I really, really, really wanted to love this film, you have no idea.
The last time I did a standalone anime review (although, let’s face it, those annual recaps are basically filler for when I’m processing backlogged photos) was over a year ago for Your lie in April, and if you read that one you know how much I love that show. I wrote that review due to my enthusiasm for the show and it was intended to get people to watch it as quickly as possible (knowing that my 2016 recap would be far off… and as we approach the end of August 2017 it’s still no where in sight; it’s sad when your fillers need fillers).
This review, however, is for an entirely different reason. I’m still trying to process my feels for Koe no Katachi (聲の形) three — uh, four — nope, five days later (watched it on Friday night and I started writing this on Monday… through Tuesday… and now it’s Wednesday — hence the unusual posting day), and I hope my writing this out will help me do it.
Normally, I’ll either enjoy a show or I won’t, but this is the second anime I’ve watched this year that has made me think I’d love it since it was hitting all the right buttons but ultimately left me empty inside mourning what could’ve been. The other was My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, which had the same, albeit lesser effect.
SNAFU features a friendless pragmatist who has keen insights into life and human relationships. His observations were brilliant and often hilarious in their truthfulness, but other things in the show were lost on me — primarily character motivation — which ultimately resulted in my ambivalence toward it; motivation that is unclear or out of character will really destroy a work for me because it just makes it seem like the characters are in service to the plot and not vice versa.
Since it affected me to a lesser degree, I haven’t gone to the trouble of writing anything up on SNAFU, though I did track down the source material and might get around to reading it at some point. It’s possible that my comprehension issues were due to the sub I watched, but since it was a long show (two cours and two OVAs with a studio change in the middle; the art change didn’t help) I’m kind of hesitant to revisit it any time soon. It also takes me back to a discussion I had with a friend about my belief that anime adaptations need to be able to stand on their own; as a viewer, you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the source material to understand what’s going on. Expecting your audience to do homework in order to enjoy your show is sloppy and lazy.
That same friend watches a lot of anime, so when he went out of his way to recommend Koe no Katachi (The Shape of Voice aka A Silent Voice), it came with high expectations. A quick search revealed that the film was highly rated on various websites (MAL, AniDB) and I was immediately intrigued by the premise, which revolves around a deaf girl (Nishimiya Shouko) and the boy who bullied her (Ishida Shouya), since it was subject matter that I’d never seen addressed seriously in any of the anime I’d watched up to this point.
Granted, I haven’t watched as much anime as others have, but disability and bullying generally aren’t discussed by Asians anyway in my experience. We’ve all had experiences with bullying and I wholly expected to be left a blubbering mess by the end of it.
The film starts off well enough and had me hooked until it briefly lost me with a poorly executed timeskip/flashback sequence about 15 minutes in. It was definitely an artistic choice (the time irregularity is a dissolve between Shouya’s eyes in the two time frames) but I feel that it was poorly chosen since it was a jump forward then an immediate jump backward before returning to the jump forward. I had to rewind it a couple of times to see what was going on (all of the points in time were quite close together, evidenced by the fact that the characters were wearing pretty much the same clothes in each sequence).
While I’m not going to recap the entire film, this is where we start getting into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen it, read the spoiler-free version.
You’ve been warned! Spoilers ahead.
So, before the timeskip, Shouya tosses Shouko’s conversation notebook into a nearby pond after she asks (a second time) to be his friend and she wades into the pond to retrieve it. We cut to his reaction and then, after the dissolve, he’s the one in the pond with his notebooks floating around him and his friends walk off. The insinuation is that his friends did this to him. Then we cut back to earlier in the day (what we dissolved through for the sake of that “artsy” moment) in the classroom where Shouya is trying to defend his actions by saying his friends also bullied Shouko. (Shouko is absent from school this day.)
Then Shouya’s in the pond again and somehow he finds Shouko’s notebook floating next to him. What? Why is that still there? That’s how she communicates with the world (yes, the dick basically threw her voice away); she’s not going to just leave it there no matter how many times it gets floated (sorry, I love The 100). Needless to say, this is all this pretty confusing on first watch.
EDIT: We actually see in the one-shot manga that she does drop the notebook back into the pond because she remembers that she wanted to use it to make friends and realizes that nobody else feels the same. So, another questionable decision made by director Yamada.
This is also where the motivations started to break down for me because Shouya’s close friends now turn around and start bullying him. Sure, a beating for ratting them out I can understand, maybe even unfriending and ostracizing him as well, but that’s not what they do. They go out of their way to mess with him and do the same things to him that he did to Shouko. Later, as they enter middle school, Shimada (one of Shouya’s now ex-friends) tells another student to stay away from Shouya because he’s a bully, but since Shimada is now bullying Shouya, I never really got the sense that that’s the real reason why everyone turned against him.
