Naoko Yamada interview

(Neo, Uncooked Media)

Naoko Yamada is in London, and not for the first time. The director who’s one of the most prominent women in anime swung by a few years ago, when she was prepping K-ON! The Movie, in which a band of perky girl musicians visited our capital. Today, Yamada isn’t prepping a film, but promoting one – A Silent Voice, her opus about Japanese teens with troubled pasts, out now in British and Irish cinemas.

Based on a seven-volume manga by Yoshitoki Oima (another woman artist), A Silent Voice is the story of a boy called Shoya. In the film’s first scene, we see him tying up his affairs – quitting his job, leaving an envelope full of yen for his mom. Then he’s standing on a high bridge, picturing himself climbing on the railing and falling off. It’s dark stuff, and so are the next few scenes, an extended flashback that explains how Shoya got to this point.

The answer lies in his primary school days, when a shy new girl joined Shoya’s class, called Shoko. She was deaf, and Shoya soon got pissed off with her strange voice, and her special needs. He started bullying her, and the results were terrible, for her and for him. Now the teen Shoya has a reputation as a bully, a deep self-loathing about what he did, and a feeling that the world would be better off without him. And then he meets Shoko again and… things change.

We should say that while A Silent Voice begins in a dark place, it’s a journey through a great many emotions, good and bad. Shoya is given the hope of making friends again, and many of the film’s scenes are joyous and funny. A Silent Voice still has an unusually serious, realistic subject for an anime about students, but when we ask if Yamada thinks it’s a new kind of film, she says no.

“I wasn’t thinking that. Yes, it is a serious movie; we deal with bullying and dark thoughts, but that’s not the whole theme of the film. I think many people can empathise with the dark thoughts, the seriousness, but I didn’t want the audience to be drawn into that negativity. I wanted to put in some positive aspects; there are happy moments in everyone.”

But even so, we ask, isn’t A Silent Voice something of a new direction for its studio, Kyoto Animation? After all, when many fans think of the studio’s name, they think of light, cheery fare like Yamada’s own K-ON! (she directed both TV seasons as well as the movie), as well as Free! and Nichijou and this season’s Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. Again, though, Yamada doesn’t see it that way. She even suggests A Silent Voice isn’t so different from K-ON! “They’re different things, but the basic concepts I was thinking of when I made both are the human spirit, love, emotions and understanding.”

Understanding is central to A Silent Voice. “I think the whole theme of the film is about communication, understanding and not understanding,” says Yamada. The young Shoya bullies Shoko because he can’t understand her. Older and guilt-ridden, the teenage Shoya tentatively tries to form a friendship with his former victim, even learning sign language to better talk to her. However, he’s always unsure what Shoko really feels about their renewed acquaintance.

“One of the things I discussed with the manga author Oima was that, ‘It’s the story of Shoya, so don’t deal with anything that he can’t see and understand,’” says Yamada. “If Shoya can’t understand why Shoko is behaving this way or that way, then we don’t deal with that. However, as a filmmaker, I couldn’t not put in things… So I used the point of view of Yuzuru [a character who has a close relationship with Shoko, though it’s not what it first appears to be] or Shoko’s mother or grandmother. Their behaviour, their ideas could give people a clue about who Shoko is and why she behaves as she does. I used these other people’s viewpoints.”

Yamada concedes there were many difficulties in adapting the manga as a film. “With a manga, readers can read at their own pace. In a movie, the time goes as the film goes. For example, there’s a scene where Shoko’s mother slaps Shoya. In the manga, it’s a page – you turn to the page, bang! But in the film, I had to describe how Shoya felt before he was hit, and when he was hit, and after, and also how the mother felt before, during and after. And I wanted the audience to understand the emotions, so I had to take time to make that, and that one page is much longer in the movie. It was very difficult to give the same impact as the manga (in the film).”

The mother slapping Shoya is not the only violence in the film. At the risk of harping on negativity, some of A Silent Voices’s most arresting scenes are fights – there’s an early, furious altercation between the young Shoya and Shoko in primary school, and later an even rawer bust-up between characters outside a hospital. Yamada created these scenes in storyboard form. “When I did the storyboard, I became all the characters. I’m the one who’s angry, or the one who’s falling…”

Animated films often use live-action reference, people acting out motions for real. Did Yamada have people thwack each other in front of her when she was planning out the fights? “When I’m directing it, I don’t need real people,” she laughs. “But I think the actual animators do it themselves. I know they shoot each other, shoot videos, to see how the action should work.” Like many anime directors, Yamada has experience as an animator herself, on titles such as the Haruhi Suzumiya.

“In order to create realistic fight scenes, you don’t really want to be too realistic,” Yamada adds. “You have to find a way to make it work as an animation. You don’t want to stick to reality too much, in terms of actions anyway.” A minute later, she stresses this is her personal view. “Obviously different directors have different opinions on this. It also depends on the kind of film being made.”

