Empathetic Noise
This post contains major spoilers for the film 'A Silent Voice'. Available in the UK through Anime Limited.

In the film The Tribe, the framing of scenes and complete lack of dialogue positions us as a spectator within another world. It’s unlikely the audience will be fluent in Ukrainian sign language, but a natural sound mix engrosses us to the point where we focus on the raw emotions. The characters have no problems expressing themselves and function as a self-sufficient niche enclosed from the rest of the world. By contrast, A Silent Voice depicts the messy cross-section of reality where those lacking a sense intertwine with society. Instead of pure sign language, thoughts are conveyed in a variety of ways, strengthening or breaking bonds through varying interpretations. Characters talk, write, sign and emote through body language. This lack of information and resulting misunderstandings is a core element of Shouya Ishida’s path to redemption in a film principally about communication.

The primary ways the film builds our understanding of Ishida and the girl he bullied in elementary school, Shouka Nishimiya, is through authentic shifts of perspective and audio-visual abstractions. Naoko Yamada has long presented herself as a director obsessed with injecting reality into her works. ‘reality’ being characters full of life as opposed to caricatures of real people. The way she captures the quirks of people in animation is as if she were filming them through a lens and Ishida’s transformation from a cocksure elementary schooler to isolated teenager can be traced simply through body language; a hunched frame, always looking down. We repeatedly see the world through his eyes and even beyond POV shots the scene will often focus on legs, hands, scenery. Anything for Ishida to avoid eye contact.

Of course perspective is more than sight, it’s informed by all senses. Throughout the film Ishida both inadvertently and purposefully experiences life through the lens of Nishimiya. For most of the film we can only speculate the extent of Nishimiya’s hearing loss through her reactions and aural clues.

However, from childhood Ishida is placed in situations that might build his empathy, notably the scene in which his mother apologises for his bullying on his behalf. The silent mouthing of dialogue as he stands alone is symbolic of both the lengths his mother will go to protect him and a mirror of how Nishimiya feels surrounded by conversation she cannot hear. There’s also a subtle clue in how this situation is emblematic of Nishimiya’s perspective, found in the left channel panning of the waterfall.

This clue relates to the aural interpretation of a hearing aid. It’s first used as a transition, to highlight both Nishimiya’s shock as her space is disrupted and the glimmer of insight Ishida gains in this scene when he realises she had been trying to protect him.

During the grandmother’s funeral, the elements of this transition are incorporated into the score. It’s as if the distortions this event created for the Nishimiya household are audible, the overwhelming loss created a wave of feedback. Composer Kensuke Ushio mentioned in interview how much he took into the consideration the aspect of a hearing aid being an amplifier, and attempted to replicate that through distortions, high frequency tones and a general intimacy for his piano recordings.

The iconography of ears as a visceral reminder for the loss of a sense is present through multiple scenes.

We see a culmination of these ideas when finally witnessing Nishimiya’s view in her dream. Static in the left channel, a tinnitus whine in the right, representative of the deterioration of the hearing in her right ear. Faced with the prospect of losing Ishida, these noises crescendo as if she is trying to strain herself out of desperation to hear his voice one last time.

Regarding Ishida’s view of Nishimiya’s world, we gain an insight into his assumptions as he attempts to block out the fervoured pitch of school. There’s an irony in bullying someone for what they lack only to covet that silence as a coping mechanism. Of course the contrast with Ishida and Nishimiya is that his isolation was self-defined. He imagines disdain from his classmates and confines himself to his desk. We see him cup his ears but the scene cuts before we he releases them, as if from this point on he lives with a muffled perception of conversation (the reversing of this sequence in the finale lends some credence to that).

It’s that muffling of sound where physical sensations become precedent. This is shown in pragmatic ways, for example the parallel scenes in which Nishimiya senses Ishida through traveling vibrations in a hand railing.

This idea becomes poetic when vibrations act as a vehicle for Nishimiya’s connection to the world. In Notes on Blindness, John Hull describes the revelatory experience of standing in the rain, where the wash of sound “brings out the contours of the world”. In a similar vein water is established as a medium for the visual portrayal of sound.

In a more abstracted sense, water and vibrations act as a conduit for dreams and memories. The film opens with ripples removed from the context of a river and disconnected heartbeats. The association of water and memories is apt; these characters are haunted by the past and in the case of Kawai, have even deluded themselves to the point that their perception of the flow of events is different from reality. And while the film is grounded, there’s unquestionable spiritual elements in play. The manifestations of Ishida’s anxiety through crosses, the reincarnation of Nishimiya’s grandmother, the premonition of Nishimiya’s dream and their meeting on the bridge. In fact, the bridge acts like a gateway for the character’s desires.

We frequently see shots of water as a bridge between illusions, as transitions.

Ishida’s abstractions of the world bring us to one of the strongest elements of the soundtrack, it’s sense of progression. A repeated motif of the score is Bach’s Inventions, that accompany many key turning points in the film or new information. Ushio intended these pieces to facilitate an atmosphere of learning, ultimately leading to the full motif of Invention No. 1 at the cultural festival, signifying a resolution to the film’s lessons. Taking this concept of musical progression even further, one of the Blu-ray audio tracks is an initial ‘audio sketch’, a 2-hour ambient piece titled inner silence that traces the whole film (and is worth a watch for the almost transcendental experience of witnessing the story through just music, no dialogue or sound effects).

This sense of progression ties directly to sound design, where Ishida ‘hears’ non-diegetic tones when forming connections with people. We learn that during middle school Ishida was pushed into solitude by Shimada and Keisuke, shown through memories and the visual metaphor of his connecting signal line to them being severed.

When Ishida begins a real bond with Nagatsuka, when he gains the courage to look someone else in the face, his self-built abstraction breaks away in conjunction with a high pitched tone.

The iconography of ears as a visceral reminder for the loss of a sense is present through multiple scenes.

Ueno’s in particular instils a great relief, considering her antagonistic past and that this is the second time Ishida has reconciled with her after feeling betrayed the first time.

Thus by the final sequence, Ishida finally opening himself up to the world becomes so cathartic through the crescendo of the music (a variation of a track cut abruptly earlier in film) and the sound characteristic of a sonar ping, as if he is sending his own ‘tone’ out to the world in return for having received the resonance of his friends.

The soundtrack is merely one element in the film that highlights its core themes. Everything from the language of flowers to Yuzuru’s photography has something to add to our understanding of disability, communication and anxiety. Mike Figgis recently talked about the impact sound on film had on American culture, how the universality of silent cinema was lost. I think works such as this attempt to bridge cultural divides through the use of sound, and authentically considering the international successes of the film and its importance for the Japanese Federation of the Deaf. A Silent Voice marks an exciting turning point for Yamada and Ushio, and I hope the knowledge gained during production filters down to facilitate more inclusive works.


Interview with Naoko Yamada

Interview with Kensuke Ushio

Recommended reading:

Jonathan Clements' piece and the significance behind the song Kaiju no Ballad

Retrospective on the career of Naoko Yamada

The language of flowers, it's symbolism and potential meanings in Japanese culture

Pause and Select's video on the manga and it's use of panelling (aspects of which are found in the film's framing)

The film's sensitive depiction of suicide

Kastel's essay on the film's place within the romance genre