Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for A Silent Voice and Cowboy Bebop.
Kyoto Animation’s film adaptation of the manga A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi) has gotten a lot of hype lately, and for good reason too. The manga’s very well respected, Kyoto Ani is one of the most highly regarded studios in anime, and the film was directed by Naoko Yamada, a veteran director with a lot of well liked works behind her. I was able to watch the A Silent Voice recently, and I liked it. The problem here is that I should have loved it. The story had all the ingredients for that: the characters were interesting and well written, the core ideas were clear, and the characters’ emotions were both powerful and relatable. There weren’t any noteworthy plot or character missteps, either. The problem doesn’t lie with the writing; it lies with the direction.
Naoko Yamada’s direction isn’t bad by any means. She has a strong voice that’s clear throughout the film, and I can completely understand why she’s so well respected in the community. That said, her style doesn’t work for me at all.
That may be overstating things a bit, but a lot of her style runs counter to the kind of storytelling I prefer. I normally wouldn’t analyze a director’s style this much after having only seen one of her works, but Yamada’s voice shines through strongly enough in A Silent Voice that it’s easy to get a handle on her style, which can be best described as restrained or indirect.
For a film that deals with such heavy subject matter as bullying, disabilities, and suicide, A Silent Voice can be surprisingly restrained in its drama. With one or two exceptions, the big dramatic moments are quiet and often conveyed more through character acting than dialogue. Even the big moment at the end where Shoko and Shoya reunite after Shoya wakes up from a coma is played more as a quiet conversation than a dramatic peak. The line “I want you to help me live” (and several others during that scene) should have a big impact, but the character says it with a calm earnestness, and the shot framing and sound choices don’t do anything to enhance the line. This conversation should be the emotional peak of the film, but the direction doesn’t give it the weight it deserves so much and leaves it to stand on its own without any support.
Reactions to this sort of drama will obviously vary heavily with personal preferences, but I feel that this style does a disservice to the story. I prefer my drama to be…well…dramatic. I’m not against subtlety or restraint-overselling drama can very easily turn it into unintentional comedy-but A Silent Voice goes too far. Holding back this much robs the film’s dramatic peaks, like the conversation I just described, of some of the emotional weight they should by all rights have. They’re not completely ineffective, but they’re less effective than they should be.
This attitude towards storytelling extends to the plot as well. There’s a point around halfway through the film where Shoko completely loses her hearing in one ear, which I only know because I read it in a review. The only way the film expresses it is through a couple of dialogue-free scenes of Shoko and her family going to the doctor and acting upset after, and Shoko only wearing one hearing aid for the rest of the movie. This went completely over my head when I was watching the film. I noted the scene where Shoko visited the doctor and I noticed her only wearing one hearing aid, but I never made the connection because the film barely even indicated that there was a connection to be made.
I don’t have a problem with visual storytelling-I love it when it’s done right-but it didn’t serve any purpose in this case and ended up obscuring an otherwise powerful plot point. Contrast that with one of the best examples of visual storytelling in anime: Spike’s flashbacks in episode five of Cowboy Bebop.
When Spike falls from the cathedral, his flashbacks-which are all silent save for the music-tell us nearly everything we need to know about his past. We see him fighting alongside Vicious and grinning, him meeting a beautiful woman, the woman patching Spike up after he’s injured, and Spike faking his own death. More details are given in the final episodes, but between his conversations with Vicious during the episode and what we’re shown in his flashbacks, we’re given all we need to know to understand the basics of the past. He was a member of the Red Dragon Syndicate, he and Vicious were friends, there was a falling out over a woman, and Spike left by faking his own death. The show makes it clear that there’s something important to notice, and gives us all the information we need to figure it out.
A Silent Voice, on the other hand, barely gives any indication that there’s something to be noticed at all. The scene in the doctor’s office is never referenced again, and nobody ever comments on Shoko’s single hearing aid. It’s an interesting plot point that ends up being so obscure that it’s almost impossible to notice. Some people love this kind of storytelling, but I find it unnecessarily obtuse. Subtlety is good, but not if it obscures the story you’re trying to tell. The style of storytelling should never get in the way of actually telling the story.
These two moments I’ve talked about aren’t the only examples of Yamada’s direction not working with the material, but they are the most noteworthy and epitomize the issues I had with the film.
For all that I’ve harped on the film’s flaws, I don’t think A Silent Voice is a bad movie and I don’t think Naoko Yamada is a bad director. The film’s writing is excellent, and Yamada is excellent at what she’s trying to do. Everything about the direction is clearly deliberate, from the shot composition to the choices about when to have dialogue or silence. Yamada has a clear vision for the film and knows how to execute it. Her style doesn’t work for me, but I can certainly understand why so many people like it and I imagine it would work much better with different material. As things are, though, A Silent Voice is a good movie that should have been great.