Animated April: Spotlight on Naoko Yamada

By Bianca Garner

For Animated April we are focusing on a range of women in animation both past and present. You may recall that Naoko Yamada‘s animated feature “A Silent Voice” made our top 50 films of the decade last year. To those who aren’t familiar with her work, we have decided to look back at her career and the works that placed her on the map. She remains one of the few female anime directors in Japan who is working today.

Born in 1984, Yamada has always maintained an interest and passion for art. As a child, she enjoyed drawing and would copy images from the “Patlabor” and “Dragonball” anime series. After finishing High School, Yamada went on to study at Kyoto University of Art and Design, where she studied oil painting and was a member of the special effects club.

K-ON_Character
K-On!

Yamada has worked for well-known Kyoto Animation studios since 2004, where she has had the opportunity to direct the “K-On!” and “Tamako Market” anime series, and the anime films “A Silent Voice” and “Liz and the Blue Bird”. She was first tasked with drawing in-betweens for “Inuyasha, an anime fairy tale series which follows the plight of Kagome, a modern high-school girl who is transported back in time to feudal Japan. She soon discovers she’s the reincarnation of a deceased priestess and must prevent the antihero Inuyasha from taking the Shikon Jewel. This popular series ran from 2000 until 2010.

“When you’re unable to think of yourself positively, that also gets in the way of you understanding what others feel. We all have worries and many things that we feel guilt over, so we might lose the courage to love ourselves. Since I also have that melancholic part of myself, I wanted to make a film that ultimately said “it’ll be okay.”

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Naoko Yamada

To those who may not be aware of what “inbetweening” refers to in animation, it’s the process of generating intermediate frames between two images, which are called keyframes, this gives the appearance that the first image evolves smoothly into the second image. Inbetweens helps to create the illusion of movement. Usually what occurs is that the senior or key artist draws the keyframes which define the movement, then, after testing and approval of the rough animation, they hand over the scene to their assistant. The assistant does the clean-up and the necessary in-betweens.

Yamada would later make her debut as a key animator on “Air” episode 9 and would go on to work as a key animator on some episodes of “The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi”, which is Japanese science-fiction comedy anime, based on a series of light novels of the same title.

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The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi

“The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi” has quite an interesting concept and follows high-school student Kyon, who has long given up his belief in the supernatural. However, upon meeting Haruhi Suzumiya, he quickly finds out that it is the supernatural that she is interested in—aliens, time travellers, and espers among other things. When Haruhi laments about the lack of intriguing clubs around school, Kyon inspires Haruhi to form her own club. As a result, the SOS Brigade is formed, a club that happens to specialize in all that is the supernatural.

Yamada followed this up by directing an episode on “Clannad” with episode 17 marking her directorial debut and within a short time rose in the ranks to debut as the director on “K-ON!” in 2009. K-ON!’s story revolves around five Japanese high school girls who join their school’s Light Music Club. The show follows the daily lives of each member and shows their interactions with each other, their teachers, friends and families.

“It takes time for me to start drawing, but the points I want to focus on and the greatest challenges of the work are clear to me from the start.”

In 2013 Yamada directed “Tamako Market” anime series which was a ‘slice-of-life’ comedy that followed Tamako Kitashirakawa, the eldest daughter of a family which runs the Tama-ya mochi shop in the Usagiyama Shopping District. One day, Tamako encounters a strange talking bird named Dera Mochimazzi who comes from a distant land searching for a bride for his country’s prince. After becoming overweight from eating too much mochi, Dera ends up becoming a freeloader in Tamako’s home. A film sequel, titled “Tamako Love Story” was released in 2014, with Yamada storyboarding the entire film herself, and also writing the lyrics for the opening theme song.

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A Silent Voice

Yamada’s next project was the feature film “A Silent Voice”, an adaptation of the manga of the same name, that reflected on elements of bullying and physical impairment in Japan. The film tells the story of a young man Shôya Ishida (Miyu Irino) who is ostracized by his classmates after he bullies a deaf girl called Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) to the point where she moves away. Years later, he sets off on a path for redemption. “A Silent Voice” received critical praise, with critics such as Charles Soloman from the Los Angeles Times describing it as “An unflinching depiction of the cruelty children inflict on each other.”

“A Silent Voice” was a commercial hit, it opened at the number two spot at the Japanese box office behind Makoto Shinkai‘s “Your Name”, and grossed a total of ¥283 million from 200,000 admissions within two days of its premiere across 120 theatres. As of November 30, 2016, the film has grossed a total of over ¥2.2 billion from 1.7 million admissions. Yamada stated in an interview that she “hoped many people would experience truly cinematic feelings from the film so I was very happy that it had such a big reaction.”

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A Silent Voice

“A Silent Voice” is a truly heartwarming and touching film which has such a powerful universal story that can connect to people on a worldwide basis. Yamada has stated that she wanted to present “The world as a profound and gentle place that accepts everything. This is what I really wanted to express in this film.” I think she captures this perfectly.

Her next film was “Liz and the Blue Bird” released in 2018. The film focuses on the friendship of high school students and musicians Mizore and Nozomi as they prepare for a concert with their school’s brass band; in parallel, it also depicts a fairy tale, from which the music piece worked on by the band is adapted, as a story within a story. Yamada stated about the making of the film:

“My first thought was to put my impression of Nozomi and Mizore’s story into something visual…I put importance in using colour to reflect this sense of fragility and fleetingness. […] For this piece of work subtle emotions and the buildup of feeling was important.”

“Liz and the Blue Bird” also received critical praise. Matt Schley of The Japan Times gave the film a 4.5 out of 5 stars calling it “brilliantly executed” and Writing for The Daily Dot, Michelle Jarowski gave the film a 4 out of 5, stating “Liz and the Blue Bird soars from the get-go as it weaves together a fantastical fairy tale and a more intimate, relatable high school story.”

liz and the blue bird
Liz and the Blue Bird

So what’s next for the director? Will Naoko Yamada ever go into live-action? Probably not. In an interview in 2018, she stated that what she enjoys about directing animation is the sense of control:

“One of the most important things for me in making this film in animation was that I could control everything. Colours; what lens you use; the characters… Every movement of everyone, of everything, even a blink, I can control it as I want it to be. Yes, A Silent Voice would work in live-action, but in live-action unexpected things happen. That’s great – actors bring their own things (to a live-action film), but for me, the advantage of animation is I can control every single aspect.”

If you haven’t sampled any of Naoko Yamada’s work, then now is a great time to check it out. We cannot wait to see what she does next.

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