I query this because Koe no Katachi, coming out of Koyto Animation and directed by Naoko Yamada of K-On and Tamako fame, is seemingly very conventional as far as drama anime and especially KyoAni productions go. It checks most of the boxes: high school drama, complete with the usual MC-window-seat-second-from-the-back, picturesque suburban bridges, summertime fireworks, and of course, a climactic school festival.
At the same time, however, it deals with subject matter significantly heavier than your typical KyoAni fluff. Bullying, disability, and the pervasive problem of suicide take centre stage. And although it’s refreshing to see KyoAni try and push a little further, how well do they adapt?
Fear and self-loathing in Japan
In sixth grade, Shouya – popular and daring – bullies the new girl, Shoko, who happens to be deaf. He is later bullied by his friends, including co-conspirators, because of this maltreatment. Later, in high school, a lonely and guilt-ridden Shouya attempts to reconnect with Shoko to make amends for his mistakes.
Kids can be cunts.
No, that wasn’t my main take away from this film. Rather, I point to the fact of how good of a job Koe no Katachi does in making me utterly despise Shouya when he’s a little kid. Ultimately, this is a character-centric story; that is, a story that revolves around Shouya. So, it’s commendable how fleshed-out and nuanced of a character Shouya is. He’s a cunt to begin with. He is punished by those around him. Guilt cripples him. He tries his best to redeem himself. Not because of superficial or selfish reasons, mind you, but out of a palpable sense of regret. That said, he still must overcome his own, nagging flaws, and those of his friends around him. It’s easy to understand and empathise with his thoughts and actions, even if you disapprove of them, and it’s because of this that Shouya is a strong and successful protagonist. One who we actively root for and are glad to see triumph, even if his victories are only small.
Subsequently, the film is both heart-warming and poignant. Similarly, the themes of bullying, isolation, guilt, and suicide, whilst not exactly subtly handled, are done deftly enough such that the film’s messages remain pertinent. It was particularly moving to see how Shoko and Shouya’s mothers – the one’s most affected by the films on-goings – responded to and took up the emotional burdens experienced by their children.
The film’s greatest pitfall is the characters outside of Shouya. The issue here is that there is an ensemble cast, when the story should really be focused on the central duo. There are too many characters, a couple of which are randomly introduced halfway through the film. Because of this, most of the cast is peripheral and one-dimensional. Their characterisations can be summed up in single sentences, and literally are. It's difficult to care for anyone beyond Shouya and, as previously mentioned, the central pair's immediate family to an extent. Attention and valuable screen time is thus wasted on these secondary characters that, by virtue of their sheer number, inherently remain underdeveloped anyway. It is not clear if there are satisfying conclusions for most of them, Even the central Shoko remains relatively enigmatic, which I guess is a good thing because of her hearing disability and the themes of communication and isolation that arise from it, however.
Similarly, the story itself is long and meandering. The film has a 129-minute runtime, which I’d argue is unwarranted. It certainly feels long. There are too many plot points; there needs to because there are too many characters. The opening flashback sequence overstays its welcome. The emotional peaks lose their punch simply because so many are piled on top of one another.
I feel as if these problems are easily avoidable, even if that means straying slightly from the source material.
Also, Japanese hospitals are really understaffed, this film would have me believe.
Scuffed shoes and 'X' marks the spot
Interestingly, visually Koe no Katachi departs from KyoAni’s usual hyper-polished look. Here, the art is warm and a lot homelier, whilst the colours are light, which reinforces the story’s personality and how intimate it aims to feel. As expected from a feature-length KyoAni production, it's generally gorgeous, complete with an exorbitant number of light effects. Character designs are decent, for the most part.
There are a lot of visual motifs. Some, like the characters, are harder hitting than others. Some, like some of the characters, are introduced and then abandoned. Some, like the characters, are too ham-fisted to be effective. In this sense, the visual cues are really hit or miss. I especially adored the more understated things, like Shouya’s loose shirt tag and the emphasis on shoes and shins, which reinforces the idea of isolation and a downward gaze. Contrastingly, the big fat ‘X’s over people’s faces come off as gimmicky and crude in comparison.
The sound design is strong. I especially liked the ambient noises that reflected Shoko’s inner-world. Voice-acting is on point. The soundtrack, whilst not exactly memorable, fits in nicely.
Reverberating into the future?
On one hand, Koe no Katachi bites off more than it can chew. It is plagued by easily fixable issues, like an overly-extensive cast and runtime, which ultimately dampens the harder-hitting stuff. On the other hand, it is a visually stunning and emotional story that follows the progression of an empathetic, well-developed character.
If this is a sign for more anime films in international cinemas, then I hope this is, as well as your name, can act as building blocks.
Would I recommend Koe no Katachi? Yes.
**Addendum: If anyone's Deaf or hard of hearing, or otherwise involved in these communities, it'd be greatly appreciated if you'd like to message me your thoughts regarding this film.