A Silent Voice and Sympathetic Antagonists

A Silent Voice is available on Netflix or from your local library.

An awful lot of folks will point to “sympathetic” as the hallmark of a great fictional antagonist. For all his villainy, Mr. Freeze just wants to save his wife’s life. In the first Godzilla film, everyone including the titular monster is painted as a victim. Inspector Javert is explicitly just doing his job to uphold the law as he sees it.

Many stories even revolve around this angle explicitly, like Disney’s path to re-writing Frozen from a straight fairy-tale adaptation to eventually turning the Snow Queen into the secondary protagonist of the movie.

And few are so thorough about making this a central theme as A Silent Voice. A good half its cast is put firmly on the negative end of the morality scale in the first volume of the manga (the first half-hour of the film or so), with much of the rest of the story being about these characters coming to an understanding of just how long-lasting the effects of their actions are both on themselves and on others.

But not all of these are straightforward. Protagonist Shōya’s guilt pulls him in different directions from moment to moment – often resulting in self-destructive behavior. Ex-classmate Naoko remains adamantly unapologetic in spite of the changes around her. And Yuzuru’s protectiveness turns them into an early antagonist and living example of how your own remorse isn’t necessarily helpful to others.

Possibly the strangest case, though, is of Yaeko Nishimiya – mother of female lead Shōko. And it’s particularly strange in that Yaeko is portrayed differently between the manga and its film adaptation.

Now, A Silent Voice has benefited from a fantastic adaptation that skips surprisingly few details in translating around 1300 pages of manga to about 130 minutes of screen time. Cutting a mostly-superfluous side-plot to get more directly to its narrative purpose (re-uniting various characters as a “friend group”) and ending the story about a chapter sooner for a cleaner, more cathartic conclusion are relatively easy changes. Yet the third major thing to gets cut is the majority of the narrative focus on Yaeko as a force in Shōko’s life.

But does that end up hurting her character?

As always, spoiler territory follows the image.

Oddly, about the opposite expression-wise from their representations.

Yaeko Nishimiya is pretty firmly a hostile presence in the story, no matter which version of A Silent Voice you go for. She deliberately puts her daughter in difficult-to-dangerous situations, takes her anger with Shōya’s behavior out physically on his mother, and pointedly refuses to be a much-needed source of emotional support. It’s not a stretch that we’re supposed to find her disgusting.

The movie really doubles down on this. She’s almost as absent from the film by minutes-on-screen as she is absent from Shōko’s life, only showing up to berate those she sees and undercutting her authority or – ironically – being psychologically-poisonous to Shōko. In fact, Yaeko is so rarely sympathetic to Shōko’s problems that, come the end of the film, she comes across as something of a karmic Houdini for how she’s never really made to account for behavior that toes the line with emotional abuse. She arguably even displays more remorse in the end at her daughter having negatively affected someone outside her own family than for any effect she’s had on Shōko herself.

And in the manga… well, nobody particularly calls Yaeko out there, either. But she does get more focus and a window into her motivation.

The first of three changes around this involves cutting out a relatively minor subplot, where in Shōko’s younger years Yaeko had insisted on giving her a boys’ haircut with the aim of “toughening her up”. Shōko refuses in a rare acts of rebelliousness, and Yuzuru eventually has her hair cut short in Shōko’s stead in solidarity. It shows up in the first volume and early on implants the idea that Yaeko is deeply misguided and overly harsh in her treatment of Shōko rather than simply disdainful.

The second is equally as minor, a brief scene where Yaeko loudly scorns her children for speaking in sign language in the house, declaring it as “rude” before hypocritically going on to converse aloud in a way that she knows Shōko cannot reliably interpret. It’s a bit more of a mixed message, but follows the through-line of her “school of hard knocks” philosophy.

And the last is possibly the most significant, giving Yaeko herself a story outside of just her present, embittered self. We see how her husband abandoned her shortly after learning of Shōko’s disability (implied to be a result of a disease he gave to Yaeko in the first place), and how she deliberately made the decision to distance herself and keep Shōko in a hostile school environment in the hopes of preparing her for an unwelcome treatment that Yaeko had experienced firsthand.

It’s the kind of plan that makes sense from Yaeko’s own history and internal reasoning, but one that falls to dangerous, damaging pieces when put into practice, which she deliberately ignores for an irresponsibly long time.

But again, while her mind is implicitly changed with how she gradually begins to get along better with Shōya’s family and softens up her approach to raising Shōko, she never really makes any amends herself. It’s basically an apology for having eventually and indirectly landed Shōya in the hospital, but that’s only addressed to a third party, and we never see her directly address Shōko after the incident (we only imply that their relationship improves from the absence of her previous, hard-nosed attitude).

So, in the absence of the story giving us some recompense for Yaeko’s actions over the past decade and even giving us a reason at how she arrived at them, there’s a case to be had that the manga is asking us to be sympathetic to her decisions to some degree, whereas the movie paints her as more straightforwardly wrong-headed.

Maybe sympathy isn’t exactly the wrong angle for someone trying to do a misguided right in a completely unfamiliar situation, but it’s still hard to get behind deliberate cruelty.

And I think that can make Yaeko’s character an interesting challenge in empathy, even among a whole case of other characters who are designed to make us feel deeply conflicted.

She starts from an assumption based on what she knows and sticks to her guns, doing what she sees as the best in the long term for her family despite discomfort in the wrong term.

She’s also possibly the most persistent, malevolent force in her family’s life, and so imposing that nobody dares challenge her.

This is the small-scale version of how you get a proper, ends-justify-the-means villain. Yaeko is just one that manages to pull out of her nosedive. But does that mean that things turned out all right in the end?

It’s a hard question without a real answer.

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