‘Is This a Love Story?’: Naoko Yamada Rewrites the Love Confession

A Silent Voice (2016)

A Silent Voice | Kyoto Animation
Kyoto Animation

Halfway through Naoko Yamada’s 2016 high school drama A Silent Voice, Shouko Nishimiya confesses her feelings for Shoya Ishida, the film’s lanky, lonesome protagonist. She first tentatively murmurs, then bursts out yelling: “I like you!” But Shoya does not understand her—Shouko is deaf and, though they usually communicate through sign language, in this instance she chooses to vocalize her feelings, and he mishears her pronunciation of 好き (suki, “I like you”) as 月 (tsuki, “moon”).

The scene serves as a lightly comic subversion of the well-worn trope of the love confession. Everyone has their favorites—a bombastic declaration by Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally; a mournful parting word from Carrie Fisher in The Empire Strikes Back; an emotionally-wrought speech by Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. And it’s a tradition which has a long history in anime, an industry which churns out high school romance narratives at a relentless rate. Romance anime, as with its Hollywood cousins like the romantic comedy or the teen movie, is a specific, trope-heavy genre with its own set of well-defined conventions—the confession scene being chief among them—which its audiences have come to expect. 

Yamada’s films strike an interesting tension with regard to these established generic expectations. Throughout her career, she has always held a cautious, complex relationship to questions of genre and convention: her earliest directorial efforts were warm, light-hearted slice-of-life shows like K-On! and Tamako Market, both of which toed the line between the genre’s familiar larger-than-life, comic tone and a much more sobering emotional realism. And it is in her confession scenes that this realism is at its most tangible. One of Yamada’s most striking and unique traits as a director is her ability to convey the emotional intensity of a love confession, not through bombast or theatrical showiness, but through the startling vulnerability of a genuinely honest conversation.

The sensitivity of Yamada’s approach stands in stark contrast to the typical tendency for anime directors to simply make their confessions as intensely romantic as possible. A lot is at stake in the staging of a confession scene and, in the saturated market of romance anime, each show or film has to do something unique to stand out. The Kyoto Animation series Clannad, which Yamada worked on as an episode director, is an archetypal example: the confession serves as the show’s grand finale, a moment which is ideal to the point of absurdity, delivered as the sun sets on an empty classroom while an ethereal power ballad plays. The scene achieves a sumptuous aesthetic perfection—unbound from the physical limitations of live-action filmmaking, the animators can fine-tune every minute detail to maximize its impact.

But this perfection is as uncanny as it is beautiful. The artistic features which make the moment so striking—the melodramatic lighting, the dreamy music—are also precisely the reason that it feels so artificial, so overexaggerated. It is not the characters’ emotions which are being foregrounded here, but the aesthetic extravagance in which they have been rendered, an extravagance which foregrounds its own unattainability. Underpinning this is a kind of decadent cultural logic, where the strength of a character’s love is measured by a scene’s lavishness—its heightened drama, its visual splendor—rather than their sincerity of feeling.

These troubling contradictions lie at the heart of the anime love confession, a convention which is parodied or subverted as much as it is staged sincerely. Animators and audiences alike recognize that there is something problematic and even worthy of mockery in the way that the love confession—supposedly an earnest expression of care and affection—has been reduced to a prepackaged trope with an expected set of signs and signifiers. And yet the trope endures, and each new generation of animators must find a way of staging it which is able to extract the heartfelt from the generic.

Yamada is certainly part of this new generation, one of the youngest anime directors, at age 35, to achieve name recognition in the film world (Your Name director Makoto Shinkai, by contrast, is 47). She is also one of the only female directors to achieve this status in a notoriously male-dominated industry. But her rise to success in her career has, perhaps surprisingly, come alongside a tendency in her work to become even more understated. A Silent Voice, and her following film Liz and the Blue Bird, tackle weighty subject matter—love, regret, redemption—which could easily be rendered as trite melodrama, but Yamada’s approach is disarmingly muted, often prioritizing subtle emotional textures over thrilling narrative climaxes.

In A Silent Voice, for example, the bathos of Shouko’s defused confession is not played as a flippant, mocking parody of the trope. Instead, in the wake of Shoya’s misinterpretation of herwords, there is a palpable, pained silence. No cartoonish musical interlude or reaction shot arrives to cushion the moment for us; we, as an audience, feel every bit of its keen sting.

We feel it, too, in Liz and the Blue Bird, when the reticent Mizore delivers a clumsy, stuttered confession to the more outgoing Nozomi, only to be turned down with agonizing gentleness. As in Clannad, the moment takes place in an empty classroom at sunset, but Yamada eschews that show’s dramatic dutch angles and sweeping panoramic shots. Instead, she turns our attention to small physical details—close-ups of downcast eyes, fidgeting hands, stumbling feet, conveying the scene’s tension through bodies as much as words. The result is a confession which, instead of being rendered as a dreamlike tableau, feels conspicuously tactile, grounded in a discomfitingly real materiality. If anime’s genre conventions tend towards an aesthetic of extravagance, Yamada employs a kind of anti-aesthetic of unease, one which accentuates a situation’s distressing emotional weight.

