Cultural awareness in foreign cinema: "A Silent Voice" What can we, as adults, learn from animation
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
Ever since I was a child I have adored anime. My interest began with Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” which I remember seeing on television for the first time when I was eight or nine years old. I loved the detail in the animation, the clear and lucid sound of the Japanese language. This chance encounter subsequently led me to purchase not one but TWO copies of the film as well as delve into Hayao Miyazaki’s repertoire. I’ve always preferred to watch subtitled anime rather than dubbed versions and I too have nurtured this hobby by binge watching series like Attack on Titan, DeathNote. I suppose you could say that it runs in the family- even my dad is an avid consumer of this genre.
In the past few years I have drifted away from anime, I’m far more susceptible to the gritty independent dramas or cheesy romcoms rather than a Japanese animation. But a few weeks ago I found myself drifting back to Nextflix’s anime category. I stumbled upon a film called “Your name” which sparked me to watch anime anthology “Flavours of Youth” and now “A Silent Voice” (directed by Naoko Yamada). Today’s post isn’t about travel but more in terms of cinemas a self-reflective tool. As I was watching “A Silent Voice” it got me thinking- what lessons can we take from adult animation and is anime simply for ‘nerdy’ teenagers or can it resonate with a wider audience? I must admit that I would often tease my dad for watching anime which I thought were clearly targeted to pre teens and young people. However, upon reflection, I think that a lot of anime has a covert, deeper meaning within them- particularly “A Silent Voice”.
So what is anime? According to Merriam Webster anime is "a style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colourful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes". A quick preface about this article- it is a review of the film- I will try and be as transparent as I can and avoid spoiling the story. What I will say is that it is a film that mediates on themes, which are perhaps sensitive for anyone younger than 14 years old. All is not what it seems initially in ‘A Silent Voice’, which ruminates on disability, suicide, bullying and mental health, strained familial relationships whilst also being packaged somewhat deceptively in child-friendly animation form. The film centres on Shōya Ishida, a troubled young man who at the beginning of the film sets out to commit suicide. We are not fully aware of his reasoning nor justifications to this action however as the film progresses we discover that his decision is driven by his guilt over mercilessly bullied a young deaf girl in primary school (Shōko Nishimiya). Throughout the film we see how their relationship develops as Ishida grapples with guilt, shame whilst in s state of social isolation from his peers.
The focal subject matters of the film are bullying, social exclusion as well as deafness and the (in)ability to communicate. One thing that struck me the most about A Silent Voice is that it includes illustrations of Japanese sign language. Now, I must confess that I was somewhat ignorant in my understanding of sign language and its universality amongst the deaf community. That being said I think that its important to mention some of the misconceptions that I had- as embarrassed as I am about them, as some of you guys may also share these preconceived ideas. I did a little research- because knowledge is the best weapon against ignorance and I found out that:
• Sign language is not one universal language and that there are many different types- one gesture in Japanese sign language may be completely different to French or English sign language.
• Around the world there are approximately 70 million people who communicate using sign language.
• There isn’t a universal ‘English’ sign language. I read that British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) aren’t even from the same family of sign language. There are different gestures for different words and phrases- just because in the UK and the U.S English is spoken it does not mean that the deaf community will automatically understand one another.
• Sign language has its own grammatical and lexical rules too.
• Within the deaf community sign language is not the only mode of communication- lip reading, oralism, writing phrases down are also other methods of communication.
Now I was simultaneously surprised and embarrassed that I lacked such basic understanding about these fundamental elements in the deaf community. It dawned on me that I have used my privileged- as someone who is does not have impaired hearing -to completely overlook these facts. I don’t need to know anything about deaf culture therefore so I’ve chosen not to research into- until now. ‘A Silent Voice’ not only provided further insight into Japanese culture but also some understanding as to what it is like to be a deaf teenager- a perspective which is seldom, if ever, portrayed on screen.
I found that although, I couldn’t resonate completely with the character of Nishimiya and being deaf, I felt pulled towards her- particularly when she was being bullied. Now I know that my readers will probably be split into three categories here; firstly you may have been the victim of bullying at some point in your life, secondly you perhaps were the bully or thirdly you were lucky enough to have never experienced bullying at all - from either perspective. A lot of people have been in the first position and from my own understanding it is extremely common for the ‘bullied’ to one day become a ‘bully’ themselves and experience both sides. Nonetheless, I have fallen into the first category of experienced bullying in school. Now, as someone who has been bullied you can understand that I find it hard to be compassionate towards those who portray the ‘bully’ character. I always find myself, like most people, on the side of the victim. However ‘A Silent Voice’ changes the dynamics of this- I found myself empathising with Ishida- who quite frankly does some deplorable things to Nishimiya. It was even harder for me to watch him try to make amends by (attempting to) become friends with his former victim.
I’ve broken the film down into four categories that- almost like mini lessons which the film wanted us to consider as viewers.
1. Forgiveness: What constitutes as an ‘unforgivable’ act?
You could be mistaken into thinking that “A Silent Voice’ is a ‘kawaii’ PG romantic story from the cover photo yet it deals with the issue of forgiveness and self image- particularly amongst the two main characters Ishida and Nishimiya. The ‘unforgivable’ act is the physical and mental torture Ishida puts Nishimiya through as he seemly attacks her because she is deaf. The film allowed me to look within myself and challenge my own ideas of forgiveness. My mother always taught me to ‘forgive but never forget’ however, now that I am older and able to formulate my own opinions on such matters, I take umbrage with this school of thought. To carry the resentment and mistrust throughout your life is fundamentally more damaging to you rather than the other person. I too was bullied for a period of time in high school- I still find it hard now to forgive the boys for what they did to me as it still profoundly affected my character now to this day. For years after it happened I struggled to disassociate those boys from other boys from that school. I wanted to stereotype them all, paint them with the same brush. If I couldn’t trust one or two then all of them were bad. This mind-set is extremely damaging- this is how stereotypes about race, gender and sexuality are all formed too. I tried and failed to let it go- to me what they did was in my eyes ‘unforgivable’.
