Visual appreciation of anime is on an upwards trend, with more and more dedicated western fans starting to dive into the intricacies of animation – something we hope this blog will boost, even if just a little bit. We don’t intend to be here simply to highlight good work though, we’d also like to broaden the understanding of these matters; visual flourish for its own sake exists, and there’s nothing wrong about it, but we don’t want people to get the impression that animation is all about the Yutaka Nakamura action and Ebata walks. Time to tackle animation being directly used as a narrative tool.
Luckily we just had a perfect film to illustrate this point in Anthem of the Heart. The film is visually interesting for a series of reasons; for starters it’s the perfect example of this new generation of latenight anime films, quite different from traditional animated movies and that instead approach the ideal form of regular TV series. There’s also an undercurrent thread of Japanese tradition and western modernity coexisting, taking visual form in elements like the western fairy tale-themed love hotel that starts it all. But what feels is most important, and what we’ll focus on, is the depiction of its lively main character Jun. At its core, Anthem is a movie about communication, non-verbal one at that. Her character acting doesn’t only showcase how animation can serve as a fundamental form of characterization, it’s even thematically appropriate. The staff meticulously ensured that she speaks – both to the characters around her and to the viewer – through visual cues and her own body language, as she can’t do it freely with words. Let’s take a look at the very deliberate way she’s animated.
First off, let’s make it clear that Jun’s expressiveness isn’t a result of the whole ‘losing her voice’ plotline. It’s not as if she developed the habit of letting her feelings show once she lost the ability to speak, Jun is a girl whose thoughts were always apparent. We’re shown this visually in a more effective way than through the narration, during Akira Hamaguchi’s work on the movie’s intro; she happily trots up the hill, so lost in her enthusiasm that she needs to stop to catch her breath. She’s delighted in her daydreaming, dumbfounded by what she sees, then elated again as she conveniently misinterprets what happened. She rushes back home, unconcerned about everything but the fairy tale she wants to tell to her mom. The way she expresses physical affection and gesticulates are very much like an extroverted child would. This entire scene is so well animated that it makes the explicit off-hand comments about her personality redundant; the show, don’t tell principle is taken too far by fans who recite it as a mantra and claim it’s the only possible approach, but cases like this make it obvious that sometimes you’re better off letting actions speak for themselves. Either way, it’s clear that this scene serves a double purpose – it’s a joy to watch, and it immediately establishes Jun’s character. Sometimes you really can have the best of both worlds!
As the movie progresses and switches PoV, we start seeing glimpses of Jun’s struggle years after the incident that made her unable to speak. It’s not that she’s lost the will to, or even the ability, but now she has to forcibly stop herself from voicing her thoughts. This heavily contrasts with the rest of the main cast, since this is an Okada and Nagai project through and through; turbulent emotions littered all over the place, teens whose only venue to express them are verbal outbursts they can’t control, everything you’d come to expect from a project lead by these two. The extraneous element in this mix is Jun herself, who due to her peculiar situation can’t let loose her bottled up emotions in the same manner as the rest. Again, her being the most visually articulate character in the film is no happy accident. The animators didn’t just so happen to put extra care in her demeanor, it was a clear priority during production to have her stand out from a cast that relies entirely on oral expression.
Don’t get me wrong though, it’s not as if Jun’s completely exempt from a nice shouting session. In spite of the pain it causes her, there are a couple of instances where she does just that, especially towards the end. But even then it’s never done at the expense of her visual presence. It could have been easy to simply let her audible voice speak, but that would have been a careless mistake. We know that her spirited bearing isn’t a replacement for the loss of her words but rather the way she’s always been, so it only makes sense that when she can no longer stop herself from speaking she would express that with her body as well. The idea of character acting applies to both animation and voicework, and scenes like this show that you shouldn’t treat them as completely unrelated elements.
Since I’ve help hinting at it in these clips, let’s move on from the more conspicuous displays of animation in the movie to the more subdued ones. While they don’t jump out at the viewer quite as much, their purpose in conveying Jun’s feelings through her body language is just as important. The most prominent example is her fidgety hands, a recurring quirk throughout the film. She has a habit of fiddling when she’s nervous or uncomfortable – she still constantly wants to talk, but any sort of social encounter throws her off now that she can’t express herself. She’s afraid to reach out despite wanting to, and her hand motions are just another way to display how she’s wondering how to interact with other people without hurting herself. In the scene above, for example, she’s already made somewhat of a breakthrough and opened up enough to the male protagonist Takumi to stand by his side, yet the presence of his friend Natsuki still has her on edge. It may seem minor and worth brushing off, but details like that can go a long way. Especially when accomplished exclusively through the visuals, since there’s no attempt to cover for anyone who missed it by spelling it out later down the line.
Here’s an even more explicit instance, aided by strong framing to emphasize it. Her struggle is obvious; she’s disobeying her mother’s order to avoid interacting with their neighbors, as well as constantly stopping herself from engaging in the small talk that she wants to reply to. Situations like this are overwhelming for her and she’s clearly smashing the panic button, even though she ultimately manages to muster up her courage right afterward. These scenes are the most transparent attempt to convey her inner worries. Subtlety is dropped almost entirely, but they’re still very rich in nuance so they serve their purpose.
As much as I’d enjoy going over a number of other scenes, I feel like the idea got across and spending too much time analyzing every scene might kill the magic. Instead I’d recommend to everyone who already enjoyed the film – which is fantastic in general as far as I’m concerned – to get back to it while keeping this all in mind, paying extra attention to Jun’s demeanor. Noticing and understanding the attention to detail behind her character animation is only going to make you appreciate the movie even more, and it’s something I’d rather viewers experience by themselves. Let this post be guidance rather than a cheat sheet.
Anthem isn’t a revolutionary project, it obviously didn’t come up with these ideas about visual expression and animation tied to the core narrative. Its notable success lies in being a movie about communicating by means other than words, which managed to convey emotions to the audience without necessarily spelling them out. It feels appropriate to talk about this now, as I’m writing this piece with Koe no Katachi on the horizon, a work that similarly – perhaps even more – deals with non-verbal communication. Considering Naoko Yamada’s personal track record and KyoAni’s general expertise, chances are that movie will achieve this goal in an even more impressive fashion. Visual literacy, knowing what to pay attention to, makes you gain extra layers of appreciation for works like this. Hopefully essays like this will help people who would otherwise let these meaningful details slip past them.
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