Movie Review: Silent Voice: The Movie (CW: mental health, bullying, ableism, suicide)

This past week I watched the film A Silent Voice, a Japanese language film that came out in 2016. And I must say, I don’t remember crying at a movie like this since Babel (although I am by nature a cryer, so I’ve cried at a lot of films). The film opens with a young man named Shoya who’s about to commit suicide, but then it flashes back to how he became so depressed. Shoya is popular in school, but then a new student named Shoko Nishiyima arrives to the school and she tells her classmates she is hearing impaired and communicates through writing in a notebook. However, because kids are mean, Shoya and some of the other kids bully Shoko, stealing her notebook and ripping her hearing aids out of her ears and throwing them out the window. Shoko later transfers to another school and the teacher calls out Shoya for being behind the bullying. When Shoya tries to divert the blame from himself by calling out the other students who bullied Shoko, his classmates all turn on him and Shoya finds himself with no friends.

Fast forward to high school, and Shoya is depressed and suicidal. He blocks out people’s faces, not looking people in the eye because he thinks no one wants to be his friend anymore, except for another outcast whose bicycle is almost stolen had it not been for Shoya unintentionally sticking up for him. Shoya runs into Shoko and tries to apologize to her, but she finds it hard to be around him or anyone after dealing with so much bullying early on. Shoya meets Shoko’s sister and mother, and of course because he bullied Shoko, they are less than happy to see him show up at their house to hang out with Shoko. However, as the two loners realize they are outcasts to their classmates, Shoya and Shoko become closer, and Shoya, like a few of his other classmates, even has learned sign language to communicate with Shoko. However, the film gets darker when one of Shoya’s classmates, Naoka, continues to bully Shoko, telling her on a Ferris wheel ride that she hates her and even hits Shoko. Shoko always apologizes even though her tormentors should be the ones apologizing, and at first I wondered why this young woman was apologizing when all she did was be her normal self (and even going out of her way to do nice things for her classmates, such as erasing hateful messages that Shoya’s classmates wrote on his desk). But then later in the film I found out that Shoko thinks she is the cause of everyone’s problems, that if she wasn’t hearing impaired or even alive, that everyone would be better off without her (in reality, I think this is some B.S. because her classmates’ insecurities were the real reason they bullied her in the first place. What a bunch of cowards).

I didn’t know how I was going to like this film. A friend of mine insisted we watch it, and so I did, and by the end I had to watch yet another episode of Brooklyn 99 because my eyes were puffy from a little over two hours of crying. This film hits a lot of topics: bullying, suicide, depression, loneliness and what it means to be a good friend. It takes place in the modern era where we have cell phones and social media, and examines how technology can connect us and yet make us feel lonely. When Shoya truly connects to Shoko and apologizes for bullying her, when he actually looks into her face and sees her crying, he realizes that Shoko’s compassion is what truly helps him keep living. This part is what brought me to tears (also seeing Shoya’s friend cry and hug him when he comes back to school after being injured from the fall). I also cried because Shoya, after meeting with Shoko and sharing this beautiful heart-to-heart dialogue with her, breaks down into tears when the X’s on his classmates’ faces (because his depression is so deep, he can’t look them in the eye) disappear and he finally experiences life and sees its beauty.

This film also shows the severe impact that bullying can have on people. Shoko tries to commit suicide while at a festival, and Shoya saves her, nearly falling to his death himself. Shoko tries to kill herself because her classmates have made her feel, for the longest time, like she was worthless. It serves as a reminder of all the youth lost to suicide from bullying, such as Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University who committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi kissing another man and posted it online, or Brandy Vela, who killed herself after her peers tormented her online. These are not the only suicides that have happened, which really shows that while yes, these suicides are sad, they can be prevented by having more effective anti-bullying legislation in place. More people are talking about how to prevent bullying and suicides, but we need to keep talking about it, because if we don’t, then the problem’s not actually going to get fixed.

The Japanese humanist educator Daisaku Ikeda once said that “differences among people are a given. This is what makes each person unique and our world such a richly diverse place, resembling a garden in which many kinds of flowers bloom in profusion. That is why we must not only recognize that people are different, but also respect and learn from one another. That should be our basic perspective. Accordingly, regardless of creed, we must always respect others as human beings first.” (The New Human Revolution: Volume 21, page 99, Daisaku Ikeda) Just because Shoko had a disability didn’t mean something was wrong with her, but because her classmates hadn’t met anyone else who was hearing impaired and were so used to conforming with each other, they viewed Shoko’s disability as a flaw rather than as something that was simply just different from their able-bodied selves. However, Shoko has boundless compassion for her classmates even when they are mean to her, and as he grows older and has come to terms with his own experiences of being an outcast, Shoya starts to appreciate what he didn’t appreciate before: Shoko’s compassion. Because she was bullied, Shoko made it her mission to feel for Shoya’s pain, and later on, he makes it up to her by saving her from committing suicide and having the guts to apologize (because his other classmates couldn’t muster the courage to do so). Embracing differences, not necessarily pretending they don’t exist, is key to being a good ally, and sometimes all a good ally needs to do is just show up for someone and listen to them. Shoya wasn’t an ally before because he made fun of Shoko’s disability, but he later becomes her ally and fosters a bond of trust with her.

I definitely would watch this movie; even though it was stressful to watch because I myself went through painful mental health issues, and watching the film triggered memories of my worst depressive episodes, I had to watch it so I could understand what my mission was as someone who had gone through that. I needed to understand that I’m not alone in my experiences with depression, and that seeking help is so important.

Speaking of which…. 1-800-273-8255 is the Suicide Prevention Hotline. Not doing this to be cheesy or because every article I read about mental health has it at the end, seriously. If you or a loved one is considering suicide, call this number. Seriously. There’s a reason that Logic had a song about it.

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