“Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person.” —Tennessee Williams
As an elementary student, Shōya Ishida and his classmates relentlessly bullied Shōko Nishimiya, a deaf girl who had transferred into his class. When she transferred out of their school shortly after, his friends made him a scapegoat, leading to his isolation throughout middle school and high school. By this point, Shōya has learned sign language and seeks to make amends, seeking to return her notebook that he’d retained, but when it falls into the river and Shōya jumps in to retrieve it, he is suspended from school following Shōko’s sister, Yuzuru’s posting it online. His heart set on rectifying his past transgressions, Shōya helps Shōko reconnect with Sahara and brings everyone back together for a day at the amusement park, but Miki later reveals Shōya’s past, prompting him to come forwards with how he’d felt about the whole situation. Shōko grows distressed, feeling she is personally responsible for what had happened to Shōya and attempts to commit suicide by jumping off her apartment’s balcony, but Shōya saves her, falling from the balcony and lapsing into a coma. During this time, Shōya and Shōko’s mothers reconcile, and when Shōya reawakens, he finds Shōko, explaining to her that the consequences of his actions during elementary are his responsibility to bear. When their school’s cultural festival begins, Shōya attends with his friends, feeling he’s finally found redemption and solace. At least, this is the simple summary of Koe no Katachi‘s film adaptation of the manga of the same name. Released in September 2016 with a runtime of 130 minutes, this film’s home release came out ahead of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name back during May, and having watched it, this is a movie with an exceptionally strong story, following the ins and outs surrounding Shōya’s path to absolution from his transgressions.
Being at the heart of Koe no Katachi, Shōya’s redemption is the single theme in the movie: Koe no Katachi is meant to illustrate that past mistakes are not so easily forgiven or forgotten, but through Shōya, also demonstrate that individuals are not static entities. Clearly remorseful of his cruelty to Shōko, Shōya persists in setting things right even as circumstances continue to transpire against him, setting him back. This stands in stark contrast with his persistence in bullying Shōko during his childhood; as a child, Shōya is evidently a highly unpleasant individual, but his own suffering drives him in a different direction, bringing about a profound change. These changes are presented through his actions, rather than his appearance, and his determination to right wrongs with Shōko is particularly encouraging to watch, showing how even the most hideous of actions can be forgiven with sufficient persistence towards what is right. By the film’s end, he manages to overcome a long-standing challenge in addressing other people, and the changes in his character are noted by some of his peers, who can once again count him as a friend. Shōya’s change is further accentuated by his juxtaposition with Naoka Ueno; in their childhood, they bullied Shōko together primarily because Naoka held feelings for Shōya, longing to earn his attention. While Shōya’s definitely seen the error of his ways and have changed, enduring and doing his utmost to make amends even as his classmates and adults attempt to tear him down, Naoka continues to resent Shōko, going to the lengths of insulting her, refusing to understand her situation and even beating her down physically following Shōya’s hospitalisation. If Shōya is meant to epitomise understanding and change, then Naoka represents a stubborn refusal to improve: she’s intended to evoke hostility in audiences to further emphasise just how far Shōya has come. The sum of his actions in the present and understanding of his actions as a child culminate to form an individual who’s plainly a better person, allowing Koe no Katachi to craft a direct and brilliant tale of redemption.
Following Koe no Katachi‘s release, Makoto Shinkai himself remarked that this film is “fantastic piece of work” and a “polished and grand production” that possessed finess surpassing his own films. While perhaps speaking to Shinkai’s humility and ever-present drive to improve, his remarks also mirror the element that allows Koe no Katachi to be such an effective film: Koe no Katachi is polished precisely because it focused on a single element in Shōya’s redemption. This allows the film to explore in an in-depth fashion the intricate emotions that arise when an individual sets out on such a journey. All of the characters in Koe no Katachi feel authentic, reacting to situations with the same fluidity and naturalness as humans to create a world whose characters come to life. From the tears that are shed to smiles shared, emotions in Koe no Katachi are finely crafted to showcase the spectrum of feelings that Shōya, Shōko, their parents and their classmates come about as a consequence of Shōya’s choices. Shinkai, when speaking of this polish, is referring to this strength of execution in Koe no Katachi: the movie’s greatest strength is being able to follow Shōya in such detail and granularity to really present emotions as we know them. Consequently, if Your Name‘s strength was the scale of the narrative, then Koe no Katachi is equally as impressive for being able to bring so many elements from its story to life owing to its concentration on a single, yet powerful idea.
