Naoko Yamada & Friends

October 6, 2022 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

Naoko Yamada is the best-known female director in anime. Most of her directing credits are for TV series made at Kyoto Animation, where she spent most of her career. Her breakout was on K-ON! in 2009. Following that hit, she directed Tamako Market (2013) and Sound! Euphonium (2015), the latter as “series director” alongside director Tatsuya Ishihara, who had mentored her through her career. More recently, Yamada directed her first non-Kyoto Animation series in 2021. This was the historical saga The Heike Story, made at Science Saru, which depicts the clan wars in Japan in the twelfth century.

Of her cinema works, Yamada is most famous for 2016’s A Silent Voice. Her other cinema films are linked to her TV series, starting with her 2011 film of K-ON!, which memorably took the loveable girl musicians to London, and as she told crowds in Scotland, introduced them to the phenomenon of dog-poo bins. Yamada also directed Tamako Love Story, the 2014 big-screen sequel to Tamako Market. As for Liz and the Blue Bird in 2018, this is technically a spinoff from Sound! Euphonium, though it’s also very much a self-contained piece that you can watchperfectly well on its own.

On nearly all of these anime, Yamada has had a constant collaborator, the prolific screenwriter Reiko Yoshida. “I feel like she is a mum to me,” Yamada said when I interviewed her. The exception is the Sound! Euphonium TV series, which was scripted by Jukki Hanada (also lead writer on the Steins;Gate anime). However, Yoshida did come onboard for the Liz and the Blue Bird film.

It’s wrong, though, to think of Yamada as just a director; she also has a huge number of animation credits. Years before K-ON!, she was animating on Kyoto Animation’s Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, followed by stints on Air, Kanon, Clannad, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Lucky Star. She also helmed individual episodes of Clannad, Hyouka and Miss Kobayshi’s Dragon Maid.

I interviewed Yamada in 2017, when A Silent Voice was having a limited cinema release in Britain. At the time, I was struck by the apparent contrast between the film and Yamada’s much cheerier earlier series, especially K-ON! However, when I asked if Yamada thought it was a new kind of film, she said no. “I wasn’t thinking that. Yes, it is a serious movie; we deal with bullying and dark thoughts, but that’s not the whole theme of the film. I think many people can empathise with the dark thoughts, the seriousness, but I didn’t want the audience to be drawn into that negativity. I wanted to put in some positive aspects; there are happy moments in everyone.”

But even so, I persisted, wasn’t A Silent Voice a new direction for Kyoto Animation? Again, though, Yamada didn’t see it that way, suggesting A Silent Voice wasn’t so different from K-ON! “They’re different things, but the basic concepts I was thinking of when I made both are the human spirit, love, emotions and understanding.”

Understanding is central to A Silent Voice. “I think the whole theme of the film is about communication, understanding and not understanding,” said Yamada. The young Shoya bullies Shoko because he can’t understand her. Older and guilt-ridden, the teen Shoya tentatively tries to form a friendship with his former victim, though he’s always unsure what Shoko really feels about their renewed acquaintance.

Yamada said, “One of the things I discussed with Oima [Yoshitoki Oima, who created the Silent Voice manga] was that, ‘It’s the story of Shoya, so don’t deal with anything that he can’t see and understand.’ If Shoya can’t understand why Shoko is behaving this way or that way, then we don’t deal with that. However, as a filmmaker, I couldn’t not put in things… So, I used the point of view of Yuzuru [Shoko’s sister] or Shoko’s mother or grandmother. Their behaviour, their ideas could give people a clue about who Shoko is and why she behaves as she does. I used these other people’s viewpoints.”

Yamada conceded there were many difficulties in adapting the manga as a film. “With a manga, readers can read at their own pace. In a movie, the time goes as the film goes. For example, there’s a scene where Shoko’s mother slaps Shoya. In the manga, it’s a page – you turn to the page, bang! But in the film, I had to describe how Shoya felt before he was hit, and when he was hit, and after, and also how the mother felt before, during and after. And I wanted the audience to understand the emotions, so I had to take time to make that, and that one page is much longer in the movie. It was very difficult to give the same impact as the manga (in the film).”

The mother slapping Shoya is not the only violence. At the risk of harping on negativity, some of A Silent Voices’s most arresting scenes are fights. There’s an early, furious altercation between the young Shoya and Shoko in primary school, and an even rawer bust-up between characters outside a hospital. Yamada created these scenes in storyboard form. “When I did the storyboard, I became all the characters. I’m the one who’s angry, or the one who’s falling…”

Animated films often use live-action reference, people acting out motions for real. Did Yamada have people thwack each other in front of her when she was planning out the fights? “When I’m directing it, I don’t need real people,” she laughed. “But I think the actual animators do it themselves. I know they shoot each other, shoot videos, to see how the action should work.

“In order to create realistic fight scenes, you don’t really want to be too realistic,” Yamada added. “You have to find a way to make it work as an animation. You don’t want to stick to reality too much, in terms of actions anyway.” A minute later, she stressed this was her personal view. “Obviously different directors have different opinions on this. It also depends on the kind of film being made.”

A Silent Voice is the kind of story that could have been told in a live-action film or TV series. That’s true of many other anime, but it’s obvious with A Silent Voice because of its complete lack of fantasy elements (or perhaps its almost complete lack). What are the advantages of making the story in animation?

For Yamada, the key is control. “One of the most important things for me in making this film in animation was that I could control everything. Colours; what lens you use; the characters… Every movement of everyone, of everything, even a blink, I can control it as I want it to be. That also applies to small objects, here and there… I can control the whole world in the film. Yes, A Silent Voice would work in live-action, but in live-action unexpected things happen. That’s great – actors bring their own things (to a live-action film), but for me, the advantage of animation is I can control every single aspect.”

Stylistically, A Silent Voice is often cut fast, edited with quickfire images, torrents of visual information crammed into seconds. One especially fast-cut sequence, near the start, introduces Shoya as a primary schooler in the midst of his friends and classmates, before Shoko arrives. The sequence is set to a British anthem – “My Generation” by The Who.

“I was talking to the film’s sound director,” Yamada said, “and he said he wanted to use something evergreen that anyone can relate to, not just the Japanese audience. I was thinking of Shoya as a schoolboy and the song came to me, basically. Shoya was bored, really restless, but at the same time he was really invincible. I thought ‘My Generation’ fitted his characteristics, and obviously the song appeals to everyone.”

Yamada agreed that fast editing is trending in the media. However, she also suggested that it’s less a way of cramming in information, and more a means of conveying emotion. “It’s not all about what you can see on screen. It’s the emotions behind it that you can’t see; I really wanted to convey those. Emotions are vibration, so I thought fast cuts were the best way to convey the invisible emotions the characters are feeling.”

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Naoko Yamada is appearing in Edinburgh at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime.

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