A Silent Voice tilts the perspective on forgiveness too by framing Ishida as the person who cannot forgive himself. He does not think he is worthy of forgiveness- he accepts a life of isolation from his peers, he learns sign language as a way of repudiating his bullying and tries to make friends with Nishimiya. I loved how the film captured his vulnerability- however part of me was also on high alert- I found myself questioning his motives- even Yuzuru asks him why he is trying to make amends- is he being genuine or not? The film argues that even if the person who the bullied can find it in themselves to forgive their tormentor- the actual bully needs to find it within themselves to face up to what they did.
2. Blame and victim shaming
Blame is also a concept which is discussed in the film. Although Ishida is the main perpetrator of the bullying- the majority of Nishimiya’s peers all joined in. The blame is shifted and thrust upon Ishida, making him the scapegoat- a role which he also accepts as part of his self-torture. No-one is an innocent in Nishimiya’s bullying- the film also negatively portrays those who stand on the side-lines rather than speak out against the injustices . Even their primary school teacher is seen as not doing enough to deter the bullying. When it boils down to it- the school needs to blame someone and everyone is quick to label Ishida as the sole bully when in fact A Silent Voice explores how much more complex bullying is.
3. Our peers and societal pressure
Ishida is placed in social purgatory after primary school- excluded from all opportunities to make friends- his classmates have decided that he is not worthy to after his relentless bullying against Nishimiya. Ishida accepts these conditions and internalising them-as he starts to cultivate self-hatred. He is both within and without- physically he is amongst his peers but he is excluded socially. The film represents this by showing purple crosses over other character’s faces- they peel away slowly as Ishida slowly begins to interact with them. The cross represents a barrier- imposed by both Ishida and his peers- they do not want to interact with him and he deems himself unworthy of interacting with them.
Moreover Yamada shows girl on girl conflict via Naoka and Nishimiya’s deeply polarising relationship which goes beyond dislike for one another. Naoko is an extremely complicated character to analyse- at the start she seems somewhat friendly to Nishimiya yet helping her becomes taxing and she becomes resentful of having to explain things to her. By the end of the film it is clear that her initial dislike has snowballed into loathing and hatred. Naoko attempts to shift the blame onto the victim herself, implying that Nishimiya didn’t make enough of an effort in fitting in, hence why it is obvious she was bullied. Nishimiya’s arrival disrupts the power balance in the school and makes her peers see themselves in a different- in some cases more negative light- hence making her even more of a target.
4. Reconciliation and compassion
The topic of reconciliation and compassion is further highlighted in the film- Nishimiya is portrayed to be someone who is very forgiving and open to making amends with Ishida. Nonetheless other characters like her mother and Yuzuru are not as keen for a reconciliation as she is. There’s a rather unsettling event which happens towards the end of the film and Nishimiya feels that she needs to reconcile with the rest of the friendship group. Life and death is in the balance and it is interesting to see how the characters put aside their differences and eventually accept their role in Nishimiya’s bullying.
So what can we can take from anime as adults? For me, A Silent Voice isn’t just about animation- it is a study of human nature, how we interact with one another. We can all relate to the story- not because we happen to be deaf or in high school- but we can recognize the social implications of bullying, whether or not it has affected us directly or indirectly. I would highly recommend the film- mainly because its deals with something that most films don’t when portraying bullying- we start to empathise with the bully, we are willing him to make amends and despite all of the pain he made Nishimiya endure we want him to stop mentally torturing himself too. Anime as a genre is one of the most diverse forms of cinema. The sub genres are endless and I am sure that there is something out there for someone. Series like “DeathNote”-, which may seem like a dystopian thriller at first glance- actually poses the question of fate, free will as it is filled with religious iconography and folklore. Many of Studio Ghibli’s films- particularly those like “Princess Mononoke” and “My Neighbour Totoro” deal with themes of nature, folklore, mysticism and human interaction with the natural world. A Silent Voice is no different- anime can be used as a tool of education- it encouraged me to delve deeper into learning about the deaf community. It also allowed me to reflect on my own experiences of bullying and consider the perspective of the bully rather than just my own. Even if we only take away the fact that the animation and drawings as are really good- it is clear that anime is open for all and for all that are willing to learn something new whether that be exposure to a new language, cinematography style or school of thought.
I’ll leave below some of my favourite animated series and films (not all of them are Japanese) which I think go beyond animation. Also, if you are interested in learning more about the deaf community I would recommend Chella Man’s YouTube channel- he is a genderqueer deaf artist. Chella advocates for the deaf community and promoting tools of education and accessibility for those with impaired hearing.
Signed with Heart is also a great YouTube channel for those interested in learning more about sign language and the deaf community.
My personal anime recommendations
Studio Ghibli- pretty much all of them are amazing and a great way into anime but here a few of my favourites :
• Spirited Away (A must see film- Chihiro is an amazing female protagonist- perfect for 11+)
• Grave of the Fireflies (highly emotive and beautiful animation)
Here is a link to a YouTube video talking about the philosophy of Studio Ghibli’s cinema
Western animated films and TV Series:
• Ma vie de Courgette (stop motion Swiss-French film- extremely profound. Not suitable for younger viewers)
• Daria (more so adult animation from the 1990s. Daria is a recurring character in Beavis and Butthead- she is the queen of cynicism.)