26th February 2017, DCA
Nestled in the Japan Foundation’s line-up each year is at least one anime (Japanese animation) film. Whereas the rest of the festival’s programme is directed towards a more typical festival crowd (usually a mix of independent Japanese productions and a few ‘golden age’ films from the 50’s and 60’s), the anime-picks seem to attract a notably younger demographic, quite distinct from the rest of the arthouse circuit. This year’s anime-pick was A Silent Voice (2016). It’s a very recent, delicately drawn melodrama that may prove to have some crossover between the anime milieu, and the broader arthouse scene.
Like much anime, A Silent Voice is an adaptation of a manga (Japanese comic-books). The text won some acclaim in its native country, winning the prestigious Osamu Tezuka prize. It is directed by Naoko Yamada. Yamada, notably, is a female director, and her credits include the wildly popular TV-series K-On. Her work could be firmly categorised within the genre of ‘slice-of-life’, a mode of anime that fans have named due to its emphasis on capturing daily existence over narrative conflict. In this way, fans of Japanese art-cinema might see a link between this form of storytelling and the dailiness found in works by acclaimed directors like Mizoguchi and Ozu, with their preponderance on moments of stasis and everyday life. However, whereas those films often focused on withheld emotions, and indeed, weighty subjects like mortality and poverty, the anime-equivalent seems more driven by idealising an imagined point in childhood. This is apparent in the beautiful animation of A Silent Voice, which seems to present an almost utopic vision of Modern-Japan all in pastel colours and neon-blues.
The plot of A Silent Voice deals with the high schoolers Shoko Nishiyima, a polite, kind but depressive deaf girl, and Shoya Ishida, an outcast struggling with guilt for bullying Shoko mercilessly as a child. Given the film’s bright-pastel coloured aesthetic, some might be surprised by the intensity of the film’s first act. Shoya’s bullying of the quiet, shy and polite deaf-girl in his class is portrayed with little refrain, and indeed it is commendable that Yamada attempts not only not to shy away from flaws of her characters, but also to humanise them. In these earlier segments, the film’s most apt comparison in live-action Japanese is parthaps the similarly low-key, delicate films of Hirokazu Koreeda (it is notable as well as that Koreeda’s last film was also a manga adaptation, which similarly attempted to capture the genre of slice-of-life). Later on the film moves more firmly into melodrama, and here it might lose those less accustomed to the wild displays emotion present in much anime. Still, these characters are drawn with warmth and humour, and those willing to will likely buy into the sentimentality of the film’s later portions.
The major draw here is the aesthetics of the piece. The character designs give it a waifish, detailed delicacy. Indeed, each character looks distinctive. The animators, for instance, grant Shoko Nishiyima’s hair a loving degree of detail, whereas the more comic, side-character Tomohiro is portrayed as a bouncing, rounded, almost Disney-esque figure. The music too is well handled, a series of piano melodies that draw comparison to the compositions of Joe Hisaishi. There is also, on a more discordant note, a somewhat unexpected use of The Who’s “My Generation”. Quite odd. The film was well-presented by the Japan Foundation, with a solid translation provided. One minor complaint would be the white, borderless subtitles, not always the easiest to read when overlaid on a film with such a soft colour palette.
In some ways it is perhaps unfortunate that A Silent Voice was released in 2016. This was the same year as Your Name, an anime film of a somewhat similar aesthetic that set box-office records in Japan, and has had several successful festival runs in Europe and the US. In comparison, the more modest A Silent Voice is unlikely to be as well-remembered. However, it will likely sit comfortably among more art-house fare within festival’s like The Japan Foundation’s, and may even surprise those unaccustomed to this more quiet, refrained subgenre of Japanese animation.