Saturday, April 8, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “A Silent Voice”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Friday 7 April 2017
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 129 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

After watching “Ghost in the Shell” the previous day, I ventured into town to watch Naoko Yamada’s (“K-On!”, “Tamako Market”) new film. Madman is really spoiling anime fans in this country with so many recent theatrical releases. I suppose with digital projection, the cost for screening these types of films has gone down dramatically. In the old days you’d have to get 35mm prints and burn the translation into a pre-existing print. A rather costly affair. At any rate there seems to be a substantial market for theatrical releases of anime films here. Like the rather niche “Sword Art Online the movie: Ordinal Scale” (which I didn’t see), this film is also a limited release. Even for a late morning screening on a work day I was surprised to see that around 15 people had shown up. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years the demographic for these screenings has changed; there’s a lot more people of Asian descent, more variations in age and less otaku types. Although for this screening there were more than a few otaku types in attendance. One guy had a “Attack on Titan” jacket on. Anyway, on to the film itself…

This film is based on a manga by Yoshitoki Oima was originally published in Weekly Shonen Magazine during 2013 and 2014. Shouya Ishida is a rough, spiky haired young boy in late primary school. One day a new girl transfers into his class, Shouko Nishimiya. Much to the class' astonishment when Shouko introduces herself she reveals she is deaf. She tells everyone that she would like to communicate via a spiral ring notepad that she writes on. Initially everyone is curious and welcoming to Shouko. One girl who is close to Shouya, Naoka Ueno, takes it upon herself to help the newcomer. However Shouya along with his best friends, Kazuki Shimada and Keisuke Hirose begin to bully Shouko. But despite the harassment, Shouko continues to try and be best friends with everyone and to keep a smile on her face. Eventually Naoka tires of helping Shouko and joins in the bullying, as well as other class members.

The bullying becomes worse with Shouya constantly taking Shouko’s hearing aids and throwing them out the window or tossing them in water fountains. Eventually Shouko’s mother intervenes and the school principal lectures the class and asks who is bullying her. The class put all the blame on Shouya who tries to argue that other members of the class were in on the bullying too. However no one listens to him. Soon the bully becomes the bullied with the entire class shunning him and his former friends Kazuki and Keisuke beating him up after school. The school advises his mother of what he has done and later when he sees his mother compensating Shouko’s mother for the destroyed hearing aids, the he realises the full extent of his actions. The class are later advised that Shouko has transferred to another school.

As Shouya enters high school, he loses contact with his former schoolmates, however he does not make new friends and becomes rather isolated. In late high school he decides to end it all. He saves up money to compensate his mother, quits his job and sells his possessions. He attempts suicide but can’t bring himself to do it. His mother finds out and is furious at him and makes him promise to not to do it again. Soon after he unexpectedly runs into Shouko and decides to redeem himself. He learns sign language in an attempt to apologise to her. However a young boy at the sign language centre she visits claims that he is her boyfriend and blocks him from seeing her. He eventually manages to avoid the “boyfriend” and little by little begins to reconcile with her, though naturally she initially is reluctant to want to talk to him. Meanwhile a friendship begins between a stocky curly haired boy called Tomohiro Nagatsuka and Shouya after he manages to stop a bully stealing Tomohiro’s bike.

These two budding friendships raise Shouya’s self-esteem enough for him to believe that he can have friendships and relationships with others again. He attempts to contact his former classmates in order to reconcile with everyone. Some are far more willing to do so than others. In the midst of all of this tragedies and triumphs do occur. Shouya often find himself advancing then taking three steps back and starting again. However Shouya is completely unaware of the deep seated unhappiness that has taken root within Shouko.

This is the third film that Naoko Yamada has directed and her first that isn’t a sequel to a TV series (“Tamako Love Story” should be coming out in English this year or next, which makes me very happy). It’s great that there are so many established and emerging female directors in anime now. I really liked Yamada’s direction in “K-On!”, “Tamako Market” and her work on “Sound! Euphonium”. She’s a very interesting director who is quite details orientated. For example in an early scene Yamada concentrates on a young Shouya playing with the lead in his clutch pencil from his perspective. Shouko’s habit of feeding koi fish in the local stream also allows Yamada to craft some very interesting underwater sequences. The best being an underwater shot of one of the fish as it seems to swim past the moon. While the film doesn’t play with light as beautifully as other Kyoto Animation productions such as “Sound! Euphonium”, there are still a number of really beautifully rendered sequences such as fireworks at a summer festival and a rollercoaster ride at a theme park.