Screenshots and Commentary
- I have a bit of a confession to make: one of the reasons why this review was so long in the making was primarily because I had a bit of a writer’s block in trying to come up with things to discuss for the figure captions, despite there being a paltry thirty – thirty screenshots is the standard for movie reviews, but the unique nature of Koe no Katachi meant it was quite difficult to decide what I would say for the moments that are included in this discussion. It makes sense, though, to introduce Shōko, in the foreground, and Shōya. Their given names are remarkably similar, meant to emphasise their connection in the context of Koe no Katachi.
- In Koe no Katachi‘s opening flashback, Shōya relentlessly bullies Shōko. His character’s design and appearance, coupled with the actions, immediately paint him as a troublemaker, someone unfavourable and unlikeable. He’s sitting beside Naoka Ueno, a classmate with a minor crush on him and so, participates in the bullying. Despite looking like Hibike Euphonium‘s Reina Kōsaka and even K-On!‘s Mio Akiyama, Naoka is definitely not a sympathetic character and in fact, can be seen as the catalyst for Shōya’s actions, egging him on. The bullying reaches a climax when Shōya forcibly removes Shōko’s hearing aids, causing her to bleed from the ears.
- The incident eventually leads Shōko to transfer away, and Shōya is made scapegoat for the incident. A despicable character by all counts, Shōya’s character as a child brings to mind my bullies of old, who would pull similar tricks. The bullying would dissipate with time, as I became more social from a growing command of English: I suspect that my weak English skills, in making it difficult to communicate with others, resulting in misunderstandings not unlike Shōya’s frustration at being unable to communicate with Shōko properly. This realisation comes out of the blue, and I think that I can forgive my old bullies now, having determined what the likely cause was.
- After her hearing aids are damaged, Shōya’s mother steps up to compensate Shōko’s mother. The two are polar opposites despite their similar backgrounds; Shōya’s mother is loving and caring, supporting Shōya even when the world turns him away, while Shōko’s mother is cold and bitter, a result of her marriage failing when her husband’s family influenced him into leaving.
- Raw emotions are at the forefront of all things in Koe no Katachi: the movie is open and honest in how the characters feel about one another, as well as themselves. In this manner, Koe no Katachi, who presented Shōya in a very unfavourable light, sets itself up to show audiences just how much he’s changed and persuades viewers to give him a chance. His subsequent actions stand in stark contrast with his appearance, and in time, audiences will come to empathise with Shōya, rooting for him as he tries to right things with Shōko.
- In the present, resolute on setting things right, Shōya attempts to befriend Shōko and make an honest attempt to understand her, even learning sign language in the process. One of the unique aspects about Koe no Katachi from a visual perspective is that the movie makes extensive use of depth-of-field and chromatic aberration effects in an image’s peripheries to give the sense that it is being captured from an older camera. The visuals bestow upon Koe no Katachi a very distinct feeling that is overt in some places, and subtle in others, mirroring Shōya’s perspective on the world.
- After saving Tomohiro Nagatsuka’s bike from would-be thieves, Shōya finds in Tomohiro an admiring companion willing to come to his aid despite knowing very little about him; in a manner of speaking, Tomohiro is similar to Shrek‘s Donkey in that both respect the protagonist for having done them a good deed and following them around after. In my books, the definition of friendship is a relationship between two individuals built around unconditional trust and support: friends are there for the people they care for in tough times and share in their happiness during good times.
- Initially masqurading as Shōko’s boyfriend, Yuzuru is revealed to be Shōko’s younger sister, fiercely protective of her sister and doing her utmost to will Shōko to keep living in her own manner, even despite a lack of care from their mother. With a deep-seated hatred of those who bullied Shōko, Yuzuru and Shōya initially do not get along well despite Shōya’s efforts, but over time, she comes to accept Shōya. Watching all of the relationships change over time in Koe no Katachi was remarkably rewarding; the changes are a sign that in some cases, even the most rockiest of starts and wretched of people can reconcile and cooperate once they understand one another.
