In an industry famed for its lack of diversity, Naoko Yamada has beaten the odds with the release of her third feature film, A Silent Voice
Anime isn’t the only creative industry that’s proved difficult for women to crack, but it's one that's come under scrutiny a hell of a lot. Not only are so many female anime characters hyper-sexualised and fetishised for their youth, but there's just a tiny number of women working on the films in the first place – according to the Animation Guild, only 10 percent of all producers or directors are women.
Ghibli's female protagonists have proven themselves powerful, independent and flawed: Princess Mononoke’s powerful warrior San unpicks her own humanity without being driven by the male lead, and Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service builds herself up to heroism. Nevertheless, it was hardly surprising when Academy award-winning names like Ghilbi founder Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro) aired some contentious views about women in animating. In 2011, he tweeted: “They say it's over for animation in Japan. When we look for new hires only women respond, and I get the feeling that we're done for.”
The director of highly anticipated A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada, is yes, a woman. But she's also only 32 – making her one of the youngest high-level directors in the industry right now. This is her third feature-length film and is already kicking Miyazaki's ass by being way younger than he was when he put out his first movie.
“I think if we could communicate better in whatever ways, life would be much simpler and easier” – Naoko Yamada
A Silent Voice deals with human emotion on a different level than other anime, swerving Ghibli-style fantasy and the sharp edges of Akira’s neo-Tokyo and fascist-fighting cyberpunk gangs. Adapted from the manga strip of the same name, it tells the story of Shoko, a girl who's relentlessly bullied by the other kids at school because she's deaf. Five years later, one of her tormentors, Shoya, is feeling crappy about what he put her through and goes on a journey of redemption. We spoke to Yamada about A Silent Voice, blasting a path in the industry and constructing the depth of human emotion in her animated figures.
I enjoyed the film and found it really moving. Why did you want to tell Shoko's story?
Naoko Yamada: It's hard to describe. Most people misunderstand each other, right? And people interpret what somebody else says the way they want to hear. So normally everybody has got that problem, that the most important thing is really hard to say to other people. I think if we could communicate better in whatever ways, life would be much simpler and easier. 10 different people have 10 different emotions and 10 different ways to describe each emotion. There's always frustration and difficulty there, how do we get over it? It's not just Shoko, but all characters have got that frustration. So that's what I wanted to explore.
Why do you think these kinds of subjects are so rarely shown in animation?
Naoko Yamada: I wonder why too! I think everybody hates pain, right? So that's probably why people don't want to deal with it – especially in animation. But everybody hurts at the same time. In this, the main character decides not to hear, he shuts other people out, but there is always love. His family, his mother, loves him unconditionally, and everybody cares. So that negativity, the dark painful aspects, are just on the surface. That's really not the essence of the story. I really didn't want to stay in the dark zone. If I had to stay focused on that negative aspect, I probably wouldn't have taken it (the job).
What's the main message you want audiences to take away from the film?
Naoko Yamada: The film is about redemption and also that you are allowed to be whatever. You are allowed to fail but there's always tomorrow. You live, it's OK, whatever you think you are, it's OK. Oh god I'm just talking about really deep stuff. But also I want to say that there is hope. That's what I want the audience to take home.
You also directed K-On, which was a school drama. Was there something you wanted to explore in A Silent Voice that you didn't get to in K-On?
Naoko Yamada: When I was making K-On, obviously it’s fiction, but I tried not to deal with it as fiction. In K-On everybody is happy and saying 'I love you' to everybody else. It doesn’t really deal with sadness. So I think A Silent Voice is a more natural state of human behaviour, and is more down to earth. I felt less restricted as I could put lots of different emotions into A Silent Voice.
You've been described as a ‘method’ director – how do you go about your work?
Naoko Yamada: Probably that might have been lost in translation somewhere. As a director, I am an observer so the characters are no reflection of myself at all. Obviously, feelings and emotions could go into it a little bit, but I respect the characters like how in live action films, directors respect actors. So yes, I'm an observer.
“If you love what you do and you've got dreams, gender I don't think matters” – Naoko Yamada
As one of the youngest high-level directors in the industry, what challenges do you face?
Naoko Yamada: I just love what I do. I love music, I love movies, I love animation and I love creating things. I do respect the art itself and I really can't observe myself. I still don't know what I am or who I am. I just love doing what I do and I don't really think much about it.
What advice would you give to other young women who want to work in anime?
Naoko Yamada: They might be better than me and they might create something incredible! There's no limit in a creative industry, so just look at what you like and create and make what you like to create and just be passionate about it.
Why do you think it's so hard for women to get into the industry?
Naoko Yamada: I don't feel it that way. Obviously it is a difficult industry to get into and to succeed in. But it's all about your spirit. If you love what you do and you've got dreams, gender I don't think matters. You can meet a man and get married...
Is there anything you're dying to work on next?
Naoko Yamada: There is a lot I want to do and I'm still confused myself. But I just want to keep making works that are about people, human emotions and feelings.
A Silent Voice is set for UK release on March 17