That brings up another point. A Silent Voice is the kind of story that could have been told in a live-action film or TV series. That’s true of many other anime, from When Marnie Was There to Your Name, but it’s more obvious with A Silent Voice because of its complete lack of fantasy elements (or perhaps its almost complete lack.) What are the advantages of making the story in animation?

For Yamada, the key is control. “One of the most important things for me in making this film in animation was that I could control everything. Colours; what lens you use; the characters… Every movement of everyone, of everything, even a blink, I can control it as I want it to be. That also applies to small objects, here and there… I can control the whole world in the film. Yes, A Silent Voice would work in live-action, but in live-action unexpected things happen. That’s great – actors bring their own things (to a live-action film), but for me, the advantage of animation is I can control every single aspect.”

Stylistically, A Silent Voice is often cut fast, edited with quickfire images, torrents of visual information crammed into seconds. (The same was also true of Your Name.) Yamada agrees that fast editing is trending in the media, but she also suggests that it’s less a way of cramming in information, more a means of conveying emotion. “It’s not all about what you can see on screen. It’s the emotions behind it that you can’t see; I really wanted to convey those. Emotions are vibration, so I thought fast cuts were the best way to convey the invisible emotions the characters are feeling.”

One fast-cut sequence, near the start, introduces Shoya as a primary schooler in the midst of his friends and classmates, before Shoko arrives. The sequence is set to a familiar British anthem – “My Generation” by The Who. Anyone thinking about generations might reflect that the song itself is 52 years old this year.

“I was talking to the film’s sound director,” Yamada says, “and he said he wanted to use something evergreen that anyone can relate to, not just the Japanese audience. I was thinking of Shoya as a schoolboy and the song came to me, basically. Shoya was bored, really restless, but at the same time he was really invincible. I thought ‘My Generation’ fitted his characteristics, and obviously the song appeals to everyone.”

While Shoya and Shoko are the central characters in A Silent Voice, there’s a large supporting cast around them. (They divide into two groups: people who knew Shoya and Shoko at primary school, and those who Shoya meets later.) One of the most prominent characters is Tomohiro, a bubble-haired boy who’s pitifully desperate to make friends, and who latches onto the teen Shoya with scary intensity. The girl Shoko also seems desperate for acceptance, even by people who’ve treated her horribly. Does Yamada see Tomohiro and Shoko as being similar characters?

“That’s very interesting, I never thought of it really,” says Yamada. “I thought you meant Shoya (rather than Tomohiro), because Shoya and Shoko are pretty much similar, they both want to be wanted. And that’s just common for everyone. Everyone wants to have friends, to be wanted, to communicate that feeling to another person. I didn’t really think about Shoko and Tomohiro myself, but you’re probably right.”

Tomohiro brightens up the film after its rather grim start: he’s both annoyingly loveable and loveably annoying. One scene has Tomohiro acting in a weirdly “cool” way after he watches a movie with Shoya. We wonder if there was a particular Japanese reference in the way he was acting, but Yamada meant the joke to be universal. “Tomohiro is being one of the characters in the film he just saw, that’s why he’s behaving in that way.” (There’s a Japanese word for that behaviour: chunibyo, as in the Kyoto Animation series Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions.)

On the subject of Japanese reference points, we ask where the film takes place. A Silent Voice is set neither in Tokyo or Kyoto but a city called Ogaki, in the central prefecture of Gifu. (Your Name’s country scenes were also set in Gifu, but in a far more rural area.) “The water is really beautiful,” says Yamada of Ogaki; the city’s canals play a prominent role in the film. In one scene, Shoko and Shoya both jump into a canal from a bridge. Have any over-enthusiastic anime fans tried to imitate them since the film opened? “The water’s actually quite shallow there,” Yamada laughs, “so it’s a bit dangerous!”

As the interview wraps up, we ask Yamada if she sees any significance in the number of women on the film. Even for a Kyoto Animation picture, it’s unusual in having three high-level female credits. Along with Yamada as director, there’s the veteran scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida, who previously worked with Yamada on K-ON! and Tamako Market. (Her other credits range from The Cat Returns to Romeo X Juliet.) Then there’s Yoshitoki Oima, who wrote the source A Silent Voice manga.

Yamada seems slightly nonplussed by the question. “I didn’t really think much about it, to be honest. And probably readers of the manga wouldn’t be aware that Oima is a woman.” It’s a similar situation to Fullmetal Alchemist; the managa version was written by another woman with a gender-neutral name, Hiromu Arakawa.

“I think fundamentally that Oima and I have got more in common,” Yamada reflects. “With Reiko Yoshida, it was more like she was balancing us two, I feel like she is a mum to me. I think the overall tone of A Silent Voice is sort of affectionate, maybe there’s a little bit more love.”

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