- The turning tide in Yuzuru and Shōya’s interactions follows after she captures an image of him jumping into the river to retrieve Shōko’s journal, which leads to his suspension from school. In spite of this action, Yuzuru is surprised that he is not even mad about the turn of events. He reveals that he does not feel himself to have suffered in full for his past actions against Shōko, and learning of his sincerity, Yuzuru begins to regard Shōya with reduced hostility. One of the pastimes that Shōko has is feeding birds, and Shōya, longing to befriend Shōko, takes this activity up as well; he occasionally buys bread and visits Shōko.
- Yuzuru plays with Maria, daughter of Shōya’s older sister and a Brazilian fellow. The cast of Koe no Katachi‘s manga is quite large, and the plot is more intricate, with a movie being at its core, but the animated film of Koe no Katachi is much more concise, dropping the film narrative entirely and focusing on Shōya’s changing relationship with Shōko. Despite these omissions, the film is a powerhouse whose main strength is being able to so thoroughly explore a youth’s journey towards reconciliation and redemption. Such stories typically are more epic in nature, but in Koe no Katachi, the journey is set in the realm of reality – the dæmons that Shōya face are ultimately his own.
- With all of the efforts that Shōya has made towards befriending Shōko, Shōko attempts kokuhaku, but because of her speech impendiment, Shōya believes she is talking about the moon (suki vs tsuki). People who are deaf can acquire spoken language to varying extents depending on their education and when their deafness occurred. Voiced by Saori Hayami (Tari Tari‘s Sawa Okita, and Aoyama Blue Mountain of GochiUsa), Shōko speaks in broken Japanese, struggling with pronunciations; her command linguistics are consistent with being born deaf, yet another indication of the sort of effort that went into creating Koe no Katachi.
- In her teens, Naoka’s resemblance to Reina is reinforced ever more strongly. As Koe no Katachi was helmed by Kyoto Animation, the film’s characters derive traits from Hibike Euphonium. However, Naoka, despite her similarities in appearance, is quite unlike Reina: the former is a stern, hard-working trumpeter who expresses concern for her friends in her own manner, while Naoka is a self-centred and conceited individual, refusing to understand Shōko. Of all of the people that Shōya reconnects with, she is the only person to continue bullying Shōko even after all this time, wondering why Shōko never fights back against her bullies.
- When Shōya and the others visit an amusement park, he realises that it is a joy to be doing things that friends are normally able to do before things start going south once Naoka meets up with Shōko. I remark here that I’ve been referring to every character by their given name, even though in the film, everyone refers to one another by their family names. As much of a disconnect as there is in writing my reviews, I am following North American conventions for naming people in a casual setting and as my reviews are more casual in nature, I will use given names even though I’d gone through the film hearing everyone’s family names instead.
- Naoka’s actions cause Shōya to begin ignoring her; throughout Koe no Katachi, blue x’s are used to illustrate the fact that Shōya cannot look others in the eye and ignores them. Kyoto Animation’s interpretation of these x’s are artistically done, as the pulsate and move around slightly to give them a hand-drawn feel. Popping out from the scenes, they do much to convey to audiences how Shōya feels about those around him, giving viewers a very clear sense of who Shōya is able to make eye contact with throughout the film. It is later revealed that Naoka continues to physically and verbally abuse Shōko.
- When Miki Kawai exposes Shōya’s past to the others, it creates a rift amongst the friends that Shōya had gained while trying to help Shōko. The class representative back when they were elementary students, Miki is solely driven by her own aspirations and does not hesitate to throw people under the bus for her own gain, believing in her superiority over others. She as feelings for Satoshi Mashiba, a fellow classmate who is generally kind to Shōya but grows disapproving upon learning of Shōya’s action in the past, having been bullied himself.
- Shōya eventually confronts the others about their actions and how no one present is really guilt-free for what happened to Shōko during their elementary school days, acknowledging that he too shoulders the burdens of his past actions. His words hit the others hard, although Koe no Katachi shows that words alone don’t really mean much against actions. By this point in the movie, the changes beginning to manifest in Shōya are becoming apparent, although Naoka herself remains quite unchanged from her past self. Immensely unlikable and unpleasant despite her appearance, Naoka is intended to represent individuals who remain trapped in the past, and while it is true that people can change over time, there are others who persistently cling to their memories.