I never understood why Shouko wanted to be his friend, either. After she asked to be friends the first time, he threw sand in her face and started bullying her in earnest. It’s possible that she asked the second time to try to win him over or to get him to stop bullying her, but come on — even a dog knows to stay away from you if you beat it enough times.
Shouya comes back to the classroom after a hazing and finds Shouko cleaning his desk. Is this another attempt to win him over? Is she doing this out of a sense of guilt (from causing him to get bullied or getting him in trouble at home)? We never find out what happens after Shouko’s and Shouya’s moms meet, nor do we find out how the other kids treat Shouko after Shouya becomes the bullied. Do the other kids leave her alone now, or do they do their abusing on the downlow? She transfers schools after this scene and I can’t really see her doing that if things did get better for her.
Five years later, Shouya still has Shouko’s notebook for some reason (he didn’t return it the next day, or when their families met up?) and tracks her down to return it (how he manages to do that is never explained, either). Tentative at first, Shouko invites him to feed bread to the carp nearby. Why would she do that? You leave a terrible situation and when your abuser suddenly tracks you down five years later, you don’t have alarms going off in your head? Shouko’s little sister Yuzuru is right to be wary and to mess with him.
(Side note: I’m not sure why, in his memory, Shouko unbuttons her sweater after she’s already taken the bread out from inside it. Pervert.)
This fuzzy motivation is especially troubling later on. After an appointment with her doctor, Shouko (presumably) learns that she has lost all hearing in her right ear. This prompts her to change her hairstyle and then the moment that I’d anticipated and dreaded comes — she confesses to Shouya. I love my romances, but why is there this need to force a love story where one isn’t needed? It felt wildly out of place and there was no build up to this point; Shouya still hasn’t even actually apologized yet for his past behavior (they make a big deal out of this later). Is it because she’s just grasping at anything to try to be a “normal” girl after that diagnosis and he’s the only available male in her life? Are these real emotions or some sort of Stockholm syndrome?
What’s even worse is that later we find out that Yuzuru took up photography in the hopes of distracting Shouko from wanting to kill herself. After this reveal, we cut to a shot of Shouko in her elementary school days crying. Has she wanted to kill herself since then? If so, then it’s hard to imagine that Shouya and the rest weren’t a big part of making her feel that way and the root cause of her self-destructively low self-esteem.
This leads to the issue of shifting POV. While the story is Shouya’s (which kind of explains why we only really know what he knows… kind of) we see Yuzuru’s and Shouko’s memories and dream sequences in addition to Shouya’s, further confusing character motivation. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real, what’s not, and who the people involved are. Is Shouko dreaming through Shouya’s POV before she runs to look for him on the bridge after her suicide attempt? Are these her memories? Is a bloody Shouko Yuzuru’s dream or memory? Has she tried to kill herself before?
Shouya’s circle of friends slowly expands, leading to a minor quibble of mine about why Mashiba wants to be friends with Shouya and why he goes through Kawai instead of speaking to him directly, although it might be a cultural thing to be introduced through a mutual friend. Mashiba and Shouya had never interacted before, and due to the “X” Shouya sees on Kawai’s face up until this point it seems that they haven’t interacted much outside of classroom obligations, either. So why the interest in Shouya?
Anyway, Shouya invites Shouko to an amusement park with his new friends and Ueno, another of Shouya’s former friends and one of Shouko’s former tormentors, happens to show up. Did someone invite her, or is she stalking Shouko now?
Sahara (the one classmate who was actually kind to Shouko) goes to high school with Ueno so did she invite her? Sahara had transferred out of their grade school before the real bullying started but she did see some of it (and even caught some of it herself from Ueno just for hanging out with Shouko). Her conversation with Shouya makes it seem like she didn’t know Ueno would be there and they don’t ride any rides together or even stand near each other like friends would. That leaves Kawai, but she spends the entire time at the park hanging with Mashiba. Later on, Kawai says that Mashiba said that she (Kawai) should forgive Shouya if he apologized to Shouko but Kawai knows that Ueno has never done that. Why would she bring Ueno and Shouko together like that, then?
At any rate, given their history, why would Shouko agree to go on the Ferris wheel with Ueno? She had to have seen that something was coming; even Yuzuru was smart enough to see it, which is why she gives Shouko the camera. (I also have a problem with how some of the “hidden camera” footage was shot, namely how it follows the action even though it’s supposedly in Shouko’s lap the whole time, but most of the time this technique isn’t done right anyway.) When things come to a head with the group on the bridge later, why doesn’t Shouya call Ueno out about what she did to Shouko on the Ferris wheel?
