I was gonna do a whole bit. Japan showing up at my door in defiance of the restraining order I slapped on it in the last animé review I did and slowly winning me over today’s movie…
Not gonna do that. Not least because, I feel like kind of an asshole. Even if it’s just for comic effect (And it was. Mostly.), the idea of just writing off a nation’s artistic output in an entire genre because of one bad experience…or two, or three…okay look, animé hasn’t had a great batting average on this blog I’m getting off track. That was an awful thing to suggest, even if I was joking. Which I was. Mostly.
This movie is one that I’ve had on the backburner for years (I think it’s one of the Mauricio reviews? Fuck is it one of the Joanna reviews?!). And even though I had seriously intended to take a good long break from animé after the MGX review I couldn’t in good conscience put this off any more so I sat down to watch it, as they say, with a bit of a hump.
And around an hour in I’m trying to remember the last time a movie affected me this deeply on an emotional level and I’m coming up blank.
Guys, this one hollowed me out and didn’t even break a sweat. This is the real deal. Fair warning, this review deals with bullying, suicide and depression and I’m not going to be making a lot of jokes. It’ll be a bit of a gear-shift from Deadpool, put it that way. This is just going to be talking about a movie that really got to me.
We begin with us following Japanese teenager Shoya Ishida over the course of several days. We see him quit his job, close out his bank account, leave an envelope full of money for his mother and then head out to a bridge to throw himself off. But at the last second some kids let off some fireworks under the bridge which snaps him out of it and instead he just walks home.
So one of the interesting things about this movie is its use of deliberately dissonant music to put the emotion of any given scene into stark relief. Often moments where characters are at their lowest ebb emotionally will be paired with music that is upbeat or even triumphalist. It shouldn’t work but it really does. This scene of Shoya walking home after almost killing himself, for example, is scored with The Who’s My Generation (alternate title “OK, Greatest Generationer”). In flashback, Shoya narrates the events that brought him to this point. Shoya was just a carefree kid who hung out with his friends, played video games and generally goofed off.
One day, Shoya’s class are introduced to a new girl named Shoko Nishimiya, who shyly informs the class that she’s deaf using a notepad. At first, things go great. The class is very interested in Shoko and most of the kids try to make her feel welcome. But one girl, Naoka Ueno, starts to resent Shoko because she thinks she’s getting special treatment. In order to impress Naoka, Shoya starts making fun of Shoko behind her back, which some of the other kids start getting in on and slowly things just start escalating to a full on campaign of abuse and bullying against this one deaf girl.
And look, guys, I don’t know what your experience in school was like but personally this whole sequence rang agonisingly true. These bullies aren’t shaking nerds down for lunch money or plotting in secret like supervillains. They’re just kids who aren’t sure whether they’re playing a game or not and just trying to one up one another and can’t see how far things are getting out of control because no one person is responsible and no one can see the full picture except Shoko. It’s just spreading from one kid to the other like a virus. It’s honestly the best depiction of how bullying starts that I’ve ever seen. Because there are no real villains.
Things finally come to a head when Shoya yanks Shoko’s hearing aid out of her ear, causing it to bleed. The next day, the class is told by their principal that Shoko’s mother has called the school complaining that she’s being bullied and that eight of her hearing aids have gone missing or been destroyed since she started at their school. At which point their teacher basically calls Shoya out in front of the class and blames him for everything that’s been happening to Shoko. Shoya protests that pretty much everyone in the class was either actively involved or complicit by their silence in what was happening to Shoko. So this school has a choice. Everyone from the principal on down can either do the necessary and painful work of examining the systematic and personal failings that allowed this horrendous abuse to take place or they can find an easy scapegoat and put all the blame on him and make his life a living hell.
Guess which one they go for.
Go on. You’ll never guess.
So now Shoya is the class whipping boy and things get real bad, real fast. As the bullying against him ramps up, Shoya descends into a pit of rage and self-pity. He finds Shoko messing with his desk (not realising that his classmates vandalised his desk with graffiti and that she was washing it off before he could see it) and he physically attacks her. What follows is one fucking hard scene to watch where Shoka finally can’t take it anymore and fights back, pounding on Shoya’s chest and yelling something at him that he can’t understand. She runs off, leaving behind her notebook which Shoya picks up. Shortly afterwards the class are informed that Shoko has transferred to a different school (WHAT TOOK SO LONG, JESUS).
