The Japanese animated film, A Silent Voice, directed by Naoko Yamada, used many subliminal messages to portray mental health, human relationships and how people with disabilities are treated in our society. This month, our writer Malaika Lindsay reviewed this visionary production and shed light on the various strategies using which it was able to normalize the realities of living with mental health conditions.
The portrayal of social anxiety in the main character
A Silent Voice is a two hour-long cinematic masterpiece. The story is set in Japan and starts off in an elementary school, with the protagonist and narrator, Shoya Ishida. In the film, we mostly focus on his mental illness and severe guilt for having bullied Nishimiya, a new student who also happens to have a hearing disability. Ishida’s bullying of Nishimiya causes the other kids, including his own friends, to bully him too. This creates a ripple effect in his life, where he becomes increasingly uncomfortable around people and develops social anxiety.
As Ishida grows up, he starts to ignore strangers. His social anxiety is not only shown through his discomfort in conversations but also with him imagining an X sign on people’s faces. It is a creative and unique way to showcase how someone with an anxiety disorder views the world around them. It also plays an important role with the people he meets along the way – as he starts befriending classmates, the X signs peel off and disappears from their faces. This tells the audience that Ishida is finally more comfortable around individuals and values the relationship being built with them.
It is always great to have a movie where you can visualize the difficulties associated with mental health as it allows the viewers to tangibly see the impacts. This is especially importance because mental health is often seen as a less significant problem than a physical health condition.
The portrayal of human relationships
One could say A Silent Voice’s main premise is the evaluation of human relationships and throwing in sensitive topics to evaluate the change in people’s behaviour when facing them. To start, in high school, Ishida reaches out to Nishimiya to make amends with her out of guilt. Later on, when Nishimiya attempts to commit suicide, he realizes that he had never asked for her permission before re-entering her life. Ishida goes through an epiphany on how he had treated Nishimiya so far and how he might have looked past her feelings on their situation. He starts to feel responsible for causing her low self-esteem and instigating depressive thoughts in her, despite not being entirely at fault.
Nishimiya had also been being bullied by Ueno, who played a part in her emotional torment and trauma during elementary school. It was one of many lessons that allowed the audience to realize that experiencing guilt and regret does not automatically permit people to re-enter someone’s life “to make it right”. Sometimes the victims of bullying would rather let the past go and move on. It is a great reflection on how bringing back the past into the present can be more harmful in certain instances. On another note, in the process of saving Nishimiya from her suicide attempt, Ishida injures himself to the point where he falls into a coma. Ueno blames Nishimiya and starts to hit and kick her while verbally abusing her. This causes Nishimiya’s mother to intervene, and they end up in a physical altercation.
The story does not allow Ueno a redemption arc, which makes her an easy antagonist. Seeing her spitefully hit a girl with a disability and fighting the mother of that girl, makes her appear more hateful in the audience’s eyes. This scene is one of the many unforgettable scenes from the movie, considering it shows how emotions can get in the way of logical thinking. The viewers witness Nishimiya’s mother, an adult, physically hurting a child. Despite her reasons, this is still unethical and the movie has a great way of demonstrating this. The audience can understand the mother’s feelings while still having their own opinions on her method of intervention. From Ishida’s severe guilt and Ueno’s petty acts, it is entertaining how the characters’ emotions often upstage logical thinking in this film.
How society treats people with disabilities
The movie addresses not only the two concepts mentioned above, but also the mistreatment of people living with disabilities in general. For example, in elementary school, Nishimiya had her hearing aids destroyed seven times, mean messages written about her on the classroom board, and was pushed into a fountain while being mocked and degraded. When people do not understand something, they tend to see it as in a negative light. This is especially true in the case of children who are encountering something new, such as a disability, for the first time. Starting from an elementary school setting, we get to see the innocence and curiosity of the children towards Nishimiya’s disability quickly turn into irritation and discomfort. The children were completely unprepared to deal with Nishimiya’s disability. There is no real explanation of Nishimiya’s condition, nor any strategy to make her adjustment and education easier by the school, which was their first mistake. Perhaps adults assume that refusing to discuss a disability will help the new student get accepted by her peers.
However, this story highlights the importance of education and awareness of a disability, in order to normalize it through conscious effort by adults. Since no such intervention was planned, when she first arrived at the school, her only way of communication was through pen and paper. This is not the most effective method considering it takes a lot of time to write something down and makes the students lose their focus in class. Eventually, the children are encouraged to learn sign language, but this idea was not accepted by many. One could say the misunderstanding of deafness in the school was disadvantageous to Nishimiya, and the misinformation did not help her acceptance by her peers. The viewers can take the film as a learning experience on how to treat people with disabilities and create room for necessary accommodations.
All in all, A Silent Voice, is a must-watch as it tackles suicide, mental illness and can make an audience reevaluate the treatment of disabled persons in the world. This movie is a great starting point for schools, families and communities to initiate an interesting conversation with children who are new to the concept of a disability.