Through A Silent Voice, Yamada Naoko established herself as one of the greatest anime directors of our time. What followed after was her more experimental piece, Liz and the Blue Bird, the film which I consider the best that anime has produced. In this post, I will be running through the choices that Yamada Naoko used in her arthouse masterpiece, Liz and the Blue Bird and at times, her other works, specifically referring to how she conveys the emotions of characters through visual storytelling.
So how does Yamada Naoko convey emotions with the camera? Well first, she uses her frames as an extension of her character’s perspective. This lets us see how the characters are feeling with what surrounds the characters.
Oftentimes, as anime characters have exaggerated eyes, directors will often look to show expression through close up of characters of faces. However, there aren’t many shots in Liz and the Blue Bird that does this. In fact, this movie is similar to a cleverly directed arthouse live action film.
One example of her choices is the use of objects. In many shots of Liz and the Blue Bird, it’s possible to see that the characters are placed in drastic sides of the frame, often time minimized. In the photo below, you can see that Mizore is trapped drastically on the right side of the screen. The word trapped is important here because it is this use of perspective with the desks that makes it feels as though she is actually trapped in a small space. By having this shot near the start of the movie, it naturally gives us the reluctant and not-so outgoing personality of Mizore immediately.
Similarly, below is from a scene when Mizore is talking to her underclassmen about the audition. Within the story, Mizore is confused about the direction that she wants to take her future in and lost on how she should be approaching the piece that the band is playing. With all this happening, Yamada Naoko uses the desks to present her disorganized thoughts. We see that while the two characters are in the center of the frame, the desks around them are not organized, placed messily out of position.
One of my favorite scenes from the movie is when Nozomi is talking to her music teacher about going to a music school for university. As you can see on the bottom photo, the two characters of focus are very far back. This shows us two things. First, that she is unconfident about her choice and two, that her future in music looks fairly bleak. The former, you can see from her action. She slowly steps back as she is talking. Here, it is the body language rather than the facial expressions that show character. The latter is simply seen by the fact that the whole hallway looks very dark contrasting the more bright pastel colors used throughout the movie. By having a conversation in darker settings, it signals to the audience that the conversation will lead somewhere bad in the future. This is further emphasized by the fact that they are standing in a location that has shadows looming over rather than the few spots where light is shining through.
More than this, just the overall composition in this scene is very nice to look at. The poles on the side of the hallway with the shadows created by the ceiling create a very natural frame within the frame that guides our eyes to the subjects. Similarly, the way that the camera is angled forms nice leading lines with the corners of the hallway and with the fire alarms on the top.
To stray slightly out of Liz and the Blue Bird, Yamada Naoko has actually been using objects or surroundings a lot in her other films to portray emotions. In A Silent Voice she enjoyed using separators between the characters using perspective. One of the most memorable scenes in A Silent Voice to me was when we saw Nishimiya and Ishida in the playground as elementary schoolers. As we can see on the photo below, Yamada Naoko places Nishimiya inside one of the structures in the playground along with ishida to show that she is trapped in the current situation that she is in. We also see other characters leaving the structure leaving Nishimiya alone without helping her. However, a key aspect of this scene is that we actually don’t see Ishida leave the structure. Rather the camera cuts out to the next scene before we can see Ishida leave. This cleverly hints to the audience that Ishida will be the only one right now that stays with Nishimiya to help her.
Other times, she just cleverly uses the camera through different angles or movements. One of the prevalent camera actions in Yamada Naoko’s work, or KyoAni works in general, is the use of dutch angles — a slight tilt added to show instability in a shot. I talked about this slightly in my Hyouka post but below are some examples of how Yamada Naoko uses it here in this movie and in A Silent Voice.
Again, these are great ways of building tension in relationships. With the whole idea of the film being that these two characters are disconnected, angles like this do a lot to add into the instability that these two characters have in their relationships.
Another important part of the movie is the composition of characters in the movie. One of the most interesting parts about Yamada Naoko’s work is how she splits the frame into halves. Oftentimes, having multiple characters on one side of the half will signal that those two characters are close or understand each other very well, whereas having characters on different halves in the same setting will signal that they aren’t able to understand each other.
The most notable scene from Liz and the Blue Bird with this is when Mizore and Nozomi are talking to Nakagawa Natsuki and Yoshikawa Yuuko. To get into more about the context about this scene, here, Mizore and Nozomi are talking to Natsuki and Yuuko about their decision to go to music school. Of course, within the context of the movie, Nozomi is not fully sure about that decision at this point and Mizore is only applying to follow Nozomi. Because of this, their choices are very disconnected and they do not fully understand each other’s decisions.
