「聲の形」 (Koe no Katachi)
“The Shape of Voice | A Silent Voice”
It sounds weird to talk about ‘the disabled community’, as if we all congregate in a gated suburb and have bingo night on Saturdays, but there’s no euphemism for any minority that doesn’t sound asinine anyway so, yeah—I’m part of the disabled community. That’s probably one of the reasons why Koe no Katachi, Kyoto Animation’s latest feature-length tour de force directed by Yamada Naoko, struck a personal chord with me. I actually tried to read the manga a few years back, but I didn’t finish it. Just couldn’t do it. I’m not deaf and went through a rather different kind of life story, but there are enough memories I’d rather not revisit to make the exercise—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—emotionally painful. But I got through the movie, and how glad I am that I did. Conclusions first: this thing’s pretty damn good.
But let’s step back a bit and give Koe no Katachi a bit of context. Even those who have not watched the film (if you haven’t, you should!) probably have a rough idea of the basic premise: there’s this hearing impaired girl. Simple. Everything else unfolds from there. If you ask me, though, I’d be tempted to say that Koe no Katachi approaches the subject matter from the other angle, and that the underlying theme is: children are terrible. I’m not just saying this as an old man waving his stick at the kids on his lawn, but as a point of personal reflection. I don’t know about you, but when I look back to a younger, less mature (even than now!) Passerby, I can only say: I don’t know him. That guy’s a crazy person. I have no choice but to disown myself because every version of Passerby has only ever had one assessment of the Passerby 10 years younger than himself: what an idiot. I suspect that I’m not the only one like that, and to be fair to children everywhere, I think many necessary life qualities are not intrinsic and need to be learnt over time. One of those is basic empathy. Which is why I say that children are horrible little sociopaths, because Thomas Hobbes was right and the base state of a human is cruel and stupid. So when the bleeding steak that is Nishimaya Shouko (Hayami Saori, delivering quite the performance) is thrown to the sharks, what can one expect? I got through my childhood with the help of overt violence and a high pain-threshold, and I know that many sensory impaired kids have no trouble at all, but for the most part I can easily imagine a scenario just like the one in Koe no Katachi. I think this is aided much by the sense of realism in both the animation and the characterisation. Yeah, this is how children fight. And the classmates’ casual malice, the educator’s awkwardness, the parent’s defensiveness, all come together to make a Koe no Katachi‘s opening a wholly convincing tragedy.
And thus Koe no Katachi unfolds into a redemption story, about looking back on the foolishness of childhood and, in a mercy perhaps offered only in fiction, be able to find a second chance, and do better, of being able to turn that self-loathing into acceptance. But this is not just the story of Ishida Shouya (Irino Miyu, who also deserves applause, along with most of the voice cast, really). This is one of the major things I should laud Koe no Katachi for, because a less ambitious work would simply have been the story of Shouya the repentant bully. Shouko would just be a victim, or just a moral saint to shame Shouya. It would have been easier (though insulting) to reduce Shouko to an object of pity, but this is her story, too. She is Shouya’s mirror in a tale about more than ‘bullying is bad’, but also about expression, isolation, doubt, and grief. Indeed, every character was in some way weak, or flawed, or detestable (except for Maria, our calming moeblob, of course), and while there might not have been much time in our two-hour adaptation to give them much development, they play into the central narrative of Shouko and Shouya, of things we fail to hear, and of things we fail to say.
We’ve come this far and it seems I’ve only been giving you an emotional reaction to the film with little technical detail, and yeah, I apologise. I do gush. But it also speaks, I think to the seamless quality of the adaptation. Mostly, when it comes to anime adaptations, I talk about compression, about how narratives have to be shaved and remolded to fit into limited anime air-times. Here, though, I’d rather say say a word about translation, about taking the essence of a story and communicating through a different medium (fitting, for an anime about poor communication). Sure, Koe no Katachi had to condense too, but unless you’ve read the manga you’d scarcely feel it when you’re caught up in its drama, because the adaptation fulfills the spirit of the story so well. Manga is, as you don’t need me to tell you, a completely silent medium. For a story like this one, there’s an entirely different dynamic at work on the page than on the screen. How to translate, then? Listening to the score, you’ll find that much of it is ambient or minimalist, prioritising atmosphere over melodrama. And you’ll find that, rather than being a compressed, dialogue-heavy adaptation, Koe no Katachi, in keeping with its motif, leaves many things unsaid. Instead, focus is on expressions, and Yamada Naoka gets to shine with her beautiful cinematography that at once buries a lot of detail in each shot and also draws out the emotion of every scene, so that much is said without much spoken.
I can’t really imagine this film being done much different and much better, which should be taken as high praise. It’s always wonderful when a beautiful story like Koe no Katachi is given the adaptation it deserves, to be able to gesture confidently to the strengths of this medium we love. I would wholeheartedly recommend Koe no Katachi as some of the best anime has to offer, not only because it’s an impressively good movie, but also because I think all who watch it will be able to get something meaningful out of it. I’m sure that even those who don’t relate to Koe no Katachi on a personal level may have gone through a dark time in their lives at one point or another, and if so its story will will speak to you. Yes, at times it is heavy. At times it is raw. But ultimately, Koe no Katachi is cathartic, and it is fulfilling. To go through that entire range in a two-hour feature is already a notable feat. To go through that entire range with grace and nuance is Koe no Katachi.
Many thanks to Cherrie for capping this movie for me. 200! That’s a lot.