Silence figures heavily in these scenes. Tamako Love Story (Yamada’s film sequel to Tamako Market), features two confessions: midway through, when Mochizou declares his love for Tamako, the film’s chirpy title character, and vice versa at the film’s finale. Both of these scenes are preceded by a wistful, romantic soundtrack, all bright, jazzy pianos and propulsive strings. These are exactly the kinds of artistic flourishes you would expect from a typical confession scene—and yet, when the confession itself takes place, the music cuts off completely. All that is left, as is the case in A Silent Voice, is diegetic ambient noise: cars driving down a distant highway, a gently flowing river. The comforting aesthetic beauty of music is replaced with the sharp realism of everyday noise.

These silences are all the more pronounced because Yamada is decidedly not a quiet director. Her films usually bristle with activity—the fervent bustle of a high school, or the larger-than-life shopkeepers of Tamako Love Story’s market hall setting. And music lies at the heart of her work: two of her films, Liz and the Blue Bird, as well as the film followup to her series K-On!, center on high school music clubs.

In Liz, in particular, music permeates the entire film: unusual for most anime productions, Yamada developed its concept and themes collaboratively with composer Kensuke Ushio, working on storyboards and music composition concurrently and incorporating ambient sounds like footsteps and classroom objects directly into the score itself. The result is a tangible undercurrent of sound which sparkles and simmers throughout the film’s runtime. Yet even this fades almost completely during the confession scene, replaced by a series of faint, tinny hums which fizz with agitation. If noise forms much of the fabric of Yamada’s films, then silence cuts through that fabric like a knife—it demands attention to the point of discomfort.

Throughout her work, then, Yamada quietly rebels against anime’s tendency towards an overwrought idealization of the love confession scene. Rather than relying on the trope’s typical aesthetic signifiers, she expresses a much subtler, much more ambiguous interest in exploring what such confessions actually represent. In each of her films, there is always more at stake than the confession itself. In Tamako Love Story, Tamako struggles to respond to Mochizou’s declaration, not just because she is unsure how to feel about him, but because she is unsure of how to feel about herself. In the several conversations she has with her friends and family to try and assess her feelings, she speaks much less about Mochizou directly than she does about her fears about her own future.

In an interview, Yamada explained her interest in stories about high schoolers by saying: “I feel beauty in the mesmerized feeling that teenagers have when the growth of their mind and body confuses and scares them.” This is a fear that Tamako is all too familiar with. “Are you scared of change? Feeling like the world as you know it changes all of sudden?” she asks her sister Anko. Mochizou, by contrast, represents an easy consistency in her life. “We grew up together,” Tamako tells her friend Midori, “so I thought things would never change.” She lives her life looking backwards rather than forwards—Yamada repeatedly stitches in brief insert shots of Tamako’s childhood memories, a reminder of the past to which she clings. But Mochizou’s confession breaks this comforting stability. The impetus for his decision to finally express his feelings was his plan to apply to university in a different city, separating the two of them and thereby transforming her life as well as his. The confession is jarring not only because it forces Tamako to confront her friend’s feelings, but because it challenges her to decide what she wants out of her own life.

In her essay “The Sublime and the Good,” Iris Murdoch pithily defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Love, Murdoch argues, possesses a “tragic freedom.” We have the freedom of imagining the full humanity of selves other than our own, to recognize that other people can possess the same interiority and emotional complexity as ourselves. But we must also bear the pain of knowing that, because of this fact, “there is no prefabricated harmony”—recognizing other people’s selfhood also means recognizing that those selves are different from our own, and there is no guarantee that these different selves will be compatible, no guarantee that either self will be able to truly accommodate and accept the other for who they are.

In Yamada’s films, this tragic freedom is made starkly visible. Up until this point, Mochizou has played a role in Tamako’s life which, consciously or unconsciously, she has defined for him. But the confession jolts her out of this false sense of security. She comes to realize that the Mochizou she conceptualized in her mind is not the same as the one telling her he loves her; she begins to truly recognize the other person’s self that exists outside of her own. Crucially, however, it also reveals that she herself is not the same as the one she imagines herself to be. Eventually, Tamako grows to realize that she does love Mochizou, and that she wants him to stay with her. She rewrites a new version of herself, a version which accepts and confronts the uncertainty of the future and moves beyond the inertia of her adolescent life. In Yamada’s work, love is not just the realization of other people’s reality: it is the revelation of your own.

This truth is depicted perhaps most harshly in A Silent Voice. Shoya’s misunderstanding of Shouko’s confession is painful not only because it denies Shouko the catharsis she seeks, but also because it serves as an uncomfortable mirror of a much more traumatic early scene. We discover, in the film’s opening scenes, that Shoya was a vicious bully as a child. When he and Shouko were in elementary school, he and his friends tormented her relentlessly—tripped her up in the hallway, stole her hearing aids—to the point that she had to transfer schools. In a heartbreaking physical altercation, she desperately tells him, “I’m trying my best!” But, as with her confession, she speaks this aloud rather than in sign or in writing, and he spits back, “I can’t understand what you say.”

