Disability is a part of everyday life for millions of people in the US and billions around the world. So, too, is mental illness. As time goes on, we are more visible than ever. However, even in visibility, there is invisibility.
Like all things, at least in this country, there is an increased element of danger that comes with being disabled or mentally ill while Black. You need only flip through the news or social media and you can find it.
When I set out to write this, I was going to write a simple review of an anime that became an instant classic, A Silent Voice. And I will talk about it, sure, but this is more than that.
May is Mental Health Awareness month. This added a new layer to my viewing of this film, as its focus on mental health became just as salient and necessary a point as its focus (or lack thereof, which I’ll get to momentarily) on disability. I can’t think of a better anime to talk about both of those things, and I’m thankful I got the chance to check it out and write this review.
(Content warning: suicide)
A Silent Voice is the story of Shoya and Shoko, two high school students whose circumstances bring them together throughout of the course of their lives, from elementary school onwards. As children, Shoko is transferred into Shoya’s school, and it is revealed she is deaf. Shoya decides to bully Shoko and this decision, more than any other in the film, informs the shape of the story’s voice. A Silent Voice sings redemption, love, and forgiveness, and does so with an atmosphere and gentle but poignant reality that makes the story beautifully relatable.
When I was 4, I contracted scarlet fever. A complication left me with progressive hearing loss in my left ear. I cannot process the sounds at all, and input into the ear causes great pain. This has been the case my whole life, but fully since I was 14. I hid all of this from my family for my entire life. The only person who knew was my older sister, and she kept the secret while also accommodating me in the best ways she could.
I expected I would not get this treatment in the rest of the world, which is why I hid. I wasn’t sure what happened to the Black children in my school who needed accommodations, but I knew my family’s experiences. They were at best ignored and at worst antagonized. So I hid, and I looked for myself in the media I consumed. I dealt with bullying (mostly for my weight but also for not being able to hear things properly); I dealt and deal with depression, and both of these are large themes of this film.
A Silent Voice tackles sensitive topics with deftness and grace
As a warning, the film opens on Shoya on the verge of committing suicide. The rest of the film then plays out as a retrospective leading up to that point. Visually, this hits like American History X meets Degrassi, but with stronger acting than either of those and stunning visuals to match.
The Questions We Ask Inside
Without getting into the grim nit and grit, the movie takes us on a journey to answer the questions we all have after that opening scene. Why is this happening? How did we get here?
I asked myself the same questions when I was that age. Many of us did, and very few of us talk about it. My students certainly did, which is why the first recommendation that I watch this movie came from a class of eighth graders. The existential turns to the dangerous when one has compromised mental health. And it can be hard to find compelling answers to those questions. I think the first step is being unafraid to ask them. One of the first words I think of when I think of A Silent Voice is ‘fearless’. It looks suicide, mental health, disability, and bullying square in the eye, and it does not back down.
Someone watching it will need this fearlessness to face their own demons, and this is a remarkably good place to find it.
I can’t talk about A Silent Voice without talking about Shoko, one of its lead characters. This character is hearing impaired, and in the beginning of the film is bullied as a result. Ultimately, she gets older and finds a path of peace and forgiveness despite her trauma. Seeing her story intersect with Shoya’s over and over again is beautiful, but also gets into one of my least favorite tropes.
Communication within A Silent Voice and our society
There are times when Shoya and Shoko try to communicate and cannot understand each other due to the language barrier. While this is a thing that happens (a lot), it next to never has the dramatic impact that the misunderstanding has in this film. The trope is that missing something at a crucial moment creates a great conflict for our cast to overcome. This usually ends with these characters understanding one another better and a happier happily ever after.
What I appreciate about A Silent Voice is that it shies away from the trope in that the characters’ understanding of one another isn’t necessarily informed by this interaction as much as it is by the interactions they have with their mental health. Throughout the movie, Shoya only sees big “X” marks over people’s heads. The ultimate sign of his redemption would allow him to actually be able to ‘face’ people again, seeing their real faces and eyes. Shoko carries her own kind of guilt and trauma, and the understanding and letting go of both is what brings these characters together rather than a bond over the disabled girl being included finally.
I never talked about my mental health growing up. When I did, everyone from friends to my own family balked. I wanted nothing more than to be heard, to be included, to be normal. The reality is though, that never happened for me. It doesn’t happen for many others either, especially children of color. In this way, I am thankful for the avoidance of such a platitude. Even as an anime, it keeps this groundedness that is necessary to tell its story effectively.
My family takes mental health much more seriously now, but my initial viewing of this movie made me ache for my younger self and for all the kids I knew who grew up in families that simply “didn’t believe” in mental illness.
A Silent Voice, like I said, is gorgeous to look at. It also has a phenomenal score, great acting, and pacing. Like the manga on which it is based, it tells a complete and satisfying story in a surprising and efficient way.
As I reflect on Mental Health Awareness Month, and as I reflect on my own disability, I have to be thankful for this film. As I was writing this article, I lost a dear friend to suicide. I lost a dear, Black friend to suicide. In a way it was like losing myself. It broke me. The death completely derailed me, but also inspired me to change direction. This film couldn’t have been more timely – having to watch and re-watch it to contemplate its themes and motifs helped me find peace in the realization that so many of us are in this. We are not alone. And no matter what, no one is beyond redemption.
I give A Silent Voice 9.3 out of 10.
Truly, go out of your way to watch this one if you want solid storytelling and a tasteful approach to mental health and disability in media.
That being said…
If you are struggling, there is help for you. Mental illness is real. Struggle is real. And intergenrationally, personally, and in the scope of current events, we are more vulnerable to it than ever.
Please consider the following resources and use them as you need:
Be well. Be safe. Thank you for reading.