In these photos above, we can see that these two characters, while both being the focus of the scene, aren’t placed together on the same frame. Interestingly, these two shots are immediately after one other. Throughout this scene, this separation of the two characters by not placing them in the same frames is consistent. Unlike an over-the-shoulder shot which has a part of the body, usually shoulder or head, lay slightly on one side of the frame, shots like these give more focus to each character rather than the relationship between the characters. This makes it feel as though the characters are almost in separate locations, not communicating with each other properly.
To further emphasize this, Nozomi here is placed on frame-left whereas Mizore is placed on frame-right. In editing, there is a term called eye-tracing. Essentially, this describes when the main object of a frame is placed near the similar locations from the main object of previous frames. This allows the audience to naturally have their eyes set on the location where the main object was. By decreasing the movement the eye has to take, especially with movies (which have bigger screens) it makes it less tiring for the audience when we are viewing the frames following each other. However, with these two shots, Yamada Naoko naturally breaks this editing rule. By doing this, she creates tension in the audience viewing the scenes, again, commenting on how separated the two are along with the tension in their relationship.
Of course, the main idea of this movie is the “disjoint” of the two characters. Yamada Naoko shows it excellently in scenes like this.
Unlike the separated Nozomi and Mizore, however, as you can see from the two photos above, Natsuki and Yuuko, two good friends, are always near each other to show that they are close. Unlike Nozomi and Mizore who are on different sides of the frame, these two characters are always either on the left side of the frame or the right side of the frame together on one frame. This directly contrasts with Mizore and Nozomi who aren’t even in the same frame. In some parts of this scene, we see Yuuko move or have the camera shift laterally to get her on the same half as Natsuki as the conversation progresses. Again, this shows how the two are very connected unlike Nozomi and Mizore who don’t know too much about their future.
Finally, the most important aspect of Yamada Naoko’s work in Liz and the Blue Bird are the faces. I did mention before that Yamada Naoko doesn’t usually emphasize facial expression. While this still holds true, she uses her faces not usually by expressions but rather their position or actions. And by coupling this with her rare use of facial expressions, it gives rise to some of the most impactful scenes in her movies. To establish this, tne of her favorite shots seems to be the distinction between the profile and the full frontal view.
The most prominent way that Yamada Naoko positions her characters is again by the left to right positioning on the frames. Unlike the whole body being on left and right however, Yamada Naoko will couple this with the use of profile shots. Profile shots are used in Yamada’s work to give a sense of disconnect as you can’t see the whole face.
Here, we see Mizore come to understand how she should be playing her piece by talking to one of the band teachers. The important part here cinematographically is to capture her shock. We start off with a blank expression while being zoomed out. Before this scene, we were set up with a master shot with the teacher in front of Mizore on the side she is facing. In the first photo, Mizore is set up on the left side of the screen, further away from the teacher. However, as she starts to talk to the teacher and starts to understand what to do, we see the camera swift slightly to the left to make it seem as though Mizore is getting closer to the teacher. Here, it makes it look as though she is almost leaning forward because of the change in camera location.
Similarly, you can see that Mizore, in the first frame, is looking in towards the frame whereas in the second photo, she is looking outside of the frame. This further emphasizes that Mizore is talking to someone who isn’t in the frame, whether it be the teacher or Nozomi who isn’t in the scene.
After this, once she gets a full understanding, a realization, of how she is going to play the piece, we get one zoomed in shot of her face from the front then a zoomed out shot of her face from the front. Again, this frontal facial shot represents the characters opening up to the audience or other characters because all of their parts of the face are fully exposed. The shots like the second shot above are very iconic of scenes where characters are coming to a realization because we are able to see the whole face zoomed out giving us a more “objective” view at what’s happening. This sequence directly contrasts with the previous shots of the profile where she was closed off to her own beliefs about the piece. Now that she has fully understood how to approach the music, we get a visual representation of how she is feeling through the camera.
Similarly, here, we see the position of the faces influencing how the characters are feeling. Here, Yuuko has all of her face seen as she is trying to understand and open up with Mizore. However, Mizore is shot in her profile with half of her face covered. Naturally this shows that she is both hiding things about herself and is reluctant to open up to Yuuko’s questions.
Some of this idea will feel repetitive from my Hyouka post but that’s because as an animation that started off her young career in Kyoani, Yamada Naoko has been heavily influenced by works of the studio working as an animator for a long time.
With all this, a scene that really combines all the techniques prominent in Yamada Naoko’s work that I mentioned is the opening and ending scenes of the movie which is, to me, arguably the best introduction scenes in anime.
