A Silent Voice is one of the most soul-crushing anime films you are ever likely to see. It is full of insight into the flaws of the human soul, the evils that children are capable of, and how guilt rules us all.

It is the story of roughhousing troublemaker Shoya. The class clown, he is rather harmless–until the day a deaf girl, Shoko, transfers into his elementary school class. Soon he finds he has a new plaything. Everytime he mocks Shoko or picks on her, his friends (and/or the class in general) laugh, encouraging him further. Due to her strange voice, problems with communication, and lack of fighting back, the entire class–including the teacher–join in the bullying on some level or another.

When it all comes to a head, however, and the principle is called in to stop it, Shoya is offered up as the scapegoat by both his friends and teacher–with the entirety of the guilt placed upon his shoulders. Even after Shoko transfers out, he lives a new life marked as a “bully” and takes her place as the class whipping boy.

His reputation as a bully makes him persona non grata throughout the rest of elementary school and middle school so by the time he hits high school, the guilt and social isolation is so much that he begins to prepare for his own suicide. Yet, before he can make that literal leap, he has one last task to complete: to meet Shoko once more and apologize. However, what comes from his signing hands is not the apology he had intended, but rather an offer of friendship–one she had made to him years before.

Of course, such a friendship proves anything but easy–mainly because of the insane amount of guilt both are carrying. When it comes down to it, each believes themselves to be the villain in their own lives.

For Shoya, the reason for his guilt is obvious: as a bully who became the bullied, he knows firsthand the pain his actions caused–not just to Shoko, but to Shoko’s family and his own family as well.

The cause of Shoko’s guilt is a bit less obvious but no less devastating. She suffers the guilt that comes from being different. Her very existence, seems to trouble those around her. Communication for her is a chore and everyone else must slow down in order to include her. When bullying occurs, it is her mother that has to deal with it financially–especially when hearing aids are involved. Her little sister has become so overprotective she skips school to serve as a bodyguard to Shoko.

So what really unites the two is that, on a core level, they feel they deserve the terrible treatment they have gotten. Shoya was a bully, bullies are horrible (as he well knows), so he deserves all the punishment he has received. Shoko likewise views being bullied as deserved payment for all the trouble she causes just by existing. Thus the two of them never stand up for themselves. They simply take criticism–or much worse–with a smile of understanding.

But it’s not just Shoya and Shoko that have to deal with guilt from Shoko’s elementary school bullying. Before Shoko’s arrival, Shoya’s partner in crime was a girl named Naoka. She doesn’t feel guilt for bullying Shoko; She feels guilt for turning on Shoya and bullying him. In her mind, the one at fault is Shoko–if she’d never come, she’d still have her dear childhood friend.

Miyoko, on the other hand, is the one girl who truly tried to befriend Shoko. However, after only a few days of being bullied alongside Shoko, she transferred to another school. Her guilt comes from running away when she was needed most. She likes to think in the subsequent years she has changed, but in the end, fears that she hasn’t.

Then there is Miki–Shoya’s current and past class president. While she never did any overt bullying of Shoko, she never stopped it either. In her own mind, she is completely innocent of any wrongdoing–if she’d have done anything to help Shoko she’d have been bullied too. Yet, to Shoya and Naoka she’s as guilty as all the rest.

All these clashing viewpoints on Shoko’s bullying and the associated guilt are the driving force for the film. Each person from the past that Shoyo and Shoko encounter is a ticking timebomb of conflict, drama, and emotional pain. The only question is, at the end of all the drama, will the two be able to come to terms with their guilt and move beyond it, becoming the true friends Shoko longed for them to be all those years before?

A Silent Voice was released in Japanese theaters September 17, 2016. There is currently no word on a Western release.

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