The subsequent narrative that Yamada tells is ostensibly one of redemption: Shoya, now an ostracized loner, spends the majority of the film’s runtime trying to befriend Shouko as a teenager, going to great lengths to make her happy and reuniting her with her old friends in the hope of atoning for his actions. But Yamada also foregrounds the way that this misguided attempt at redemption is rooted in a failure, and perhaps a refusal, to truly understand what redemption actually means. For all his efforts, Shoya never stops to ask what Shouko actually wants. He is wracked by his own guilt to the point of self-destruction, unable to see that this impulse only drives Shouko to blame herself for his pain. And he never actually apologizes—something Shouko does constantly—until the very end of the film.

He eventually admits to her, “I interpret you to suit my interests.” She offers him love, but he sees in her only his abject need for forgiveness. In one particularly revealing shot, he glances back at Shouko only to see a vision of her as a child, out of focus, blurred by the overexposed sun behind her. When the image reverts to her current teenage self, the sun’s brightness overpowers the scene, swallowing her in white light. The moment serves as a fitting visual metaphor for the almost divine power of redemption with which Shoya has imbued Shouko, at the expense of her own self-determined identity. If he didn’t understand her before, it was because he didn’t want to—what he wanted was to salvage his own self.

This serves as a fitting contrast to Shouko, who is excessively, agonizingly selfless, a trait which is itself born of self-hatred. As a child, she repeatedly blamed herself for the bullying she was subjected to—a particularly harrowing flashback shows an incident during which Shouya ripped her hearing aids out so violently her ears began bleeding, after which she tells him “I’m sorry,” and asks to be his friend. But love inverts these self-effacing tendencies. It pushes her to recognize something outside of herself and her own self-loathing; to admit to herself that she wants something rather than simply be of service to others. To speak this desire aloud breaks with everything that comes before; to have it be received and understood would be an act of immense vulnerability, a baring of the self. To have it misunderstood, however, reveals a vulnerability of a different kind—that the self you believed you were offering is not the same as the one they saw in you.

In this way, A Silent Voice’s love confession becomes a site of anxious, strained self-revelation—or perhaps the revelation of multiple selves, existing in both parties’ minds, each jostling for recognition. It disrupts their mutual short-sightedness: a consistent feature of Yamada’s style is her manipulation of depth-of-field, blurring parts of the frame to suggest a kind of self-centred, teenage myopia; the confession compels them to see past their own field of view, to see a version of themselves which they might never have known existed. And it forces them to confront the fact that what they want from the other might not be the same as what the other wants from them.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Liz and the Blue Bird. Mizore, like Shouko, is adoring to the point of self-abasement. When she and Nozomi are due to perform a duet together, she deliberately underplays her skills so that Nozomi will not be outshone. Nozomi herself harbors an uneasy mix of jealousy and guilt, always wishing she could be as talented as Mizore, always ashamed that she might be holding her back. She does love Mizore, but not in the way that she is asking for. As Yamada describes, “the shape of [Mizore’s] ‘love’ towards Nozomi just doesn’t match up with the shape of Nozomi’s ‘love’ towards Mizore.”

When Yamada stages the love confession, then, this is what she is interested in—not in the declaration of love itself, but in the fraught complexity of the messy, ugly feelings which lie beneath, feelings which a more conventional anime might choose to omit. And by expunging the scene of its stereotypical signifiers, by withholding the simple catharsis of romantic reciprocation, she destabilizes her audience’s passive, anticipatory gaze. She asks them, instead, to look where they might not otherwise look—at hands, eyes, feet; but also at the deeper sensitivities of these two characters, at the unique pain of being unable to love another person in the way they need to be loved. 

Such nuance is often lost in the reception of Yamada’s work. Contemporary reviews of A Silent Voice praised its “romantic” merits, contorting its subtleties into a predetermined narrative while glossing over the fact that Shoya never actually responds to or even acknowledges Shouko’s affections. Yamada is keenly aware of this expectation among anime audiences for romantic fulfilment, but instead of bowing to such expectations, she turns a questioning eye back at her viewers. When asked during post-screening Q&A for A Silent Voice, “Is this a love story?,” she responded by asking the interviewer: “What do you think?”

This probing, inquisitive outlook undergirds Yamada’s approach to the love confession. If a confession asks of its characters to see beyond themselves and truly recognize the other person, then Yamada asks the same of her audience: to see beyond the confession itself to the individual confessor and confessee, in all their frightened, vulnerable humanity. It seems notable, for example, that in each of these three films, she chooses to explore a different response to a character’s confession: where Shouko’s love remains unanswered, Tamako does eventually reciprocate Mochizou’s feelings, and Nozomi flatly refuses to reciprocate Mizore’s.

In each case, what matters is not whether a confession actually leads to love, but what such a confession does to its characters. A confession, even if it is not received in the way it is intended, marks a first step in the sensitive, pained grappling for mutual understanding which each of these characters must engage in if they wish to truly share their lives with others. These films are about love, but they also ask us what we want from love, and how this might be different from what love can actually give us. With Yamada’s help, her characters, and by extension her audience, can learn to negotiate that difference, can begin to discover what love can truly mean.