With Ghibli (almost) out of the picture, the anime feature film seems to be recovering, albeit slowly. There's a noticable rise in interesting projects that don't necessarily seem to adhere to the rural/fantasy hybrid underlying Ghibli's success, Naoko Yamada's A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi] is one of them. From the outside the film may appear to be a rather daft highschool romance, in reality there's a surprisingly deep and honest drama hiding underneath.
If you hadn't heard about this film before, it might be because the anime conversation in 2016 was almost entirely dominated by Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. It pretty much drowned out all the other buzz, which is a shame because films like A Silent Voice do deserve to be in the spotlight. Both films share some similarities, but where Shinkai still chases fantasy and scifi elements, Yamada's film is purely aimed at setting up a realistic drama.
At its core, A Silent Voice is a film about bullying, but it comes with an important twist. While I've seen my fair share of bully dramas, they rarely seem to move me. I feel that too often these films are set up in such a way that the simplistic victim/offender narrative becomes forced and manipulative, a meager attempt to draw pity and compassion. Not so in Yamada's adaptation of the same-titled manga. Both victim and offender are equally fleshed out characters who struggle their way through life.
The story starts when Nishimiya, a deaf girl, transfers to a new school. The people in her class have a hard time accepting her disability, even the ones that do want to help her out are quickly discouraged by the extra weight it puts on their shoulders. Nishimiya reachers out to Ishida, a young boy sitting right behind her in class, but he too is unable to deal with her disability and becomes one of her primary bullies. Things get out of hand and Nishimiya transfers away again to another school, leaving Ishida behind as the class' outcast.
It's nice to see proper attention was given to the visuals here. Too often anime feature films end up looking like extended TV episodes. While A Silent Voice does sport a rather typical and cutesy anime style, plenty was done to elevate the film above the mediocrity of TV anime. The character designs for one are more detailed and the animation is quite lush. There's lots of detail hidden in the way everything moves, the focus on legs and feet in particular stands out. It's an interesting (and rather unique) focus to convey emotion, but it works wonderfully well. The backgrounds are beautiful too, adding to the idyllic and summery feel, though they don't always meld that well with the characters. Overall though, the film looks pretty amazing.
The soundtrack is less adventurous and pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. Piano tunes and string music make for a soft, mellow and comforting blanket of background music. While I'm usually quite critical of easy music choices, A Silent Voice is a good reminder that "safe" does have its advantages. The only time Yamada breaks the mold is when she drops The Who's My Generation underneath the film's intro. It's by far the worst part of the film, luckily it's only used during the intro and the song doesn't return later on. As for the dubbing, a film like this benefits greatly from a soft-voiced Japanse cast, I'm not sure if an English dub is available but I would strongly advise against it.
It's rare to see this much emotional nuance in an anime (or a live action feature for that matter). The decision to follow the story from the bully's point of view is a rather novel one, the fact that his character isn't demonized makes it that much smarter, but also a lot tougher. It creates a unique tension between victim and bully when they finally meet up again, which is really the crux of A Silent Voice. It all leads to a pretty fulfilling finale, though the rundown afterwards is a little long-winding.
130 minutes is quite long for an anime feature, but Yamada need every minute of that to tell this story. There's very little overhead and even though there are some narrative diversions, they always reflect back on the core themes of A Silent Voice. Add to that some impressive animation, a proper soundtrack and a warm, feel-good atmosphere that doesn't belittle the drama and you have an impressive anime feature that is sure to impress a lot of people.