Koe no Katachi is Kyoto Animation’s latest theatrical release. It is also arguably one of the most beautiful things to have ever graced us.
The story is about a boy, Ishida Shoya, who bullies a deaf girl, Nishimiya Shoko, and the two’s continuing hardships years after the fact. It tackles topics of bullying, change, and repentance.
But before getting into any of that, let’s take some time to appreciate how they have portrayed Shoko’s deafness here.
With a deaf girl as the heroine, it’s really important to make the animation realistic so the girl’s condition truly comes across. We do have some issues with how Shoko was enrolled in a regular school instead of one for special kids given the treatment a hearing impaired child would need, but let’s try to ignore that for a moment.
The most important aspect of this depiction is how she communicates with the kids around her. She has two modes of communication: through a notebook, and using sign language. The animation of sign language is nothing short of amazing. The entire movie is filled with character acting moments and these sign language parts make up a big chunk of them. They don’t cut corners anywhere: each hand movement is depicted in all its fluid glory. The characters’ actions are highly expressive and never appear as stiff due to a lack of movement, or even weird with excessive gesturing; they have achieved this perfect balance so the characters’ movements come off as true to life.
The movie is around two hours of nonstop sakuga thanks to those character movements. As she lacks a voice most of the time, Shoko’s emotions come out through her actions; we even get a scene where she’s scolding her sister only through sign language, and her anger is conveyed to us potently with those vehement hand movements of hers (and a little help from her facial expressions). Some things are lost on the average viewer as not all of the sign language is translated, but that is completely fine with us because not all sign language would be translated in real life either.
While on the topic of animation, one really noticeable trait is the delicate nature of most of the movements. The perfect example of this is when anyone taps Shoko’s shoulders to get her attention; you can almost feel the lightness of those taps yourself. They have given special attention to the way the characters act and their postures in general; the kids really feel like they’re little kids during the elementary school parts. There are a number of other little details in this movie, like the blinking lights of an airplane flying above during the emotional conversation between Shoko and Shoya on the bridge; the movements of underwater plants when someone jumps into the river; Ueno moving her hands across the bars of the jungle gym; the moving background characters; and even Shoko’s eye color in some shots.
The attention to detail is amazing and they’ve taken a more realistic approach to animating things, which shows the dedication of the staff in making this movie look perfect.
Going back to the means of communication, Shoko actually has a third one: her own voice. She may be deaf but talking isn’t exactly impossible for her, even more so given she’s partially deaf (hence the hearing aids, which didn’t seem to help much though). Kids learn to talk through hearing others and imitating them. But this process is impossible for deaf children; they have all the apparatus needed to form words, but they don’t know what to say and how to say it, since they’ve never heard anything. They can learn to speak through other means though, and the result is pretty much similar to what we see Shoko doing.
She speaks in a monotonous way that lacks any emotions, and can’t pronounce words properly. Her way of speaking is almost robotic in nature. Shoko can’t hear her own voice well enough, so she doesn’t know if she’s talking clearly or not, resulting in most of her words being difficult to understand and lacking the emotions a hearing person’s voice would have.
How a deaf individual would speak varies from person to person, but Saori Hayami has pretty much nailed it here; Shoko’s voice is almost perfect.
You can see from time to time how clueless Shoko is as to what is going on around her when everyone is talking. The best example is her looking around for clues during her elementary school days. The teacher talks to the class and she has no idea what to do, which results in her getting help from Ueno (who later on gets annoyed by it, even though she was the one who offered her assistance in the first place).
The folks at KyoAni have really done sublime work with regards to the depiction of Shoko’s deafness.
The movie does a wonderful job of showing how Shoko expresses herself thanks to its stellar animation.
Let’s now move on to the topics this movie tackles.
