Going Without Saying: The Problematic Morals of A Silent Voice
Warning: Spoilers for the film's crucial plot points and ending lay ahead.
Across the internet, the reviews for A Silent Voice are mostly glowing, with some criticism for being a weak love story with weak side characters. Probe a little deeper, and you’ll find that that’s all the criticism you’ll get for the film. Elsewhere, viewers share accounts about how they were still able to leave the cinema satisfied, praising the movie for properly taking on sensitive topics like depression, social anxiety, and suicide.
Seeing such mature themes taking an animated form is almost a novelty, only because the contrast between the child-friendly medium and the adult-themed messages is so pronounced. Unfortunately, that’s also where this movie seems to start and end. Even if it managed to open up the dark topics in gut-wrenching fashion, while still concluding in a mildly-satisfying manner, it was the problematic in-betweens that tainted the resolution for me.
Would it have helped if the film had a more definitive moral? Better-written side characters? Or just better writing in general? Thinking about it now, I guess its biggest, most glaring problem was the lack of any real moral or message to run towards.
For all its beauty and subtle emotions, A Silent Voice still has much to answer for the goal it wanted to achieve. Below lies a short analysis of some of the movie’s problematic themes, and because I’ll be really digging into key plot points, I’ll be divulging some spoilers within the rest of the article.
Proceed only if you've seen the movie, or if you've got no plans of doing so.
Unfortunate Implication #1: If just one person shows remorse, then everyone else gets a pass.The movie revolves around Ishida Shoya, an ex-bully who's now trying to make amends for picking on Nishimiya Shouko, a deaf girl. Thanks to this, he’s lost everything, from his friends, to his status as alpha male in his elementary classroom. From here, we follow Ishida work on himself to get better, if it will mean finding some peace with his past.
Bullying Nishimiya was a gradual process, and it’s shown that the kids were all initially willing to help her keep up with her class work. But a few weeks of this made them grow tired of doing good, and it's a change that's most visible with the female side characters, Ueno and Kawai. Eventually, Ueno started to bully Nishimiya to make her go away, while Kawai pretended to be unaware of what was going on. Meanwhile, Ishida, being a boy, had no time for that passive-aggressive stuff and actively bullied her.
It should be noted that Ishida only started bullying Nishimiya after everyone else was already doing it. Although he was their leader of a sort, he still gave in to the pressure of picking on the easy target. To prove that he was better than the others, he ended up leaping over the line he shouldn't have crossed in the first place.
This isn't meant to excuse his actions in any way. In fact, his bad behavior as a child is what lends a lot of credibility to his journey now.
It’s everyone else around him that poses a problem.
All throughout the movie, we see Ishida making real efforts to improve himself and atone for his past actions. It’s a real conflict for his character – is he reaching out to Nishimiya for her sake or his? – and it’s one that gets resolved later on.
But what does this say about the rest of his classmates from back then, all of whom are content to sit back and watch him cop all the flak? Despite his best efforts, Ishida is still shot down and second-guessed, while the rest of his childhood friends remain stagnant.
His closest male friends have broken off all ties with him completely. Ueno remains a bully. Kawai continues to play the victim card. Yet, when Ishida calls them all out on their bad behavior, he’s still painted as the bad guy. Just because he was the scapegoat when they were still in school, doesn't mean he deserves to carry the guilt for everyone else later on.
Even when some of the classmates do apologize, they seem half-assed and tacked-on; more an afterthought and a formality than anything real or genuine. They don’t seem particularly sorry that they were so mean before. They’re only sorry that it was Ishida who got caught.
Unfortunate Implication #2: A horrific accident fixes everything.Fortunately, this all gets fixed when Ishida nearly dies.
Is an accident now the easy, magic-fix solution guaranteed to resolve all your problems? From the way this movie presents things, it sure seems like it.
After spending most of the film working to make amends, the only time Ishida’s friends actually take him seriously and listen to him is when he falls into a coma.
From there, everyone suddenly changes. Or at least, they almost do. Because – surprise – Ueno’s still kind of a bully, while Kawai gets to walk away from the whole thing without having to apologize for a thing. Does she stop being the fake plastic she is? The movie never bothers to show us anymore.
While it’s cool that Ishida woke up with an urgent desire to be better, you wish this same development could have been given to his friends. They don’t have to fall into a coma like he did, but if the film had bothered to flesh them out from the beginning, then they wouldn't have had this problem in the first place.
Taking this dark turn and landing Ishida into a coma might have worked under the right circumstances, but given everything else that already happened before, it seems the movie took the easy way out instead. After spending a dramatic amount of time building up to the friendship-breaking fight, the movie instead fast-tracks everything via Ishida’s coma episode.
With this, it wasted several chances that could have helped flesh out the characters’ personalities more. Instead, the movie rushed itself to a semi-acceptable solution that gave everyone a happy ending, without giving any of them the chance to work for it.
Unfortunate Implication #3: It’s the victim’s fault for wanting to commit suicide.In the end, who shoulders the most guilt? It’s Nishimiya, who, by the movie’s end, continues to take responsibility for every little thing that happened. All the blame for the ugly childhood is shoved off to Nishimiya – who, by all accounts, should have been the most innocent of them all.
It’s victim-blaming at its worst, because of everyone involved in this friendship drama, the bullying victim is the only one who’s forced to apologize. Taken a different way, you could also safely assume that Nishimiya was bullied into making the apology. It was her fault for being so clingy. Her fault for not working hard to overcome her disability. Her fault for being disabled in the first place. By forcing all the blame on Nishimiya, the other characters relieve themselves of their own responsibilities. They force her to change for their sakes, instead of doing it on their own.
What message is this supposed to show? That you shouldn't want to kill yourself, because it would be a huge inconvenience? It’s ultimately a bad look for the movie, where everyone forces the victim to reconsider the deed – but it’s not because she still has so much to live for.
Instead, the victim is forced to reconsider, because of what everyone else would lose out on if they pushed through with it. Even in their darkest, lowest moments, the suicide is still being asked to think about everyone else’s feelings instead of their own. It’s a problematic mindset, no matter which way you look at it.
Things Left Unsaid - But Not for the BetterI’m not saying that A Silent Voice doesn't deserve the praise it’s getting – because it’s rightfully earned some of it. It’s well-animated and well-scored, the voice acting elevates the story, and the emotional feels trip is bound to leave quite the impact. Little animation details also help reveal a character's personality, seen in the way Ishida's always hunched over and looking down at the floor.
At the same time, I do think it might have been over-hyped to some extent. While its intentions to take on the difficult issues are commendable, a lot of them get muddled by way of execution. What this leads to, in the end, are some very unfortunate implications and some very uncomfortable questions.
Was this movie trying to comfort the bully, or was it trying to comfort the victim? Was it trying to comfort anyone at all, or did it only mean to inform its audience of the tough feelings suicide confronts?
In the end, you’re reassured of just one thing: that suicide is bad and not something anyone should ever have to consider. But what makes it bad and why should we reconsider going ahead with it? Maybe you’re better off finding more constructive answers somewhere else.
Going Without Saying: The Problematic Morals of 'A Silent Voice'
A Silent Voice is the newest animated movie to receive wide acclaim, but if you probe a little deeper, you may find some unsettling questions that...
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