So now we’re back in the present and Shoya is in high school. Unfortunately, the story of how he bullied a deaf girl into leaving school has followed him like a fart in church and he’s become a complete social pariah. Shoya has been deeply effected by this and can’t even make eye contact with anyone in school, which the movie visually renders by having everyone around him having a large “X” over their face.
After deciding to kill himself, one of Shoya’s bits of house cleaning was to track down Shoko at a local centre for the deaf, give her back her notebook and apologise through sign. Shoko is amazed to see that Shoya has actually learned sign language, and invites him to come over to the centre some time and feed bread to the koi, which in Japan is basically third base.
Back at home, over breakfast, Shoya’s mother thanks him for the money he paid her back (which is actually the money that she had to pay to replace all of Shoko’s hearing aids that he destroyed) and then casually asks him why he wanted to kill himself. Without even thinking, Shoya answers that he’s just been going through some shit and his mother LOSES HER GODDAMN MIND and tells him that if he ever tries something like that again she will burn every last yen. Unfortunately, while threatening to burn the money she accidentally does, and a million yen go up in smoke.
Obviously, Shoya wasn’t intending to go back to the deaf centre (or indeed, still be respirating) but now that his schedule is clear he starts wondering if he should go and see Shoko again or if that would be creepy. Shoya also makes a friend in school when he rescues a kid named Tomohiro from having his bike stolen from a bully, by giving the bully his bike instead. This causes Tomohiro to imprint on Shoya like a baby chick and the two become friends. Or possibly a stalker and stalkee, it’s honestly a little blurry. Anyway, this means that Tomohiro is the first kid in Shoya’s school who isn’t walking around like he’s secretly Speed Racer’s brother who ran away from home many years ago and the giant X falls off.
Shoya returns to the deaf centre to see Shoko again but he’s prevented from seeing her by a kid named Yuzuru who claims to be Shoko’s boyfriend. Tomohiro, who has followed Shoya to the deaf centre without his knowledge, chews out Yuzuru for being a dick to Shoya which leads to Yuzuru giving the best line of the whole movie: “Wow. The shitty stalker has a shitty stalker.”
Shoko sees Shoya and the two of them go and feed fish on the bridge. Shoko accidentally drops her notebook in the river and jumps in after it and Shoya jumps in after her. Yuzuru, who is a bit of a shutter-bug, films the whole thing and posts it online which gets Shoya suspended from school.
This next part I honestly don’t like because it’s all kinds of contrived. Shoya’s sister (who is never named and whose face is never shown in either the movie or original animé for some reason) asks him to pick up her daughter Marie from school where he just happens to find Yuzuru sleeping rough in the playground. Pretty big coincidence, but whatevah. Shoya takes Yuzuru home and his mother fixes “him” some food and lets “him” stay the night. I throw up the scare quotes because now it’s time to reveal the shocking twist; Yuzuru is not Shoko’s boyfriend but is actually her little sister.
I’m assuming this is a bigger twist in the Japanese dub, but honestly in the English version the voice actor is so obviously female that it’s not exactly a shocking reveal. Anyway, it turns out that the reason Yuzuru is sleeping rough was because she had a big fight with Shoko after she uploaded the footage of Shoyo jumping off the bridge. Yuzuru did this out of revenge for what Shoya did to Shoko back in elementary school, but when Shoya doesn’t even get mad, she regrets her actions and starts to warm to him. Shoya walks Yuzuru home and meets Yuzuru and Shoko’s mother, Yaeko, and shortly afterwards meets Yaeko’s hand smacking him right in the face. Okay, so Yaeko is the best. She is hardly in this movie but in almost every scene she’s in she is straight up wrecking somebody’s shit for messing with her daughters. She is a stone cold BADASS and I love her.
Despite Yaeko telling both her daughters that she doesn’t want them to have anything to do with him, the two sisters continue hanging out with Shoya and he starts helping Shoko reconnect with friends that she lost contact with when she had to leave school. You know. Because of all the horrific bullying. Which he was largely responsible for. So. You know. Least he can do.
Shoya takes Shoko to meet Miyoko, the only girl in school who actually tried to learn sign language and who was Shoko’s best friend. Shoya leaves the two to catch up and grope each other (not making that up) and he goes wandering where he encounters Satan, Arch-Fiend and Prince of Hell.
Naoka is delighted to see Shoya again, but when she sees Shoko she immediately starts acting like she’s still in elementary school, mocking her and even stealing her hearing aid because this bitch the devil. Shoya is horrified and apologies to Shoko for Naoka’s actions.
