Koe no Katachi/映画 聲の形 (A Silent Voice) is a beautifully affecting work from director Naoko Yamada. Based on the manga of the same name by Yoshitoki Oima and adapted by Reiko Yoshida, the film uses stunning visuals and impactful auditory cues to bring a heavy, sometimes dark, but important story to life on screen.
Koe no Katachi begins by immediately introducing us to high school student Shoya Ishida as he prepares to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. His attempt is interrupted and we flashback to his elementary school days to learn that he quite viciously bullied transfer student Shoko Nishimiya who is deaf. The other classmates soon become irritated by Shoko and some join in the bullying, while the rest (including the teacher) sit and watch without ever intervening. This is in spite of Shoko’s sincere attempts to befriend her classmates, using a notebook to express herself and communicate with them.
Soon, the bullying goes too far and Shoko transfers to another school. But Shoya’s classmates deny any involvement and all point the finger to him alone which turns him into an outcast.
His reputation and isolation continue into high school. Shoya’s guilt also causes him anxiety around his classmates, unable to look any of them in the eye. He chooses to shut them out, as illustrated by large “X”s on their faces. But one day, Shoya decides to return Shoko’s notebook to her in an effort to atone for his sins and maybe redeem himself, even if only a little.
This begins Shoya and Shoko’s new relationship with Shoya slowly opening himself up to others as well, including former friends and elementary school classmates. But Shoya continues to be haunted by his past actions, hindering his efforts. This is while Shoko’s own personal and inner struggles quickly begin to surface as well.
Koe no Katachi continues from there, told from Shoya’s point of view. The film is very much a coming of age story centered around Shoya and Shoko with a supporting cast of characters consisting of their families, current and former classmates and “friends” (whose definition is one of the running plot threads in the story). But more importantly, the film shows how it is possible for both the bully and victim to have lingering emotional scars.
The very real, but heavier topics of bullying, depression and suicide are paired with the usual stories of adolescent life; the politics of high school, friendships and the pressure of being a teenager. The former are certainly not easy topics to watch, but Yamada is able to use that discomfort to highlight the issues while avoiding being preachy and condescending. That is a major accomplishment in and of itself.
The stunningly ethereal visuals, a hallmark of many recent Japanese animated films with similar young protagonists, are joined by purposely included auditory cues to further solidify the affecting nature of the film.
There is a delicate and careful presentation throughout which is regularly punctuated by distinct events that almost act as steps leading up to the climax of the film. Despite the heavier material, the film manages to sneak in well-placed and welcome scenes of lighter, even funny, moments. That balance is part of that careful presentation and in turn makes the film realistic and more true-to-life.
Shoya and Shoko are, rightly, always the focus of the story. It is an engaging journey from the elementary school days of bullying to the final scene which leaves a lingering effect on the viewer.
No doubt the film will draw comparisons to a recent, popular TV series which deals with similar topics. However, Koe no Katachi is able to deliver a more resonant story and message within its robust 129-minute runtime. The characters, their motivations and their struggles are all relatable. Even if one may not feel the extremes that Shoya or Shoko feel or even if one can’t imagine being in their situations and circumstances, their story still feels universal and accessible.
And because of that, the story and its message resonate much stronger. You come away with a greater understanding, even if it is not a complete picture, of people suffering and the challenges they may face.
The film is not perfect. It has a few flaws that may stem from having to adapt a longer form manga to a two-hour film. But every minute of the two-hour plus film is used well to give depth to both the characters and the story itself. The film has a hopeful ending, but that does not in any way diminish the difficult journey and struggles Shoya and Shoko have gone through. Nor does it assure an easy future either.
Writing about the Koe no Katachi truly does not give the film’s story justice. But rest assured, this film is worthy of your time. It is a major accomplishment for Yamada and her team to have brought to life an important and meaningful story that resonates. Along with skillful direction and stunning visuals, Koe no Katachi proves once again just how much Japanese animation can deliver and exceed what other genres and forms of the medium can only dream to achieve.