Explore the craftsmanship that went into one of the most masterful anime films of the past decade
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A Silent Voice is a triumph of filmmaking. Shoya and Shoko's story affected me so deeply when I first watched it, I made a video essay on my personal YouTube channel talking about it! I recently re-watched the movie, and I wanted to explore some of the incredibly thoughtful work that went into crafting this amazing film. All of the information referenced comes from interviews and supplementary material available on the film's Blu-ray release.
A World of Greens and Blues
The setting of the movie is taken from real-life Ogaki city, and much of the background art draws directly from specific locations, with scouting photography done on-site providing a direct reference point. But subtle alterations in painting technique and color grading heighten these locations into something slightly removed from reality. In an interview from the Blu-ray release, art director Matsuo Shinohara talked about how the film's color palette was decided upon:
It's from an actual river in Ogaki, which appears often in the movie. The water's color in the river is beautiful, but it's not like the colors pop. We decided we would create a beautiful world, featuring deep greens and deep blue-greens.
Shinohara was also instructed to simplify the landscapes, in many scenes going so far as to completely remove clouds from the sky in order to reflect (and not distract from) the mental state of Shoya. The resulting world is striking. It is beautiful, more saturated, and simpler than real life, with blues and greens woven into every shadow. It's a softer world that holds these characters and their pain. It's a world that exists slightly removed from realism, but still very grounded. Recalling an instruction from director Naoko Yamada, Shinohara says, "She asked me to simplify some of the imagery, but still, she said it shouldn't be like fantasy. Yeah, it should be somewhere in the middle.
The Shape of Sound
Kensuke Ushio is a bit odd for an anime composer–he often works directly with directors instead of delivering a finished soundtrack to the production team. This often results in music that not only supplements the mood of a scene but acts as an active participant in the themes of a story. That intimate relationship with the production of A Silent Voice was established early.
Before [Yamada and I] dove into the storyboard, we decided to share some things that mattered to us as creators ... As we talked, we formed a kind of bond. I think that probably became the core between director Yamada and I in A Silent Voice. Some aspects of that core became music, and other aspects became storyboards. It really was an organic exchange of ideas.
Not only did Yamada directly influence Ushio's score, but Ushio directly influenced Yamada's storyboards!
Ushio's work very closely connects us to the characters. With her hearing loss, most of us couldn't understand how Shoko takes in the world. Ushio brings us into empathy with her through the inclusion of electronic whines that mimic those of a hearing aid. He also took apart an upright piano and put it back together with microphones within it so that he could capture the thumps of the hammers, the thuds of the pedals on felt, and all the other creaks and sounds that happen while you play. These sounds draw us in close to the music and help us understand Shoko's world a bit better — she experiences vibration more intensely than sound, so these knocks and thuds mimic that.
Ushio wanted part of the soundtrack to sound like piano practice — halting, unsure piano playing to mirror Shoya slowly learning how to love the world again. This resulted in the series of tracks called "inv" that are all deconstructions of Bach's "Invention No. 1 in C major. Everything in the soundtrack was recorded at a very high bitrate in order to maintain all of this detail, and because of this, it succeeds not only as a technically masterful soundtrack, but a key aspect to the film's ability to help us understand these characters.
The Focal Length of the Heart
Naoko Yamada is my favorite director. Her work is understated, meticulous, and full of overflowing kindness. I think one excellent indicator of all three of these things is her use of the camera lens effect in A Silent Voice. Yamada has said that the movie's story has a "really narrow focus" because it "approaches each character's heart very closely." In order to show this feeling visually, Yamada added lens aberrations to the movie so it would appear like it was filmed through a narrowly focused camera lens. This effect was employed to make the audience feel like they were placed within the scene, not just watching. "I wanted the film to be close to people's physiology. So I added an effect that captures that narrow scope ... I wanted to give the feeling of being somewhere in the middle."
The delicate linework on Yamada's characters leaves a very striking impression — they all appear at once tangible but light and airy, almost insubstantial. The combination of highly realistic proportions and detailing with the wispy outlines and pastel coloring mirrors the techniques employed with the backgrounds, they almost look like a part of our world, but more ephemeral, heightened.
All of this work comes together to create a kinder world. With characters like this, in a setting like this, the heaviness of trauma and pain can be held and processed in a unique way. The film is just firm enough not to soften the issues discussed but just kind enough to make you feel safe enough to heal with the characters. Yamada and her team have created something very special, something that has helped me through a number of hard times myself. I'll end this article with a direct quote from director Naoko Yamada:
All of us have a failure that we’ve kept hidden inside, or an experience that we’re embarrassed to tell anyone about, since it was painful or hurtful. I’m sure everyone has this, more or less. It often makes us stuck inside ourselves, like Shoya or other characters. From your own point of view, it seems like you're the only one who feels that way, but if you broaden your view a bit, you can see that it’s something everyone shares. I hope that anyone who feels that way, by watching this film, will be able to forgive themselves … Or maybe they could change their approach to someone who they thought they could never forgive. It would be good if this film gives people that opportunity.