Shoko, for her part, has started to fall for Shoya in a big way and tries to tell him that she likes him verbally. Unfortunately, he can’t understand her speech and she’s too embarrassed to sign it and runs home. Shoya asks Yuzuru for help because he’s a doofus but not so much of a doofus that he can’t twig that something’s up and Yuzuru, who is kind of the best, suggests that he ask her out.
The kids all go to to a fairground and for the first time in a long time, Shoya actually feels happy. He’s having fun with his friends, everything’s great and he feels actually happy, to the point that he feels guilty because he doesn’t believe he deserves to feel that way. Unfortunately, Miyoko has brought Naoka along. Naoka tries to patch things up with Shoya, but when he rebuffs her she invites Shoko to ride with her on the Ferris wheel. Yuzuru, sensing that something is up, surreptitiously gives Shoko her camera and leaves it recording so she can see what happens. That’s smart, but even smarter would be not letting her go at all, because if I had to choose between going up in a Ferris wheel with Naoka or Harry Lime…well…at least he’s got some fun anecdotes about cuckoo clocks.
The next day Yuzuru brings the footage over to Shoya’s house and they listen to what Naoka said to Shoko. Naoka told Shoko that it was all her fault that Shoya was ostracised in school and that that’s why she hates her. Naoka tries to frame this as a “let’s put this all behind us” kind of deal, while insisting that Shoko take responsibility for her own abuse. But when Shoko tries to apologise, Naoka furiously assaults her because she doesn’t want Shoko to apologise or to forgive her. She wants Shoko to hate her, so that Naoka can go on hating her without feeling guilty. Because, and I may not have made this clear, this bitch THE DEVIL.
Later, Shoya attends a bon festival (oh God here come the Haruhi flashbacks) with Shoko, Yuzuru and Yaeko. Halfway through a fireworks display, Shoko makes her excuses and says she needs to go home to study. Yuzuru asks Shoya if he can swing by their flat to pick up her camera and he does because of that time he bullied her deaf sister so bad she had to leave school and this guy is never getting out from under that.
So Shoya returns to Shoko’s apartment and sees…
Do you want to know how deep this movie got its hooks in me?
Shoya sees Shoko standing on the balcony. He screams. He runs to stop her. The curtain billows.
She’s standing there.
The curtain rises.
The curtain falls.
And I actually reached out my hand to the screen and yelled “FUCK!”
I swear to God. It was like I was some rube in the twenties seeing a train on screen for the first time and trying to jump out of the way.
This movie got to me.
But, it also cheats.
Because the next thing we see is Shoya desperately holding on to Shoko, praying desperately to God for one more ounce of strength to pull her up. Promising that tomorrow, he will be better. He will be better.
He manages to pull Shoko up but in the process falls from the balcony.
Shoya survives (barely) but is now in a coma. Yaeko meets Shoya’s mother at the hospital and apologises to her on her knees for how she treated him and by this point I was just curled up on the floor sobbing like an infant.
We then cut outside the hospital where Naoka is beating the shit out of Shoko for almost getting Shoya killed just as Yaeko comes out of the hospital. You can probably guess what happens next, but my poor prose cannot do justice to the glory of this moment.
Anyway. Everyone is smouldering emotional wreckage. Shoko, Yaeko, Yuzuru, Me, Tomohiro, Me, Shoya’s mother, Me. Everything is crying until smoke is coming out of their tear ducts. It’s a rough scene.
One night, Shoko has a dream that Shoya comes to say good by to her, and she wakes thinking that he’s dead. She run to the hospital. Meanwhile, Shoya wakes up from his coma thinking that Shoko is dead, and runs out of the hospital because security in this hospital is a joke.
They meet at the bridge and neither can believe the other is still alive. In the moonlight, Shoko apologises to Shoya and in return he tells her everything about his own suicide attempt and they promise to help each other live.
Shoya’s mother brings him home and he sees Naoka watching him from a distance and his mother tells him that Naoka stayed by his bedside the whole time he was in the coma. Well, obviously, how else was she supposed to drag his soul down to the Stygian abyss if he died in his sleep?
The movie ends with Shoko accompanying Shoya on his first day back to school. At first he’s terrified, and unable to meet anyone’ gaze but all his friends rally round to welcome him back. Even Naoka, who uses the opportunity to call Shoko a moron with sign language. But Shoko just laughs it off and corrects her piss poor signing and Naoka storms off looking for other souls to tempt from grace.
And the movie ends with Shoya standing in a crowd, crying with joy as a thousand X’s flutter to the ground.
This one took me completely by surprise. Gorgeous, heart-breaking and a welcome reminder of just how wonderful animé can be.