In the start of the opening scene, two characters walk up the stairs and Mizore ignores them. Here, we cut to Mizore in the center of the frame. The music stays dull while Mizore is placed more in the center. However, this all changes when Nozomi arrives. Cheerful music kicks in, life starts to grow with bird chirping, wind blows Mizore’s vibrant hair and bright green grass.
The camera quickly panning gives life to the camera movements unlike the very insatiable and stale camera movements before she arrived. This movement paired with the vibrant actions give life to the whole scene. It also makes it so much better that Nozomi is just the type of person to have her ponytail sway back and forth with rhythmic clarity to her steps. An interesting part about this scene is that as this scene is from Mizore’s perspective, everything other than Nozomi is blurred out. I mentioned in my hyouka post that blurring is used very frequently to give emphasis on the subject of focus. Here, Yamada Naoko does this to emphasize Nozomi.
Now, it is Nozomi that is placed on the center of the frame, replacing Mizore from before. This shows us that to Mizore, Nozomi is the person taking all of her attention as she is literally taking up all of the frame.
Next, we get a scene of Mizore, looking up towards the stairs. Here, the physical separator is the stairs which gives physical height to Nozomi, placing her at a higher level. The angle of the camera is placed intentionally so that from Nozomi’s perspective, Mizore is seen from a high angle. In their actions, we see that Nozomi is having her hand out, guiding Mizore towards her direction. Again, more emphasis on how Mizore is following Nozomi.
When they enter the building, we are given characterization as we see Nozomi boldly putting her shoe down whereas Mizore lightly puts the shoe down showing contrast. After this, we get depth of the two characters walking. Nozomi is clearly the one at the front while Mizore is the one following. Even at the profile, it is Mizore who is being pulled towards Nozomi. Whereas Nozomi is walking with her chest up, boldly, and rhythmically walking, Mizore has her head down with a more timid walking speed. Nozomi looks forward as Mizore walks behind, looking at Nozomi. Here, Nozomi is looking outside of the frame towards what’s in front whereas Mizore is looking in towards the frame, showing that she is only focusing on the person in the frame, Nozomi. We see this extreme following of Nozomi in Mizore’s actions when she even drinks from the fountain after Nozomi does so.
After this, we are given a horizontal base with the shoes then directly shown a dutch title of the stairs to emphasize their current “disjointed” relationship. This directly contrasts with the straightly laid out shoes of other people in the school, showing that their current relationship is unlike anyone else’s in the school.
This whole opening scene is a showcase of what Yamada Naoko does to visualize characters. We immediately get the characterizations of these two characters. Nozomi is bold, Mizore is timid and motivated by what Nozomi does. If you are paying careful enough attention, anyone watching the film would be able to tell their current relationship, dynamics and personalities. It’s a great intro to a movie.
But what makes this intro more special is the contrast of it with the ending. At the end of the movie where their dynamics have shifted, we get another scene of the two walking. However, this time, Yamada Naoko places the camera in the front to minimize the depth between the characters through perspective. With this, it almost seems as though these two characters are walking side by side, at equal footing.
Moreover, now it is Nozomi looking up physically towards Mizore when talking about the solo. This is a direct contrast with the stair scene that I mentioned above. Unlike the beginning scenes, where Mizore was the one being placed with a high angle, Nozomi is now the one being placed at a high angle in Mizore’s perspective. Interestingly, in these scenes, with shots that show their profile, Nozomi is looking outside the frame in the same way that she was in the first scenes. However, here, the direction that she is looking at, although it is outside the frame, towards the direction of Mizore. Here, Mizore is higher than Nozomi even though she is behind her because now she understands that when it comes to music she is the one that is higher up. This stark contrast in their locations and camera placement shows how much their relationship changed throughout the movie.
Continuing on with the idea of the relationship shown on screen, when walking, they are now both on frame left. Walking side by side in the same side of the frame, just like how the two close friends were in the middle of the movie. Here, any physical borders like the front door or the trees on the sidewalk are things that they cross together rather than what separates them.
Just from these two scenes, whether or not you have watched the movie, you can easily tell the results of the events within the movie. This type of control with the camera and the characters are what makes the relationships come alive cinematographically. And Yamada Naoko is no doubt a master at this.
I would say that the writing could have been a little bit tighter throughout the movie. However, a lot of the moments that could have come off dull because of the writing became a lot more interesting for me because of the various unique things that were happening visually in the frames. Because of this Liz and the Blue Bird easily became one of if not my favorite anime movies of all time.
Thanks for reading!