A graduate in oil painting from the Kyoto University of Art and Design, Naoko Yamada’s first job was decorating cakes at a local bakery. She joined Kyoto Animation in 2004 and first worked on Clannad. Her directorial debut was K-On!, a TV series and its movie follow-up, a manga adaptation about a high-school rock band, for which she gained her reputation as an empathetic director who treats her characters as if they are real people. She followed this success with TV series Tomako Market, a magical-realist account of life in a sweet shop, as is its feature sequel Tamako Love Story. Her accolades include the Japanese Academy Award for Excellence in Animation for K-On! the New Artist award at the Media Arts Festival for Tamako Love Story and the Japan Academy Award for Excellence in Animation for A Silent Voice.
A heart-wrenching romantic anime drama, A Silent Voice follows a youngster named Shoko Nishimiya. After moving to a new school, Shoko is taunted because of her hearing impairment, principally by Shoya Ishida, who leads the class in teasing her. When Shoko is eventually forced to transfer to another school, Shoya’s classmates in turn ostracise him for his cruel behaviour. Years later, a young adult, Shoya is riddled with guilt over his humiliation of Shoko. Living an aimless life with no friends, he determines to find her and try to atone. But is it too late, and what might her reaction be?
Naoko Yamada was in the UK recently to premiere A Silent Voice at the Glasgow Film Festival.
I wasn’t expecting to hear ‘My Generation’ by The Who at the beginning of the movie…
I just wanted to surprise the UK audience [laughs] when I was discussing the music with the sound director, Yôta Tsuruoka, we just wanted to have one song that everyone could relate to. The music has to be evergreen and we wanted everyone to recognise it. This is the story of Shoya and when he was at junior school he felt he was invincible but he was bored and frustrated. What better song to show both what he is and who he is?
I loved the rest of the score, what did you talk to composer Kensuke Ushio about before starting work on the film?
We talked about a lot of things besides to the story of the film, including arts, sculpture and culture in general. We talked about creating things! Sound is such an important aspect of our film and it was a very collaborative process. I wanted to express the sound within, not audible sound, but the sound within you. I wanted someone actually to create those sounds and he was the perfect person to work with. We worked together all the way to the end of the production and he was there with me in the very final sound mix.
The film is adapted from Yoshitoki Ōima’s long running manga of the same name.
As you know it’s a pre-existing series and when it came to Kyoto Animation, I was appointed as director and then I was onboard also to work on the script with Reiko Yoshida. It wasn’t easy! But Miss Ōima, the author of the manga volumes, joined us for our script meetings and whilst it wasn’t easy to condense seven volumes down to the right length for our screenplay it was an interesting and ultimately rewarding process to see it come together.
I was impressed with how the character Shoko Nishimiya’s hearing impairment was portrayed on screen, I guess this is something cinema and sound design can do that couldn’t be easily portrayed in the original print series?
It’s true, the character works better in a film. We can show that she can’t hear and the audience can feel it more. I wanted to describe how she realises and process sound. Sound design was very important to this film and I wanted to show what type of sound she does hear and what she’s feeling throughout the film. We tried to objectify sounds, not necessarily as audible sounds, but through vibrations or maybe wave patterns on screen.
Your films often feature very well rounded and realistic characters. Did any experiences from your own time at high-school make it into any of the characters?
Not just in this film but also in all films I make I like to stand back a bit, I want to be an observer. Inevitably some stuff may come through but I try to focus on the script and bringing it to life.
Another element that really stands out in your films is the attention to detail in the backdrops, did you use any real life locations as reference points?
The story takes place in Ōgaki City in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Whilst our school and the community are fictional settings within the city, they’re based on real places in Japan and we did go location hunting to make our set design and backgrounds as realistic as possible.
The film uses a blend of hand drawn animation and CGI to tell the story, how do you decide what medium to use and when?
I like hand drawing! If you leave everything to me, I’d do everything by hand. But that may not be what’s best for the story so we discuss every scene at the studio and work out the best way to bring the story to life at that moment.
Whilst it’s a heartfelt drama, there are well-placed moments of comedy punctuating the film throughout. How did you strike that balance when making this film?
I was really careful about human emotions; no one is serious all of the time, or funny all of the time, I really wanted to describe what makes a human human. Even a character like Tomohiro, is very funny and provides some comic relief in the film but he also has his serious moments to round out the character.
Finally, it’s not often that anime films get theatrically released in the UK, how do you feel knowing that this will play in theatres across the country on 15 March?
It’s a film about hope and human feelings. I made this for everyone across the world, so I’m thrilled to see it open in the UK. The cinema is definitely the best place to watch this.