Aside from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the animation field for this year’s Oscars was remarkably dull. With too many sequels and giant studio-backed films gaining headway, the Academy’s selections are even more disappointing when a treasure like Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird exists. One of the few female directors making animated films, Yamada tells deeply heartfelt and viscerally personal stories which transcend the medium. The central stories in both Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice (2016) focus on the lead characters’ want/ability to better themselves, and what it takes to achieve happiness. As one of the most exciting directors in the field today, Yamada is wildly deserving of acclaim given the catharsis she draws out of her characters.
Animation provides some of the most lofty and imaginative demonstrations of where cinema can transport audiences, from different worlds and universes to something as seemingly innocuous as the lives of inanimate objects. What Yamada manages to do is introduce these worlds that are simultaneously familiar and fantastical, expressed magically in the routine and motions of everyday life: walks to band practice are accompanied by the clicking of heels in tune with steps, and a musical cue acts as its own coda to a story. A simple X marked over a supporting character’s face is a subtle and clever indicative of depression; a walker is determined to keep their gaze anchored to the ground as they shuffle quietly through life.
There’s a universally known truth that one’s high school years feel enormously endless while living them. Hindsight is illuminating, and while we can look back and recognize the emotional puddles we managed to drown in or avoid, there’s nothing fiercer, scarier or more affirming than whatever triumph or challenge you’re currently facing in the moment. Yamada honors those outsized emotions that we either wallow or revel in; a friendship can save your life, a piece of music selected for class can reveal great truths, and being rejected can feel like the end of the world. Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice don’t invalidate what their characters are feeling, as they’re mere reflections of what real high school students go through. And both film go one step forward by talking about subjects that, while not taboo, aren’t brought up nearly enough in media.
Liz and the Blue Bird follows two lifelong friends, Mizore and Nozomi, as they prepare for a flute and oboe duet. Instead of synchronized harmony, there’s a sense of ongoing dissonance expressed through their performances. It is a disturbance caused by an ever growing rift between the two, with one looking ahead towards a chance for self-discovery while the other senses only trepidation at the idea of being separated from their other half. It’s a remarkably handled story, one that avoids melodrama by keeping the characters true to the unknowable complexities of human nature. At its core lays an unrequited love story full of hopeless pining and melancholy, but upon that foundation, layers of understanding and true compassion are built organically. Love may conquer all in the end, but it doesn’t always manifest itself in the way one might anticipate.
The humanism on display is beautifully depicted, both in the vibrancy of the animation and the detailed character work. What unites the two stories is a thread of empathy and belief in the characters’ ability and want to help one another. In Liz and the Blue Bird, it’s about letting go to allow your friend to soar. And in A Silent Voice, it’s about learning how to listen.
It’s never an easy fix when it comes to healing your soul, especially when guilt or self-loathing is involved. In A Silent Voice, that battle for happiness is one fraught with disastrous missteps and emotional wounds that bleed brighter and run deeper than any physical scars. Yamada expertly navigates the expectations and realities of our mental health and how the former can derail genuine progress. When we make the effort to better ourselves and atone for past grievances, the toll is suffocating. Similarly, if we grow up apologizing for our existence, every step made towards self-acceptance and love is going to be impossibly vast, making the journey all the more exhaustive. A Silent Voice’s characters aren’t beyond repair, though.
One may loathe Shôya Ishida when the character first appears. He’s the boy who sat in the back of your class and picked on the most unpopular kid to boost his own self-worth. He’s a reckless bully, uncaring towards others and only interested in getting a laugh while maintaining the status quo. When a deaf girl joins Shôya’s class, he zeroes in upon feeling an immediate imbalance in the classroom dynamics. Other children follow suit, and the bullying grows so troubling that the girl, Shōko Nishimiya, is forced to transfer to another school. Shôya’s behavior is hateful but terribly believable in its execution. When the class inevitably turns on him, it’s not because they believe he’s done something wrong. It’s because he now has the largest target on his back, turning from the bully to the bullied.
It’s a daring way to start a film that challenges viewers again moments later. In the present day, Shôya is a second away from committing suicide, leaving the audience to both emphasize with his pain while rooting for him to endure and flourish. Of course, Shôya isn’t the only one with inner demons, and Shōko certainly suffers her fair share. Later in the film, a suicide attempt by Shōko connects the two when Shôya rushes to save her, falling over the edge of a building and into a coma. Throughout the film, both characters are given tremendous growth as they grapple with their pain. It’s a reckoning of self, as Shōko and Shôya have to accept that even when they’re trying their best, they still may feel hurt and hopeless. Together, and with a group of friends, they have an inner circle to bolster and champion each other.
A Silent Voice is, above all else, a love letter to mankind’s ability to reflect and change. Life affirming and appropriately humanist, it asks viewers to look inwards while empathizing with the characters.
Visually, Yamada’s work is stunning. Facial features and tics are charmingly expressive. There’s a watercolor effect to the director’s landscapes, a synergy that transports viewers into the characters’ worlds. Few animated films look like Yamada productions, fewer still feel like them.
Overall, from pre-production to the final execution, Yamada’s last two films have been stupendous examples of the limitless nature of animation. With her eye for colors and redemptive tales of damaged individuals conquering their own personalized monsters, Yamada is the most exciting talent working in animation today.
Allyson Johnson (@AllysonAJ) is the film editor at TheYoungFolks.com as well as a film critic for ThePlaylist.net and CambridgeDay.com. As a member of the Online Film Critic Society and Boston Online Film Critics Association, her writing can also be found at TheMarySue.com and Seacoast Online.