When it comes to bullying, it’s all fun and games for our main bully. They paint Shoya’s elementary school days as all fun, with him not having a care in the world. They show him to be one of those cool kids who think they can get away with everything. He doesn’t start his bullying career for no reason, but after noticing a general dislike towards Shoko. He sees Ueno getting annoyed by Shoko and her notebook, and the rest of the girls avoiding her. His only reason for doing it is because he understands that this is what most of the kids would want. “No one really likes this girl, and it’ll serve as some entertainment for everyone if she is teased a little”, is what his thought process boils down to.
Since Shoya only thinks of this as him fooling around, the bullying sequences are supported by a fittingly upbeat track playing in the background. And as with every other case of bullying, there comes a time when things go slightly too far, and that’s where the music stops. Shoko takes some days off school, Shoya is pronounced guilty, and his friends all gloriously ditch him to save their own souls because selfishness is part of human nature.
Koe no Katachi teaches us that what goes around comes around; Shoya gets treated in exactly the same way as he’d treated Shoko. The parts where Shoya gets bullied come without any background music, and are put forward as somewhat sad moments, providing a powerful contrast between the boy’s feelings when he is the oppressor, and his feelings when he is the oppressed. What this contrast implicitly informs us of is how little Shoya had considered Shoko’s feelings; it also tells us that he’s now learning about what it feels like being bullied.
Shoko gets bullied at every occasion; unfortunately, the kids are oblivious the gravity of their actions, for now.
The movie doesn’t just tackle bullying, it takes on bullying disabled children. Shoko was treated as if her deafness was her fault. This is obviously wrong; had she been given a choice, she obviously would have wanted to be born with proper hearing. The only thing she can do now is live with her impairment, and that’s what she is struggling to do.
You can see how hard Shoko tries to make friends with the kids of her class. She doesn’t shut herself out because of her deafness; she continuously approaches her classmates to talk with them. She’s a human child too, and she wants to have fun just as much as the next kid. She gets a million chances to get angry at those around her, but never does. She bears it all and continues to pursue a relationship of friendship with her classmates, always with a smile on her face and a forgiving attitude; but at every turn, she gets pushed away. No one is willing to take a step towards even trying to understand her.
She tries to be like the other girls around her, too. You can see her following Ueno and her gang around in elementary school to try and become one of them because they’re the “cool kids.” She also climbs the same yellow bars Ueno and the girls climbed. She tries to follow the normal girls around, but everyone thinks she’s a nuisance, or even that she’s disgusting.
And when she lets out some of her anger on Shoya, the scene is literally heart wrenching. Shoya and Shoko’s little fight is the most emotional sequence in the movie. It is one of the few instances where there is some emotion in Shoko’s voice. Everyone has their limits, and Shoko couldn’t take Shoya’s attitude towards her anymore. The kids’ fight itself has fluid movements like any other part of this movie, and even feels a little real with how the two flail about while trying to push the other down.
The thing about Shoko is that you just can’t help but sympathize with her and her situation. She is doing her best not to let her deafness hold her down, but because of just that she goes through a lot. Things progressively get worse for her as she completely loses hearing in one ear, but she still goes on to try and confess her feelings to Shoya in an attempt to not give up on life.
She also tries to act like an average person, as we see her try to “talk” with Shoya in one scene where she also wears a ponytail, a sign that she cares about her appearance like anyone else. She tries what she can to communicate better, but gets accidentally discouraged by Shoya. Shoko is cute, no doubt about that, and she looks even better with a ponytail. Here she was trying to act cute, but far from putting a smile on our faces, the scene may even make us tear up. Shoko tried this out only because her usual self is seen so negatively by many around her.
It feels so sad seeing Shoko trying to speak. She was denied a lot due to her deafness, and her talking is an attempt to get some of those things. She is trying to change so as not to be left out by everyone anymore. Her voice is painful to hear, and we don’t mean that in a bad way at all; her voice is the very reason behind some of this movie’s greatest emotional punches.
