The great thing about a visual medium, is that meaning and connotation can be made without words. Such an idea couldn’t be more pertinent in Koe no Katachi.
It struck me that I have never seen an anime like Koe no Katachi. Not only is its subject and content completely different and original, but the way in which it is traversed is a breath of beautifully fresh air. It’s not often I become wholly invested in a story and its characters; I’ve talked about it before. I find it immensely hard to form any kind of connection at all to on-screen drama and interaction. Certainly, with Koe no Katachi, that is not the case – in fact, the exact opposite is true. It grabbed my heart – ripped it out, shoved it back in, ripped it out, shoved it back in…
Ah… anyway, part of the reason lay in this: Koe no Katachi: Shot Composition
Setting the Scene
Koe no Katachi opens into the meat of the matter – Ishida undergoing his plan to commit suicide. It’s a collection of shots, that you could loosely call a montage (not traditionally a montage, as a montage makes use of semi-unrelated shots to create meaning) This is used a number of times throughout the film to convey a sense of time passing, more than anything else. We deduce – through the speedy cuts – perhaps Ishida’s hasty, yet thought out commitment to ending his life: A product of what we are yet to witness. It’s through this establishing of his intentions where we garner a baseline for his suffering, and the regrets that have come to rule over his life.
After, we’re taken back to Ishida’s troublesome childhood for the first quarter of Koe no Katachi. It’s here where the foundations are set for the relationships that will follow in the latter parts of the film. It’s here where we see the one moment in which Ishida disconnects from the world around him – where he intentionally becomes invisible after everything he knows begins to collapse and turn on him.
In the above shot, the angle of the scene is very important to its connotations. Here we have Ishida, flanked by Keisuke and Shimada – both of whom he regarded as friends at the time. We’re looking upwards, Ishida and his resilient expression the main focal point of the frame. From this, it becomes apparent just how much Ishida is the instigator for all that happens. Of course, the others do not attempt at stopping it, instead, rally behind him; following his lead. Almost as if they admire and want to thoughtlessly replicate his degrading actions.
From this shot alone, it’s possible to form a relatively concrete image of who Ishida is at this stage in his life. He’s arrogant, and he’s self-serving. It’s from this perception of him – and possibly himself – where we are later able to make comparisons, to see how his character has changed as a direct result of his spineless actions in the past.
Emotion is integral to good narrative. It doesn’t have to be positive. And neither does it have to be negative. Only, it has to be constructed well, in a believable manner that the audience can – at least in part – relate to. Without that, what do we have? An empty, two-dimensional sequence of moving images. There would be nothing to grab us, nothing to pull us into the on-screen drama and relationships.
Due to Koe no Katachi’s subject matter, it soon becomes clear that the main-stay of this cannot be developed through dialogue alone – it cannot rely on that solely.
So, how else? Well, through great visual direction.
This particular style of shot above is commonplace in Koe no Katachi. It shows Ishida’s reclusion, and his inability to connect with anyone outside of his personal bubble that he has closed to the outside world. Here, where his Mother is reprimanding him about his plan to commit suicide the day before. the framing of Ishida is intentionally awkward – positioning him to the very left of the shot. Whereas, it would be standard, and more aesthetically pleasing to be on the right. We have no sense of where or whom Ishida’s concentration lies. It’s this artificial perception of claustrophobia that lets us experience Ishida’s shaky perspective. To share some of his feelings, even if we do not necessarily feel overly sympathetic.
From the outset, there’s friction between Ishida and Nashimiya. After the things he did and said, it would be strange if that weren’t the case. And of course, this is the driving force behind the entire film.
In the still above, Nishimiya makes the statement, ‘I’m dying!’ Her face is covered by her hair, she’s hunched over, and warm light borders her torso. On the other hand Ishida is spread out, his eyes perfectly visible and piercing, and he is almost completely in shadow. It’s the simplicities within a shot such as this – the lighting after-effects that give the composition emotion and character. We’re able to guess at how much Nishimiya is hurting, and at how much Ishida lacks in realising what he has done, and what he is doing.
Being bullied is an awful feeling for those of us who have experienced it (no doubt to various degrees) It’s easy to see her pain, and this is the point, as the audience, we’re meant to feel for Nishimiya, and realise the impact of Ishida’s actions. Experiencing the things she does, gives us valuable insight into the person she becomes.
Ishida is lonely. He is evidently horribly depressed. He regrets his past, and no doubt regrets losing the things he has lost. He is not a terrible person, that much is evident; he just made the wrong decisions where he should have had much better judgement. Where he should have cared far more.
Ishida’s mindset is reflected in shots like these. The world outside of him is blurred. Not through arrogance, but through the disconnection he experiences – as if he is punishing himself for the pain he caused to Nishimiya all that time ago. The ‘blue crosses’ covering the faces of the people he once knew (and those he never knew) compounds this. It tells us that he has no interest in knowing them. For what reason? Because of what resulted from it in the past. After all, if you have no friends, no relationships of any kind – it’s hard to experience disappointment and rejection. Though, of course it works equally the other way around too.
As Koe no Katachi progresses, the crosses begin to fall; as he re-connects with the people who once shamed and bullied him as he had done Nishimiya; and as they begin to realise the stains on their past and undergo the process of laying bandages over open wounds.
Ultimately, Ishida realises he cannot go on living like he has. And, if he is to go on living at all, he has to actively pursue being more open, to peel those crosses off – no matter what it takes.