The animation is smooth and quite beautiful, and the backgrounds are lush and gorgeous. If I had a criticism, it would be that while the male characters are visually distinct and unusual, the designs for the female character are all a bit generic. Not bad, but definitely overly familiar. I find this interesting because both the director of the movie and the artist of the original manga it’s based on are women. I don’t have any larger point to make, I just thought it was interesting.
Shoya is a fascinating character study of someone grappling with depression, guilt and remorse. Shoko comes this close to being insufferably sweet and perfect but never goes over the line.
That bitch the DEVIL
Supporting Characters: 14/20
Plenty of memorable ones but if I had to choose it would be Yuzuru and Yaeko.
Kensuke Ushio’s score is excellent.
FINAL SCORE: 83%
NEXT UPDATE: 05 February 2020
NEXT TIME: Oh well, while animé is back in my good graces…
One thing I’ve learned from Persona 5 is how Japan doesn’t exactly deal with things like treating the mental health of people, especially youth, very well. The fact that Shoya’s mother flips her shit when finding out that her son is suicidal being an example of this, rather than making sure her son gets the help he needs.
Another unfortunate case is the school deciding to scapegoat the actions of an entire class onto one person rather than deal with the issue of bullying at large. It’s very much a twisted version of “the needs of the many.” You might call this instead, “the image of the many outweighs the image of the few, or the one.”
Of course, here in the West we still have a serious case of bullying not being addressed and very few attempts of fixing it either. It’s a serious case of disassociation that we tend to ignore until such cases where it almost literally blows up in our face. There’s still so much that needs to be done, and yes. I am speaking from the viewpoint of someone who was bullied in their youth.
Nice to see a Ghibli film on the horizon, after dealing with such a heavy topic it’ll be nice to have this breath of fresh air.
I’m with you on this one, Mouse. This movie messed me up six ways from Sunday.
Great write-up. I’d never even heard of this one, but it’s going right on my watchlist. Probably gonna have to wait for a nice sunny day featuring pizza and a good previous night’s sleep though, it sounds…a little heavy.
And on the opposite end of the anime spectrum, Kiki! If movies are food, that one’s candyfloss. It’s become one of my go-tos whenever I’m sick because it feels like a brain massage. And has a plot you can follow even on cold medication.
If I was to classify Kiki, I’d put it as a sweet bread like kalach or cougnou.
Thanks for the review! Sounds painful, though. 😞
Oh, it’s my third favorite Miyazaki film next time! Whether the second would be Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke depends on my mood, though.
First place? Castle in the Sky, by a large margin. Not the best, maybe, but it’ll always be my favorite. 😊
Castle in the Sky is a great adventure flick and I’d rank it as my third. After Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
Glad this was a rebound from MGX for you, absolutely love this movie. Really should watch it again but it’s a pretty brutal sit.
Wow. Never heard of this movie, and now have no desire to see it as it’ll probably trigger some very bad memories from when I was 13. (Which is a testament to its beautiful brutality.)
Instead I’ll ask what lackwit decided to give the main characters such similiar names. I’m sure Shoko and Shoya different enough when spoken but reading those names over and over again tripped me constantly.
It’s intentional. They both have the same nickname
Great review. I’m gonna have to check this one out. I remember it had a bunch of buzz when it came out but I never got around to seeing it.
I lurk. (I’ve read all your reviews but maybe posted once before when you talked about… emotional stuff, probably, to be euphemistic.) I started reading this review then stopped, thinking I’d rather not spoil it for myself. And I’m “glad” I did. (That adjective isn’t exactly right. The movie was hard to watch at times, but I appreciate having seen it, and am thankful to you for pointing me towards it.) Thank you.
Mostly I’m just glad it didn’t go “Grave of the Fireflies” on me! Still, the bit where Shoko’s mother is overcome by her feelings of guilt before Shoya’s mother — yeah, that brought out the heaving sobs for me.
Anyway, again, thank you for pointing me towards this movie. And for the good work you do here. (I also felt I was overdue to say so again, especially after watching a movie that’s all about the importance of finding connections and appreciating people for what they are and do.)
Thanks for a beautiful post Nobbery?
Sorry, wasn’t a question. Errant question mark slipped in there.
I saw this film very recently, watched it twice already.
Thank you for introducing this movie to me. I had heard about it before but didn’t get the desire to actually watch it until I read this review. I watched it on Netflix recently and it was as great and heartbreaking as you described it.
Really glad you liked it Kori.