The character animation isn’t too bad at all either. Emotions come across very clearly from all characters in the rather large ensemble. However I had a few problems with the film. From what I can gather a far whack of material has been cut from the manga including various subplots and character explorations. I’ve read reviews that suggest the movie is both too long and not long enough. I sort of understand where these criticisms are coming from. I think due to the rather large cast there isn’t enough time to explore the motivations of each character. Possibly a few characters could have been cut in order to simplify the story for the sake of the film.

Possibly the other problem I had with this film was that it really, really, hit close to home for me. When I was in high school we did have a deaf girl in my class. I can still clearly remember her as she had an epileptic seizure in class one day. It was first time I had seen anyone suffer such a thing. The teacher was madly trying to remove all of the chairs and tables out of the way until she stopped. I had no idea what to do. That girl was more expressive than Shouko, but was still was teased by classmates due to the way she spoke. I must applaud Saori Hayami’s portrayal of Shouko. In my limited experience she sounds very much like a deaf girl speaking.

I personally found myself empathising with Shouya. While I never have been a bully, I have been bullied pretty much from the first grade right through to the end of high school. Though in the film, you sort of realise that bullying in Japanese schools is on some next level shit. Watching, listening to and reading Japanese pop culture for the last 20 or so years, it really puzzles me that the high school years are romanticised so much. It’s patently obvious that a lot of bullying goes on in high schools (and continues on in the workplace to a degree), yet high school in pop culture is often portrayed as the best years of a Japanese person’s life. In reality it’s often the post high school years, entering college (often a rather easy and free lifestyle, paid by cashed up parents if you’re middle class), which are the best. I don’t think I’ll fully understand the incredible nostalgic pull high school seems to have over many in the Japanese population.

The film portrays the process of attempting to reconcile with people you’ve wronged (or have wronged you) in the past fairly accurately. I mean some people are just arseholes when they were kids and as adults they haven’t changed one iota. Naoka Ueno is one of the more interesting characters. She has an underlying attachment to Shouya and strangely blames Shouko for Shouya’s isolation from the rest of his schoolmates. Shouko’s little sister Yuzuru is also another stand out character. It’s patiently obvious that she is not coping with her family situation at all and her photography of dead insects and animals are not only a symptom of that but also a cry for help at attempting to help her sister cope with what she is going through.

While the film does rather successfully deal with a lot of serious issues such as mental illness, suicide, bullying, loss, grief and being a single parent (often with large doses of humour and a romantic subplot to boot), it does feel rather schmaltzy at times, sometimes to the point of mawkishness. I would have liked a lot of this to be toned down a bit, which I guess in reality would be hard considering the content. While I think Yamada has done a pretty good job of adapting the source material, one thing which sticks out like nobody’s business is the visualisation of Shouya’s aversion to looking people in the eye. It’s a purple cross over people’s faces. This may have worked a treat in the original manga, but here in an animated film it just seems strange. I’m really not sure why Yamada decided to keep this element of the manga when there were other options she could have used to invoke the same sense of isolation.

In conclusion this isn’t a bad film at all. However it was a bit overly sentimental for my liking and some of the visual elements ported over from the manga plainly did not work. I personally had some issues with parts of the material which at times made me feel uncomfortable; however this is not the fault of the film. Having said that Yamada’s direction and sense of where to place the camera and sense of timing are pretty exceptional. I think with the right script and material she could (and should) be up there with directors like Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda. I must also mention the soundtrack which always complements the mood in each scene. Of note is the unusual use of The Who’s “My Generation” in the opening credits. Hopefully that will be retained in any English language video release. But due to various issues I had with it, I can really only give this film a 6.5 out of 10.

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