Just a smile in need of protecting.
In February 2013, Bessatsu Shounen Magazine ran a one-shot called Koe no Katachi, by Ooima Yoshitoki, advertising it as a comic the editorial office initially didn’t want to print. It wasn’t only a cheap marketing trick, though: it immediately caused discussion on both sides of the Pacific and after a while, the decision to develop it into a longer series was made. In November 2014, first news of an animated adaptation emerged and in September 2016, the film, directed by Yamada Naoko of Kyoto Animation, was released theatrically. Back then, when the one-chapter “prototype” of Koe no Katachi was talked about on /a/, I gave it a go, tempted by all the controversy. And hated it. It remained in my memory as that comic about little shits abusing a deaf girl, and attempting to justify their disgusting, predatory behavior. Therefore, when the film recently went out on home video, I hesitated whether I should watch it. I guess it being made by KyoAni, and being a part of the recent chain of good anime films, made me choose to see it. And, as I was surprised to admit, I regretted nothing.
A certain elementary school class is joined by a new student: a sweet deaf girl called Nishimiya Shouko. You might suspect that her joining an otherwise typical group of kids might not turn out well. Especially since the teachers seem bent on behaving as if nothing out of the ordinary happened and they expect the schoolkids to do the same. If you have a bad feeling about this, you’re right to. At first, everything goes well, but of course, peace can’t last long. Shouko is a cute kid, but that won’t stop the protagonist, a little shit named Ishida Shouya from leading the class in bullying her. The news of a tormented disabled girl get out and Shouya takes the consequences. He wasn’t the only one guilty of abusing the deaf girl, but he was the most outstanding figure among the bullies. When Shouko’s sad fate finally becomes a topic of open discussion, a box of all kinds of ugly shit explodes in his face. The class turns on him, powered by their own guilt and fear of retribution. His classmates turn out to be sociopathic vermin (hi Shimada), cowards not ashamed of any lie (didn’t see you there Kawai), and general immature human waste (hello Ueno). And don’t even get me started on the class’s teacher, pretending not to know anything and finally blaming the single scapegoat that is Shouya, but only when the time to face consequences came. He wasn’t any better than the children. Shouko changes schools and Shouya’s life turns to hell now that he’s the “deaf girl abuser”. A few years later. Ishida Shouya is now a traumatized wreck unable to look people in the eye, one who convinced himself deeply that everybody despises him. He decides to die. Before he does, he wants to find Shouko and apologize. In the end, his suicide attempt fails, but he ends up wanting to become friends with Shouko instead. On his way to do so, he will encounter many hardships. He will meet old friends and some new ones. Be told that what he did is forever unforgiveable. Hurt some people even more. And be hurt in turn. And maybe in the end he will be able to gain forgiveness and forgive himself. Maybe he will rejoin society and be able to interact with people without shame…
Before anything else, I’ll say that Koe no Katachi is a triumph of 2D animation. It’s the work of Kyoto Animation after all – the studio which regularly raises the bar of what can be accomplished in the medium. The film looks impeccable and a passing glance at it will show you that incredible effort went into producing it. KyoAni seems to be picking original works to adapt based on not only their popularity and quality, but also the potential they have for being impressively animated. It’s not an accident that they seem to like stories about playing instruments – that gives them the possibility to show off. Koe no Katachi features conversations in sign language, which were faithfully represented in the film. The film sounds impressive as well – the soundtrack by Ushio Kensuke, featuring obviously real, non-synthetic piano, remains in memory, although some might say it contrasts with the film’s mood. Also, another person who deserves mad respect for their work on the film is Hayami Saori – playing the role of a deaf, but not mute person is how I imagine the biggest possible challenge for a voice actor. She pulls it off impressively.
Why does Koe no Katachi impress? The most obvious answer is a classic, easy one: intense emotions. However, in the film, the emotions you’ll feel are mostly indignation and anger at people hurting other people. And sometimes relief when the hurt people manage to live their lives happily anyway. Koe no Katachi is completely focused on emotions and doesn’t care about much else, which feels refreshening after all the popular stories relying on storytelling tricks to impress their audience. This film does nothing of the sort. Koe no Katachi is extremely sincere. It never lies. Absolutely nothing supernatural ever happens in it, as is usual in anime. Koe no Katachi is ugly reality – no problems are ever solved through unconvincing “power of friendship” bullshit and even the ending, which should count as a happy one, makes sure you know that the protag’s further life won’t be unequivocally happy. I like that a lot. I like stories that don’t lie. If you’ve read the comic, you might find a flaw in that argument – the film is much more “forgiving” that the original work. If you’re cynical, you might even claim that KyoAni tried to make their film a seishun-mono, a smiley story about life being beautiful, which Koe no Katachi obviously isn’t. Still, even the comic had such a positive, phony-sounding message hidden in the title – “Communicate! And then everything will be alright! If you’re picked on, apparently you didn’t communicate enough”.