Shortly after the attack at Kyoto Animation which claimed 35 lives and injured 33 more, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a statement saying he was at a loss for words. He was not alone. The gruesome audacity of the arsonist left fans and onlookers the world over in shock. In the days and weeks that followed many struggled to accept the news. Perhaps this viral disbelief was due to the famously low Japanese crime rate. Or perhaps this incredulity was rooted in the notion that an animation studio, like a magazine office, a school, or a hospital should be off-limits; a violation of some unspoken Geneva Convention of the human soul. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because there was something special about Kyoto.
To appreciate Kyoto is to appreciate its past. While all visitors to the city will invariably notice the trappings of modernity, they would be forgiven for focusing on the ancient. Flickering between mythology and monument, Kyoto’s moon-drenched alleyways and hilltop temples offer the same out-of-time essence shared by the Pyramids at Giza or the Colosseum in Rome. Or Notre-Dame de Paris. Housing such remnants of antiquity afforded the city a degree of protection over the years, but perhaps also contributed to a false sense of security. Like a cloud masquerading as a shield, this air of romantic nostalgia could not protect Kyoto forever.
Aoba Shinji made this vulnerability painfully clear when he doused the ground floor of Kyoto Animation Studio 1 in 11 gallons of gasoline, and yelled “die” while setting fire to the building and the people inside. For many families, friends, and onlookers nothing would ever be the same.
Japan is no stranger to disaster. A patient history of the country comprises a long list of ailments: earthquakes and tsunamis, flooding and mudslides, firebombs and nuclear fallout. This condition — this geopolitical reality — is understood; it is researched and discussed. Mass murder by contrast, is incomprehensible. When it explodes into the public consciousness, it does not easily fade away. Instead, the stain lingers challenging basic assumptions of the state of Japan.
But as time plods on (the one-month anniversary of the fire passed during the writing of this piece), it is worthwhile to reckon with the attack. Doing so could foster good mental health while easing traumatic scarring for those suffering. Recovery may be difficult, but since overcoming cruelty is a consistent theme across KyoAni works, the tools for such a reflection are readily available. Thus, in a moment of respectful commiseration one might look to the studio’s very own productions for solace and guidance. Such a cinematic vigil should commence with Kyoto Animation’s debut film: A Silent Voice.
Released in 2016 to critical acclaim, the story chronicles a bully’s path to redemption while underscoring the difficulty of living as a deaf person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is punctuated — even from the earliest moments — by sadness. (In the opening scene the bully-turned-expiator Ishida Shoya prepares to commit suicide.) This dull pain aches in the background — and occasionally the foreground — as even cheerful asides are derailed midway by harsh plot twists. It feels as if the rug is being pulled out from under the viewers’ feet. Again. And again. And again.
The prominent effect of this onslaught nods to the uncertainty and fragility of life. It reminds us that one never really knows what more could go wrong until it does indeed go wrong. A Silent Voice feels prescient in this way, a sober reminder of our liminality. But it is also a tacit portrayal of the determination necessary to endure life’s cruelties. The main characters endure a great deal: they endure name-calling and physical abuse; they endure depression and humiliation; they endure hate. They endure the most painful tribulations until finally they emerge in calmer waters. By the end of the film the take-away is evident: perseverance is the key to happiness.
A Silent Voice isn’t perfect. The artwork isn’t quite breathtaking and the plot surely has one too many clichés. In particular, the portrayal of Nishimiya Shoko — the deaf girl who is bullied — is troubling. Despite featuring prominently in the film, her onscreen presence is undermined by her submissiveness. She constantly apologizes, often runs away, and frequently cries. This docile depiction soars beyond reasonable levels of insecurity and skirts too closely with unsavory stereotypes of women.
Fortunately, brief instances of her stronger convictions are included. These moments aren’t sufficient to outweigh her timidity, but they are worth considering. In one early scene she initiates physical contact with a boy — her tormentor — by clasping her fingers around his. This delicate but deliberate act of conciliation is remarkably bold for a child her age. Later on, she even resorts to physical force in order to defend herself. Rather than acquiesce to her bully she stands her ground and fights back. These confident displays of force — from a young girl — are a rarity in female cinematic representation, and they are welcome regardless of the character’s shortcomings.
While Shoko’s confidence may be limited, it nevertheless contributes to a broader and more fulfilling picture of womanhood. That picture is further enhanced by a slew of supporting female characters. Thanks to Shoya’s niece Maria, the audience sees a biracial toddler as she is: happy, healthy, cheerful — and otherwise unexceptional. Because of Shoya’s mother Miyako, a single working mom who provides for her family is visible. Shoko’s mother Yaeko on the other hand, embodies powerful tropes generally reserved for male characters; as she invokes confident expressions of anger, even violence, to protect her daughter. For some of the film Shoko’s younger sister Yuzuru, with her short hair and tomboyish personality, actually passes as a boy. Even the antagonist Naoka, a young school girl who plays the role of villain with uncompromising and unabashed cruelty, serves to debunk stereotypes. (Read: Girls are angry, strong, independent, cruel, cheerful, violent, and everything in-between).
The disappointing elements of Shoko are easily forgotten as the combination of this ensemble cast forms a beautiful and layered tapestry of diversity.
This diversity was surely by design. Writer and illustrator Ōima Yoshitoki conceived the original manga storyline, while director Yamada Naoko alongside writer Yoshida Reiko adapted it for film. All three key roles were played by women, two of whom are under 35. When medical schools across the country were penalizing female applicants because of their gender and #MeToo was receiving but nominal support in the country, Kyoto Animation was hiring women, endorsing their work, and championing their talents.
In addition to gender parity, KyoAni is laudable for their humane and considerate policies toward employees. Several industries in Japan are known for long working hours with disproportionate pay, but the animation sector in particular has been criticized for a tendency to hire staff on temporary contracts. This practice withholds crucial benefits while compensating on a meager per frame basis — effectively trapping entry-level animators in subsistence-level existence. Kyoto Animation bucked this custom by employing full-time salaried staff. It was this progressive workplace filled with women and men of all ages that were attacked.
Watching A Silent Voice with the sober awareness that some of the artists who created it may have been slain is an unsettling perspective.* It is a burden of knowledge that coalesces into a lens of loss. This lens warps every scene, adding extra heartbreak to the sad moments and extra shock to the violent ones. Despite this gutting perspective, viewing the film remains a cathartic and inspiring exercise. Scenes of forgiveness are brought into acute focus with more poignancy than the animators could have ever intended. Sadness may comprise the fabric of A Silent Voice, but resilience and optimism can be found woven into the tapestry as well. Those threads of hope are eminently worth following, now more than ever.
*Among the list of 35 victims’ names released by the Kyoto Prefectural Police, at least 24 were credited with contributions to A Silent Voice.