- As Koe no Katachi progresses, Shōya spends an increasing amount of time with Shōko, travelling to the countryside and exploring together. He is able to help Shōko experience a quantum of happiness during this time, although his actions also drive Shōko to become, ironically, unhappy – she blames herself for everything that’s happened to Shōya and his friends.
- Because of his actions previously, Shōko’s mother despises Shōya, but consents to allow him to stay when he helps Shōko bake a cake on her birthday. One of the joys about Kyoto Animation’s strongest works has always been how they can make audiences to empathise with cold and unfriendly characters – by presenting their changes over time in response to the different events around them, it shows the characters as being willing to learn, giving them a human sense. Of course, not every Kyoto Animation anime does this: characters remain quite flat in things like Lucky Star and K-On!, but other of their works, such as CLANNAD and Hibike! Euphonium, excel at creating characters audiences come to care for.
- Koe no Katachi‘s rising action comes full throttle at a summer festival; while deeply enjoying the moment and the fact she’s able to spend time with her family after everything that’s occurred, it is here that Shōko is overwhelmed by her guilt. Under the pretense of returning home to retrieve something while a fireworks display is in progress, it is here that Shōko decides to commit suicide, drawing parallels with Shōya, who considered suicide but ultimately backed down. Unlike Shōya, Shōko had every intention of following through.
- It is only through Shōya’s timely intervention that Shōko is saved, and in this moment, Shōko realises that people do care for her, promising to do better for Shōya’s sake. However, the cost of this effort in saving Shōko is that Shōya himself falls into the river: unlike Bruce Wayne, who managed to save Raʾs al-Ġūl (masquerading as Henry Ducard), Shōya’s in a bit more of a difficult position and only just manages to pull Shōko up from the balcony.
- The fall Shōya sustains causes him to lapse into a coma. Naoka later reveals that Kazuki Shimada and Keisuke Hirose, Shōya’s former best friends, were the ones who pulled him from the river, despite their presently less-than-cordial relationship. I remark here that Koe no Katachi is a film whose review could have easily been the same size as that of my Your Name review, as there is so much to discuss regarding the rationale behind each character’s actions, and whether or not some actions can be justified.
- In the aftermath of Shōya’s admission to a hospital for his injuries, Shōko’s mother and Yuzuru express their apologies at what’s happened out of guilt despite reassurances from Shōya’s mother that things will be alright. The part of the movie that does not sit well with me, attesting again to excellence in the movie’s execution, is the fist fight that breaks out between Shōko’s mother and Naoka. Even at this point in time, Naoka continues to be, for the lack of a better phrase, an irredeemable piece of shit. In the manga, she later takes on a modelling job with Miyoko Sahara, a tall girl. Nothing befalls Naoka in either the film or the manga, and while this leaves loose ends, it’s also a part of reality: the number of instances where assholes can get away with atrocious behaviour is mind-boggling.
- When Shōya finally reawakens, the first person he encounters is Shōko. Openly apologising to her for his actions in their childhood, Shōya reminds Shōko that he bears responsibility for his own suffering, and that Shōko had nothing to do with his isolation after she transferred out. He also expresses that he understands her situation, hence his longing to be with her, helping Shōko to live normally. In finally doing what he had set out to do, this moment between Shōya and Shōko marks the film’s climax.
- Shōya returns to school in time for the cultural festival. Koe no Katachi and Your Name, two powerhouse films from summer 2016, have been compared against one another to a nontrivial extent on the ‘net owing to both films’ superb execution, moving story and exceptional artwork. From a purely box office gross perspective, Your Name comes out on top, but when one delves into the narrative, there are enough differences for me to say that both films have their own merits, and from my own subjective perspective, both films are worth watching for their own strengths.
