A few weeks back, I saw a movie that moved me for many reasons – but we’ll get into my personal feelings later. I first heard about this movie from a random Facebook event invite. Being the anime dork I am, and always ready to see a Japanese animated film in subs, I RSVP’d with the quickness. What made seeing this movie an experience for me, personally and emotionally, were the self-reflection and the people I ended up with whom I ended up seeing it.
A Silent Voice is a Japanese animated movie about an elementary school bully named Shoya Ishida and his victim, Shoko Nishimiya. Shoko is a young girl with a hearing disability, and is also the only deaf person in her school. Elementary school was tough for her because people who were her “friends” slowly started to separate themselves from her after certain kids deemed her weird or strange. Shoya stood out most because he took the bullying to the extremes, such as ripping her hearing aid from her ear (fair warning, slight blood here!) and destroying an expensive medical device. Not saying he was the ONLY one bullying her (because he wasn’t), but he was the one who took the most heat because his rat pack abandoned him to save themselves from the adults who finally intervened.
Without completely spoiling it, the movie is about redemption, forgiveness, understanding, compassion, friendship, love, and growth. After being treated like the village leper for 6 years, Shoya learned some harsh lessons in karma and humility, but these lessons really made the movie for me. More importantly, Voice also opened my eyes to what we could do better for those who are hearing impaired; representation and inclusion.
My sister was born deaf, so growing up I was not unfamiliar with sign language and the adjustments my family had to make in our lives to make sure she is happy and can live her life. Small adjustments like needing to make sure the captions are on or checking if the floors have carpet were daily parts of my childhood. I also remember the not so silly things such as me covering my mouth so she wouldn’t be included, or turning captions off whenever I’d get mad at her for no reason other than being a petty child. The movie stung because I saw her as Shoko and me as Shoya. I may not have ripped her hearing aids out or pushed her stuff in the water, but I wasn’t nice at all. All because I didn’t understand what it was like being her or what her disability was.
I never understood what it was like being the only kid who couldn’t hear in school. I never empathized with how my sister could’ve felt with friends wanting to leave her behind – even though I saw it happen a few times, I never did anything to help. It didn’t really sink in until I saw how Shoko looked when her friends stopped writing in her notebook or when one girl pushed her away. You never know how much you take for granted or see how harsh you are when someone mimics the same behavior in front of your eyes. For a long time I knew how unfair the world was to those who are deaf or hard of hearing, but I guess being in an audience with others who could possibly relate to Shoko and the things her family did really cemented how the world is always the kid who is covering their mouth so someone can’t follow the conversation.
What are we doing for others with disabilities? From my perspective, not much to nothing at all. We hire able bodied actors to play physically disabled people who need wheelchairs to get around. We hire sighted actors to play blind characters while using contacts to make it SUPER OBVIOUS they’re blind (because clearly everyone who is blind has cataracts or being blind is always physically obvious).
To make things perfectly clear, I’m not here to make my experience with the movie seem like some magical, inspiration porn for able bodied people. I’m not some magically woke person, nor am I using those who I saw the movie with as a token, or trying to use my own personal relationship with my sister to make me seem like I need forgiveness or a pity party for an ‘unaware but now I see’ able-bodied person. What I am saying is, as someone who has seen how my sister’s face lights up when she finds out a movie theater has caption-abled screens/movies, I saw that same look and felt that same energy from 20+ people when they saw Shoya sign his awkward apology to Skoko. This shouldn’t be a one-off experience. This should be a regular thing. It should be normal AF to see sign language in a movie, no matter if it’s Japanese Sign Language or American Sign Language; this should be commonplace. It should be normal to see someone who walks the same path in life as you on the screen, whether you’re able-bodied or not, deaf or not.
Shoko was a strong character, both in personality and how she grew as a person. She wasn’t some inspirational trope for the CIS able-bodied audience, nor was she a stereotype of how those who aren’t disabled want disabled characters to look. She wasn’t overly meek and reserved and she wasn’t hyper independent because she had to compensate for something. She was someone you wanted to help and protect; not because of her disability, but because of who she was as a person. She was kindhearted and aware of what her handicap meant in a world that is not as open-minded or understanding. She was VERY patient and strong, but she also wasn’t an iron fortress either. She got upset, she cried, she hit some really low points, she too learned how hard it is to heal, and what it takes to forgive or not forgive someone. Forgiveness is hard. It’s not easy to forgive someone who has hurt you; there is a lot of soul-searching and personal understanding to get to that point. She goes through serious pain in this movie and she handles it the best way she can, and in the end she learns that strength and happiness comes in many forms.
Shoya was a kid who learned that the path to redemption and forgiveness isn’t about you but about the person from whom you’re seeking it. He was everyone who has ever bullied or judged someone who has a handicap and saw them for their disability first and their humanity after, if at all. At a young age, he learned some really harsh lessons like humility and isolation; being on the receiving end of bullying himself, being judged, no one getting to know him personality, but believing the rumors about him first. It was a strong dose of karma indeed, but it was humbling and needed. I’m not going to ignore his bullying of Shoko because there were times when he knew he shouldn’t do it or should’ve stopped. Yes, he did get egged on, but that’s no excuse. I was glad he got some well-deserved slack for what he did, he needed it. He needed a steep learning curve in which he learns to step outside of himself and think about his actions. To become more aware of his presence and how he uses it in a world that is already harsh.
A Silent Voice is the kind of movie we all need to see. It sheds light from a child’s eye on how we treat those we don’t understand or choose not to understand. It reminds us how ignorant and rude we can be and it also reminds us how much we take for granted. Those who are hearing impaired or deaf are not invisible and we need to stop covering our mouths or turning our heads to them. Just as important as it is to have more brown or black people in regular roles and not stereotypical ones, we need to do the same for our hearing impaired family.
It’s not hard to put someone who uses sign language to communicate on screen. It’s not hard to learn a few lines in sign language so a hearing person can communicate with them on screen. It’s really not hard to normalize sign language and have more deaf characters who are more honest and realistic. I’m not talking about deaf characters who are around for comedy or who are more CIS able-bodied digestible. Not everyone who is hearing impaired are vocal, sometimes they don’t speak for many reasons. Others like my sister and Shoko can speak but it’s not as clear as some would “prefer” or demand it to be. No matter if their voice comes from their mouth or their hands, they should still be seen and heard in our media.
5 Koi fish out of 5.
A Silent Voice was released in Japan on September 17, 2016 and worldwide at various different times in early to mid-2017. DVD and Blu-ray official date for the U.S is unknown at this time.