Kyoto Animation’s work isn’t quite like anyone else’s. The style of its animation and storytelling separate the studio from the majority of other Japanese companies. It’s known for high production values compared to its contemporaries; Kyoto’s smooth, intricate animation is used for both subtle and spectacular sequences while having very stylized, but realistically detailed backgrounds.
Kyoto Animation (often abbreviated KyoAni) gets more distinctive results than most studios in part because unlike in much of the Japanese animation industry, its animators are salaried employees. Japanese animation studios typically hire most of their artists as freelancers and pay them a rate for each frame they produce. That incentives speed over quality. Being salaried means KyoAni’s animators can spend more time on each drawing while still earning the same salary as a freelance animator who’s cranking out more pages.
KyoAni also tends to adapt stories that let it focus on characters’ personal aspects, with big emotional climaxes rather than action-focused ones. Shows like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, K-on!, and Free! Iwatobi Swim Club let KyoAni’s artists focus that animation detail on conveying characters’ expressions, hand gestures, and body language. That lets directors tell more nuanced, character-driven stories that aren’t often told in animation.
A Silent Voice is a perfect example. The 2016 film, which is getting a limited theatrical release in America starting this weekend, adapts a comic by Yoshitoki Oima about a high-school boy, Shoya, trying to make amends with a deaf girl, Shoko, he once bullied in elementary school. It’s a harrowing but hopeful story about social anxiety, depression, and suicide told deftly and beautifully.
A Silent Voice didn’t necessarily demand to be an animated feature. But because KyoAni’s creators are able to put so much expressiveness into the characters, it communicates much of what they’re feeling without words.
That happens literally, in the ways Shoko has to communicate with others through sign language or writing. But it also comes across in the way characters change their hairstyles to be more confident and more appealing to their crushes. Or the way Shoko’s younger sister takes pictures of dead animals and puts them up all over their shared apartment. That initially just seems like a weird personality quirk. But it brings across something she’s trying to communicate to Shoko without actually coming out and saying it.
While those are explicit examples, KyoAni’s animation lets director Naoko Yamada accentuate subtler moments, like how Shoya’s hand twitches when he’s learning a handshake. This small moment of reflexive reluctance is the kind of thing that sticks with audiences long after the story ends. Animation can get away with exaggerating things in ways that would feel unrealistic with real actors. And that allows many of the emotional beats to hit harder.
It’s a bit of a surprise that this is KyoAni’s first standalone film. The company has produced other feature-length stories, but they’ve consistently been sequels or retellings of existing television series. As long as the studio’s formula lets it operate on a different basis from the rest of the Japanese animation industry, it has the opportunity to produce distinctive, memorable features, capable of playing to international audiences. A Silent Voice clearly shows that if KyoAni keeps on its present track, it has the potential to be spoken of in the same way we talk about Studio Ghibli — as a source of outstanding work, telling stories in ways no one else can tell them.