Eventually Shoko breaks, her emotions piercing our hearts; and this remains true as she struggles to communicate normally with those around her.
When dealing with a person suffering from any kind of disability, it is important to not make them feel like a nuisance. Sure, they might be difficult to deal with at times, but one mustn’t let these feelings come out, especially not in front of the person in question, since stopping congenital anomalies isn’t in any human’s power. But the kids aren’t doing that at all–they’re pretty honest in showing Shoko how they feel about her. The reason for their attitude is that she is different from them; to interact with her like they do with everyone else, they need to adjust their behavior, and that’s what these kids don’t want to do, because it is difficult.
To talk with Shoko, you either need to use sign language or her notebook, and either option takes the kids out of their comfort zone. Ueno outright tells the sign language teacher that the notebook is enough and no one needs to learn another language to communicate with just one girl. This shows how unwilling they all were to change their ways for her. And the only one who volunteered to change for Shoko was ostracized and chased away.
Through these kids, the movie shows how difficult it is for people to develop. The kids didn’t want to change until a big calamity fell upon them; Ishida only started growing after he witnessed the consequences of his bullying, and Ueno and Kawai change after Shoko’s suicide attempt, which is another somewhat related topic this movie touches upon. There are some people who are more readily willing to change, but they get shut out by the (less willing) majority.
Shoko was treated as an outcast because she became a pain to deal with for most of the kids. They needed to change in order to approach her; instead, they decided to ostracize her.
Shoko tried her best to hold out, but at every point she was termed a nuisance and was blamed for every misfortune that happened around her. Shoko sighed of relief when she got separated from her elementary school, but the pain she’d perhaps started to forget strikes back some years later in high school. Even after all those years, they hadn’t changed; and maybe this is just as hurtful as anything else, especially when she can’t fix herself. She doesn’t get bullied like in elementary school, but everyone around her fights and she, along with Ueno, blames herself for it all. And this slowly pushes her to attempt suicide.
A person can only handle such pain for so long. When someone is constantly told that they are a nuisance, a pain, and that they should just disappear from a very young age, it naturally has an adverse effect on them. Everything was portrayed to Shoko in such a way that she started to hate herself for her disability; she started to believe that every bad thing happening around her really was her fault. And that’s the one thing a disabled person must not be made to think, because impairments like these are not in anyone’s hands and such thoughts can only lead to one thing: the person actually trying to disappear. Some people may be able to overcome such words, but Shoko couldn’t, and attempted suicide as a result.
Thankfully, Shoya had changed, and he’s there to save her and help her get back on her feet. His ultimate message to Shoko is “hang in there”. Things may turn wrong sometimes, but you don’t have to face the hardships alone; no matter how painful it gets, people will be there for you. Shoko’s pain is not just going to disappear, but by accepting to share the burden, they can starting moving forward, step by step.
Shoko’s struggle continues, making way for the powerful scene that is her attempted suicide.
Her attempt results in Shoya getting hurt badly, and her old bullies changing drastically. Kawai, after denying having done anything wrong to Shoko all this time, instead pinning all the blame on Shoya, realizes that she was also to blame, as proven by her reaction to seeing Shoko and her collecting a thousand paper cranes for Shoya’s recovery. Ueno starts learning some sign language, even though she only calls Shoko a baka with it; but hey, at least it’s a start!
Shimada and Hirose were kind of wasted, however. They could have shown them changing too after all that happened. They did show that they were the ones who saved Shoya from drowning, but that was it. And while we’re on that note, Mashiba’s purpose wasn’t made clear either. He was an outsider, sure, but they didn’t give him a goal. They could have used him to give an outside perspective on the entire situation or have him properly sympathize with Shoko, but other than being Kawai’s boyfriend, he didn’t have much of a presence.
The movie also develops the notion of redemption.