- If and when I’m asked, I would say that Koe no Katachi and Your Name share the relationship between Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Interstellar. While this initially comes across as being a very unusual comparison, the reasoning for this is mainly because, like Koe no Katachi and Your Name, both of Dunkirk and Interstellar have unique points that make them enjoyable. In particular, like Dunkirk, Koe no Katachi is focused on a very specific idea (the former deals with three unique perspectives during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, while the latter is entirely about Shōya’s journey of redemption). Both movies excel in their use of emotions and cues in the environment to convey how the characters are feeling to audiences, from the visceral fear and uncertainty in Dunkirk to the regret and determination of Koe no Katachi.
- Shōko finally lets loose an insult directed at Naoka, doing so with a smile on her face, before they part ways. With the comparison done for Dunkirk and Koe no Katachi, the parallels between Interstellar and Your Name are easier to draw: for one, I’ve already remarked on the similarities of one of the thematic elements in both films earlier. Both films are set on a large scale, covering a variety of topics during their narrative, and are unparalleled in terms of their visual fidelity: Your Name is immediately recognisable for its distinct rendition of Comet Tiamat, as well as Makoto Shinkai’s masterful artwork. Similarly, the super-massive black hole, Gargantia, in Interstellar remains one of the film’s most iconic components. Much like how Your Name attempts to strike a balance between the science and the body-switching phenomenon, Interstellar was written within terms outlined by Kip Thorne: the realm of physical laws must not be departed from.
- Ultimately, I cannot say that I enjoyed Interstellar or Dunkirk over the other, so in that vein, I did not enjoy Koe no Katachi over Your Name and vice versa: both films are exceptional to watch and highly entertaining with powerful merits backing each. My end recommendation is to watch both. Of course, these are merely my own thoughts: many folks enjoyed Your Name for its riveting performance and vivid colours, while others still find Koe no Katachi to be more touching for its strong focus on characterisation.
- The dénouement in Koe no Katachi is bright and cheerful: Shōya finally comes to feel that he has found redemption, and the x’s peel away from the people surrounding him en masse, bringing the film to a close. The manga continues in illustrating the dramatic changes: his and Shōko’s mother become friends, accepting Shōya and expressing her thanks that he and Shōko have become friends.
- After high school, Shōya has become more sociable, and when they visit their elementary reunion, is shown hand-in-hand with Shōko, implying that he’s come to understand how she feels about him. The events of the manga are more protracted and intricate, but in film form, Koe no Katachi has done a fantastic job of capturing the theme of redemption with its visuals. Taken together with the manga, Koe no Katachi shows just how dramatic this change can be: Shōya’s rough start with Shōko transition into an awkward friendship from which love blossoms.
- As it turns out, while it was quite tough to get the Koe no Katachi review rolling, once I actually started, things began to become a little easier as I warmed up. It helps that I’ve seen Dunkirk, which provided a bit of inspiration for diving into the themes and execution when I began considering Christopher Nolan’s two most recent feature-length films. I finished Koe no Katachi early in July, and a bit more than a month after I drafted out the review, this post is finally finished. As a bit of amusement for readers: compare and contrast my description of Naoka in the figure captions against those of the actual paragraphs. Thanks for reading!
Koe no Katachi is something that merits a strong recommendation for anime fans and folks unfamiliar with anime alike. The powerful story, in covering a full spectrum of emotions, is well worthwhile simply because it shows that people can and will change, and that this effort is met with reward. In conjunction with Kyoto Animation’s typical mastery of visual and aural elements, the film is a remarkable experience for the senses. Granted, as an adaptation of the manga, liberties were taken with the narrative (the film omits Shōya’s attempts to make a film, and also the aftermath of Shōya’s redemption, when he becomes more sociable and counts Shōko as a dear friend), but Koe no Katachi nonetheless manages to smoothly craft a succinct film from the manga. With director Naoko Yamada at the film’s helm, Koe no Katachi showcases the sort of mastery that can be borne out of a film whose narrative is concise but well-executed: movies need not always feature dramatic moments, complex narratives and obscure symbols to provoke discussion amongst viewers. Even the simplest of things in life, the seemingly unassuming journey of a high school student, can be immensely intricate and merit exploration; at this, Koe no Katachi simply excels, weaving superior artwork, sound and narrative together into an entity that keeps its audiences engaged for the film’s entire duration.