This stands out to me. Not just the immense beauty behind the animation and the lighting whilst Nishimiya and Ishida are travelling in the train, but the placement of the two within the frame. Here, they stand opposite each other, conversing through their mobiles. It’s an almost melancholy scene with the contrasting cold and warm lighting. But what gets my attention the most, are the doors that stand between them. Doors are made to be opened and passed through – into a new room, a new place, somewhere defined from the previous. So, what do they do? Open the door and step through simultaneously? One after the other? Or does one still leave the other on the train, heading to another station (in life) Not to forget, trains are synonymous with travel, with going to places unknown. Ishida and Nishimiya are no doubt experiencing this, and the anxieties that derive from it.
Now, this is not anything particularly unique or special. Still, I want to demonstrate how anime – being a visual medium – contains the same composition structure in comparison to other media, be that traditional film or photography.
Here, you can see the Golden Ratio. A mathematical principle, applied to film. Nishimiya is the focus of this shot, she’s the only thing that’s important. To get this notion across, to lead our eyes into her naturally, the surrounding frame is structured in a way as to draw our attention to her. From the way the chairs(?) are stacked, to the bright-lit-windows, and down towards the banisters and handrail.
The Rule of Thirds could also be applied, much to the same effect:
Of course, these are just ways of explaining how certain compositions are crafted to intentionally put our eyes on one focal point. And, even if it seems like an obvious observation, there is purposeful thought behind the implementation of it. This isn’t specifically related to Koe no Katachi, but can be applied to almost every scene in film/animation that has a competent cinematographer/director at the helm. In a sense it’s the basics any filmmaker will learn. For if the compositions aren’t attractive or don’t convey meaning, what is their purpose? And, as we know, all things in film need purpose. Something which I believe anime often tends to forget.
Emotional Response From Beauty
The above two, are in my opinion, some of the best shots in Koe no Katachi. They are honestly, truly wonderful. The way in which they are composed, stitched together, and so well-thought-out. They occur in roundabouts the same scene when Ishida and Nishimiya decide to take a trip out over the Summer, after their altercation. They show the immensity of the world, and its complex, often incomprehensible nature. Because, if anything, that’s what art is; a way of trying to understand the things that cannot be expressed by words, the things that transcend the relatively simplistic nature of language.
I noticed how Nishimiya always walked behind Ishida by a few paces. I believe this is not because the director wanted her to appear less important, but because of how Ishida is the instigator for all this; both the bullying in the past, and the need to make reparations in the present. He’s leading her, because he has no idea what else to do, how else to rectify the awful damage he has caused.
Again, this is another scene with fast cuts – rushing through the landscape of strange objects, tripping, (literally) unsure of what to make of their surrealist surroundings. It’s a perfect example of the characters tribulations represented by their obscure environments.
Intentional, Purposeful Direction
I noticed this on my second viewing.’ the carp swimming up, against the force of the river, comes before the confrontation on the bridge. And, the carp swimming downstream with the current, comes shortly after the argument. It’s as though when Ishida arrives, he’s moving forward, even if slowly and with much effort. And, then after he’s – not given up… instead let the current take him in its natural direction.
In this sequence, the camera achieves something close to a shot reverse shot – from Nishimiya on the left, to Ishida on the right, and back again at least half-a-dozen times. The director could have easily framed them in one long shot. It would have been cheaper, and it would have been easier. After all, there is no action to speak of, only dialogue. Instead the cuts in the scene serve for a difference purpose – to create distance between Nishimiya and Ishida. They’re physically so close, and yet at this point in Koe No Katachi they couldn’t be further apart. This is a visual representation of that idea.
These are all intentional decisions. I was once told something in my film class, a few years back that I’ll never forget: “A good director never frames anything unintentionally” It might have been in different words… but it holds the same meaning nonetheless. This statement is perfectly true for Koe No Katachi. Everything seems to have purpose. And, in a world with such bloated and trivial media, this alone is high enough praise.
I absolutely adore the ending of Koe No Katachi. It isn’t a completely happy ending per se. Yet, neither is it a sad one. There are things left unsaid, like where the relationship between Ishida and Nishimiya going to go. Will they simply remain good friends? Or will they become more than that? Was Nishimiya’s declaration of love the ‘friendship’ type only? Anyway… more of that in another post.
It all culminated in an absolutely stunning scene, right until the moment Ishida realises, and understands all he has been missing, all that Nishimiya might have been missing – the things he might have caused her to miss, to not feel pleasure in. The camera flicks around him, showing friends, family, all his loved ones, and all the ones he has haphazardly come to love. It’s woven together masterfully, and I cannot imagine any way in which it could have been better, nor more appropriate. It speaks to us, the simple movement of the camera, and the way it implies the things it does.
The anime industry – even entertainment as a whole – should take inspiration from Koe no Katachi. Not just in what it has managed to achieve, but how it has managed, how it reaches the heights it does. Koe no Katachi is an instant classic coming from a relatively unknown director and a well-established, and revered studio. So, take a leaf out of its book. Embrace emotion, and the refreshing humanity that is possible with such communicative moving pictures. Because God… if I have to watch another Transformers movie, I might as well join Ishida in the first few scenes…
There will be more posts on Koe No Katachi in the near future – so, stick around!
What are your thoughts on Koe No Katachi’s shot composition?
As always, thanks for reading!