Friendship is compromise, but at what cost?
Two years ago, director Naoko Yamada released the emotionally powerful and beautiful movie, A Silent Voice, based off the critically acclaimed manga by Yoshitoki Oima. With A Silent Voice, Yamada deftly combined both the one-shot that led to the series, as well as the series itself, while also imbuing her own artistry and style. The result was a two and a half hour movie that explored the difficulty of communication and empathy in the messy and fraught time of adolescence.
I talk about A Silent Voice, because in many ways, Liz and the Blue Bird is similar. It’s also gorgeously animated by the talented studio, Kyoto Animation; it features many of Yamada’s signature directorial traits, like a focus on body expression over facial expression to display how a character really feels; it even has the same composer, Kensuke Ushio, who uses minimalist music to add flavor to quiet and yet intimate scenes. On paper, A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird mirror. But visually, and in terms of experience, you will find them drastically different.
For starters, Liz and the Blue Bird is a story that is tangentially related to the anime series, Sound! Euphonium. I say tangentially because marketing shows alone that you don’t have to see the anime in order to watch this movie. If you already have, you might get a smudge more entertainment as characters from the anime do appear and there’s some previous context for the focus of the movie. But for the most part, this is a story about two friends whom, despite being very close, are in a sore spot in their relationship, which is an experience that just about anyone can connect with.
Mizore Yoroizuka, a quiet and reserved girl, and Nozomi Kasaki, an upbeat and socially active girl, are both in the band club. Nozomi plays the flute, and Mizore plays the oboe. While things may seem smooth on the surface, it’s only when they’re asked to play a duet based off the fairy tale, Liz und ein Blauer Vogel, that things start to appear slightly off. For Mizore, a girl who is happy as long as she’s around Nozomi, perspective and dreams are turned upside down as she relates to this seemingly happy fairy tale. Then there’s Nozomi, a girl who loves to be friends with everyone, but has insecurities she’s not even fully aware of. For two people who are almost exact opposites, but seem so close – is there truly such a thing called a happy ending, with the end of high school looming over the horizon?
If the story sounds straightforward, that’s because it is: Yamada isn’t quite concerned with breaking ground narratively in Liz in the Blue Bird as much as she is about breaking ground with how to tell the story. If you’re looking for the kind of emotional intensity and complexity that was in A Silent Voice, you might find yourself disappointed. Both stories focus on the difficulty of communication, but in Liz and the Blue Bird, this is handled through themes of adolescence and misguided perceptions of each other, instead of empathy and guilt. This isn’t to say that the revelations in Liz and the Blue Bird aren’t just as intense, but it’s the way in which they’re relayed that makes the movie powerful, rather than just the content. It’s precisely because the story is simpler that Yamada’s scope and focus are much smaller, allowing her to go full out with her own style and approach to constructing an experience of loneliness, misperceptions of people, and overcoming unrealistic dreams.
She does this in one of the most unique and extraordinary methods I’ve seen in this medium: by pairing her framing and pacing of the story right up with the soundtrack. It is almost impossible to decouple the visual and auditory experiences of Liz and the Blue Bird; they are one and the same, and both director Naoko Yamada and composer Kensuke Ushio take great pains to ensure that this is a consistent process throughout the film. Whether it’s incorporating background sounds in the movie into the actual soundtrack, or translating music and math theories into visual concepts (pacing, transitions, and even a matter of light and shadow!), this movie is as much about two girls discovering themselves through music as much as it is about weaving sound and image together to create a unique narrative.
The result of this process means that there’s little room for emotional highs. Much of the film is very slow, very quiet, and also very intimate. It still looks gorgeous, thanks to Kyoto Animation and Yamada’s direction. One of my favorite things about the movie is difference in style between the real life scenes with Nozomi and Mizore and the fairy tale story of Liz and the Blue Bird. The watercolor backgrounds in the latter are breathtaking, filled with a myriad of colors and details. This is in contrast to the scenes in school, which feature muted colors, but a soft beauty to them nonetheless. The soft character designs also lend to emotional expressions, which aligns perfectly with the kind of people Mizore and Nozomi are. Whether it’s the eyes, or slant of the mouth, or even the criss crossing of legs – the attention to detail shows in every frame of the film. The music is also very particular, as Ushio weaves instruments familiar and strange together into a sparse and discreet score to portray the mindset of the main two characters and atmosphere of each scene in the film.
And then lastly, there are Nozomi and Mizore themselves. Anyone will recognize these two’s unsturdy relationship from the get go, as the movie takes no time in displaying Mizore’s unhealthy dependency on Nozomi and Nozomi’s need to be the focus of her attention. The careful unraveling of these two’s relationship, as well as their perceptions of each other, ends up becoming the heart of the movie. Liz and the Blue Bird doesn’t come across as a tearjerker, but it definitely carries an air of hushed melancholy that makes it a unique emotional drama.