Ueno is a problematic character for me. She says she hates people who can only see things through their own point of view yet she’s guilty of doing the same. She blames others (namely Shouko) for the current situation but when Shouko blames herself she gets mad and when Shouya says things are his fault she says she hates that way of thinking. There really is no dere to her tsun — she’s just a self-centered hypocrite and I really hate her like I do few other characters. Even her purported change at the end of the film feels fake and way too easy.
After viewing the hidden camera footage, Shouya tells Yuzuru that he wants Shouko to come to love herself. I don’t think he ever actually accomplishes this task (the end of the film is all about him). Kind of hard to do that anyway when it doesn’t seem like he loves himself, either, what with all the remorse he has for his past.
Shouko waits a conveniently long time after the breakup of the group to try to commit suicide, maybe so her mother doesn’t have to deal with the aftermath so soon after her grandmother’s funeral. In the meantime, however, she gives no sign of what she plans to do (usually there are warning signs). Rather, she seems pretty happy just spending time with Shouya as well as her family, even getting Shouya to spend time with her mother, who is understandably still pissed at him for all the trouble he caused in the past.
All of these things, ultimately, can be argued to be subject to interpretation. The one thing that really upset me, though, and that can’t really be explained away is what happens in the last act of the film. When Shouko says she wants to fix what she (thinks she) destroyed (basically, Shouya’s friendships during the confrontation on the bridge), nobody corrects her or disagrees with her. This means that they really do blame her for the implosion of the group, even though she had nothing at all to do with it; poor girl just stood there while Shouya put them all on blast (I’m not sure how much she even understood since he was talking into his arms for most of it and not using sign language at all).
Once again, just like five years ago, everyone blames the deaf girl for causing problems just by existing and she just accepts it. But while the Shouko of the past was capable of defending herself both physically and verbally (when Shouya catches her cleaning his desk), the Shouko of the present just continually takes verbal and physical abuse (primarily from Ueno) when she should be telling these people who barged back into her life to sod off.
The fact that I’ve spent the last few days thinking about, writing about, researching, and re-watching (once in whole to make sure I got everything and enough in parts to count as a second) this film should tell you how much I wanted to love it and it tells me that something in it must have spoken to me on such a deep and profound level that I couldn’t just let it go, and I can’t help but feel it was mainly due to Shouko.
Shouko is probably the most moe character I’ve ever come across (accentuated no doubt by her disability), one that is real and grounded enough to avoid crossing the line into becoming a full-fledged moeblob. All of us can relate to feeling left out, feeling worthless or like a burden, believing that the world would be better off without us, wanting to be accepted, and wanting to be friends with others. She does the best she can despite her shortcomings but always feels that her best isn’t good enough. Even though she does wind up being other people’s (and her own) punching bag and doesn’t stand up for herself as she should, I loved her almost immediately, and maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time reconciling my feelings for this film.
The director of Koe no Katachi, Naoko Yamada, also directed Tamako Market (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and both seasons of K-ON! (which I love). Of course, she also directed the K-ON! movie (which I only kind of loved) and the Tamako Market movie (which I kind of hated) so maybe I just don’t like her films very much. I think Koe no Katachi really should’ve been a series (it runs 62 chapters); even a 1-cour would’ve gone a long way towards addressing the problems I listed above (although I would likely be scared of the story devolving into slapstick humor or Shouko turning into a full-blown moeblob).
In the course of writing this now 5-page review (honestly the longest thing I’ve written since the Looking for Miku script and prolly longer than most of my college papers), I did manage to work out a few of the issues I had with it (yes, there were more than I’ve presented here… many more) and I hope that the film will continue to grow on me as I ruminate on it further.
After all, I had an even more extreme visceral reaction to Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika The Movie -Rebellion- until I came to terms with it (luckily, I might add, since it was also what finally elevated Homura to Waifu status). I do have the Koe no Katachi manga on tap and will eventually get to it in the hopes that all my concerns will be answered, but, again: one shouldn’t be required to do homework in order to understand a work; in order to enhance the appreciation of it, sure — but that requires a different starting point.
Finally, is it worth a watch? I’ve basically watched it three times in the last five days, and I keep finding new things in it, some of which answer previous questions, others of which raise new ones. There’s a lot here, for sure. Why am I working so hard to like this film? I certainly wouldn’t go to this much effort with a film by Shinkai Makoto, who strikes me as immensely over-hyped and whose work never fails to disappoint me. There’s just something about this one that speaks to me, that makes me want to put in the effort and like it; I’m not sure if that’ll be enough for you.
tl;dr: Koe no Katachi is not for everyone and certainly has a number of character/story issues, but it may still win you over (or, at least, try its very best to).
If you’ve seen it, would love to hear your thoughts, rebuttals, and explanations!
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