullied, and by the reactions Shoko had to it all.

“I feel that the mind of the classmates is governed by the ‘state of peer pressure’ that they created, not by what actually happens,” said Yamada.

But “peer pressure” is inextricably linked to bullying: kids do things to gain the approval of their peer group even if they know better. Bullies are often insecure about their own social standing and secure it by taking out their emotions on someone weaker, like Naoko, the ringleader of the girls who bullied Shoko.

“Naoko is no different from Shoya and Shoko. It seems as though she is putting herself through an ordeal by venting her mixed feelings and frustration against Shoko.  The words she speaks to Shoko are all issues of her own,” said Yamada.

Naoko’s rage in her scenes is notable, a reflection of her turmoil over everything Shoko represents to her: a mirror of Naoko’s complicity and active cruelty, an image Naoko doesn’t want to see of herself but can’t escape while in Shoko’s presence.

A Silent Voice  doesn’t revel in the melodramatics of its teenage protagonists’ stormy emotions. And its director believes it isn’t supposed to be about bullying because Shoko and Shoya and all of their friends have lives in a context outside of what happened at school. “It is my understanding that this film is not meant to judge the actions of his past, but it is rather a story of him and his surrounding characters practicing how to survive in this world around them,” said Yamada.

Yet Yamada does a strange disservice to the film by rejecting its examination of the many ways bullying impacts not simply the victim and aggressor, but everyone around them. The film’s narrative revolves around the bullying and everyone’s reactions to it, and bullying is just as much a part of A Silent Voice’s themes as Shoko’s turbulent coming of age. While Yamada may disagree with how her film is interpreted, it does no harm to give A Silent Voice credit for tackling a topic like bullying with such grace and empathy.

 

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