When Ishida is brought down from his pedestal, he comes to the realization that “terrible” doesn’t even begin to describe what he did to Shoko. And that’s where his path to redemption starts. He realizes all the trouble he’d caused his and Shoko’s families, and decides to make at least some things right. He thinks about killing himself because he deems himself to be unworthy of living anymore, but he decides against it for reasons he later explains to Shoko.
You can see how drastically he changes after the events in elementary school. The little elementary school punk is no more, and he turns into a boy one could easily push around. You can see the difference in the way he walks; in elementary school he held his head high and walked like some badass who owned the place; in high school he holds his gaze downwards, and looks like a hunchback who’s reached a high enough level of self-hatred to question his very reasons to live. His way of speaking changes, too; while he used to sound arrogant as if he thought he were too cool for school, later on you can hear how soft-spoken he sounds and how he sometimes hesitates before speaking.
After losing his friends, he shuts out everyone from his life and stops paying attention to those around him; he turns symbolically deaf, as shown by the crosses on everyone’s faces. Shoya starts to think of himself as a Hikigaya Hachiman-level outcast whom everyone dislikes and avoids. He thinks that after all he did to Shoko, he doesn’t deserve friends anymore. He learns sign language solely for communication with Shoko, to try and make it up to her. While he becomes a somewhat nicer person, he remains relatively unapproachable to most.
Shoya feels guilty for what became of Shoko and wants to fix things. But you can see that he only truly apologizes in the final scene on the bridge. At first, he is only in search of self-satisfaction, and it takes him until halfway through the movie to realize that he isn’t doing things right. He then starts changing his approach, to the point where he sacrifices himself to save Shoko from her suicide attempt. His path to redemption starts early, but his repentance comes quite late.
Thankfully Shoya doesn’t quite get away with his bullying: it comes back to haunt him, and the arrogant brat is turned into a meek teenager.
Shoya, however, did “grow up” faster than Ueno and Kawai and changed his perspective. Kids are immature and have a rather narrow view of the the world around. It is as they grow up and experience more things that their view broadens and they gain completely new perspectives.
Ueno and Kawai didn’t mature for a long while, though: an example is how, ten years after the events, Ueno still takes off Shoko’s hearing aids the moment she sees her, and makes fun of Shoya for being friends with a deaf girl. What’s more, she still blames Shoko for breaking up her gang even though it was Shoya’s fault for even involving himself with her. Kawai, meanwhile, still refuses to accept that she had done almost as much wrong as Ueno and the others for not stopping anyone and laughing along with the bullies. Everyone would’ve been happy if they’d just let Shoko be. Both failed to understand Shoko and the seriousness of what they were doing to her.
Shoya was made to realize his mistake and make amends relatively quickly, whereas Ueno and Kawai stayed the same even after getting into high school, and it took them a giant push to get on the right track. Yet even they learn in the end, partly thanks to none other than Shoya, and they complete the movie’s cycle of repentance.
Koe no Katachi is an almost perfect movie. Yes, there are issues with some side characters like Shimada and Hirose, but the movie kept its focus on Shoya and Shoko’s case and exploited its potential to get the story’s themes across; its point comes through quite beautifully in the end.
The movie’s themes aren’t totally original; but they’re presented with such exquisite subtlety and power that they’ll strike even those to whom the approach to notions such as bullying seems self-evident.
“Gorgeous” probably isn’t the best word to describe how utterly amazing this movie looks, because it is way more than that. The visuals play a very important role, and the staff really did a spectacular job in making it the perfect embodiment of character acting sakuga.
Every single scene in this movie holds some level of significance through its animation, visual cues or character interactions; not a single second has been wasted. Everything is worth talking about. We’re particularly fond of the way they showed Shoko’s deafness, but the other things don’t fall behind much.
Koe no Katachi is beautiful in more ways than one, and Naoko Yamada and her team at KyoAni have really outdone themselves with this masterwork.
Koe no Katachi‘s characters ultimately see the light, and the uplifting finale wonderfully tops off a brilliant movie.
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