Liz and the Blue Bird : Beyond Realism

This essay is dedicated to all the artists at Kyoto Animation who died in the 2019 fire attack and whose painstakingly beautiful work is here celebrated.

What seems the most beautiful thing to me, what I would wish to do, that would be a book about nothing, a book without any external ties, which would hold by itself thanks only to the internal strength of its style, […] a book with almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible”

This sentence is taken from a 1852 letter of French novelist Gustave Flaubert to his lover Louise Colet ; it is one of the central theoretical texts from one of the founding fathers of modern French literature. In this quote, he claims a detachment from, and an overcoming of, realism, understood as a slavish copy of real events and characters in literature. Instead, he defends what could be described as an almost abstract way of writing : novels “with almost no subject”, which would be only style. That doesn’t mean a total detachment from reality in some sort of escapist and experimental form of literature (“all style and no substance”), but an attachment to the most discreet and humble details of reality, those that would never be paid attention to in a conventional story – as Flaubert’s masterpiece, The Sentimental Education, shows.

This complex relationship with realism, which aims to overcome it by intensifying it until it breaks into something else, is not only one of the foundational moments of French and European literature. It is also a characteristic of one’s of Japan’s most talented directors : Naoko Yamada. Strongly influenced both by her own background in photography and the realistic style of animator Yoshiji Kigami, one could read Yamada’s work as a constant search for realism, whether it be in animation, direction, or drama. However, I would argue that the issue is more complex. Despite being only 36 at the time of writing, Yamada has already directed quite a few works by herself, and this fecundity makes her work far from being a monolithic one. Her still budding career might in fact be divided into two distinct periods, which reflect the maturation of her style and personality as a director : first, from her start in K-On ! (2009) until her first feature film, Tamako Love Story (2014), in what was mostly TV series, Yamada introduced decisive elements of realism into her work. Then, apparently focusing on feature films like A Silent Voice (2016) and most notably Liz and the Blue Bird (2018), she made hers the flaubertian motto of an “art about nothing”.

How, then, should we define this art about nothing ? Both in Flaubert and Yamada, it can be reduced to three key characteristics :

  1. A focus on “trifles” or “details” : small, insignificant moments and perceptions which apparently do not contribute to the grand scheme of things.
  2. Putting aside drama and adventure as key elements of a work.
  3. Justifying this by exhibiting not plot but the artistic and personal style and workmanship that produce it.

These three aspects are, in my opinion, capital to understand Liz and its most experimental aspects. However, before focusing on the movie, let’s see what “realism” might mean for Naoko Yamada, and contrast it against elements of her last movie. Arguably, Yamada’s stroke of genius and originality in K-On !! and Tamako Love Story was introducing in nichijou-kei an element that it did not, by definition, integrate : that is, time. In their own special ways, both works are full of the same diffuse worry – that of the passage of time, and the arrival of a stressful event. For both, this event is the same : the end of high school, which means separation with one’s friends, whether because they are underclassmen (Azusa in K-On !!) or about to leave for a different university  (Mochizou in Tamako Love Story), but also marks an end to the period of relative freedom and carelessness that high school can be in Japan. That is because, by the director’s own admission, the two share the same thematic : adolescence.

A Silent Voice and Liz choose an opposite direction, in which the main thread has changed. The plot does still happen in high school, but adolescence as such leaves the main scene : it has just become an element of the setting (the characters are teenagers, but nothing more), and one could argue that A Silent Voice is as much about childhood as about adolescence. The focus is now on communication, or rather its impossibility between people that are both bound and separated by trauma. Time therefore takes on a very different meaning. The story is no more about showing the unsettling passage of objective time to subjective temporalities which do everything to avoid thinking about it (which is, in a few words and without all the lightheartedness, the entire dynamic of K-On !!), but rather about showing the effects of time on people. This is most visible when looking at the role of memory in Yamada’s last two movies : in A Silent Voice, all the characters are crushed by the weight of their dark past, and are unable to free themselves of it and start off anew. In Liz, the Nozomi-Mizore couple builds itself around two past experiences : the birth of their friendship, when Nozomi invited Mizore to join the band ; and the trauma of Nozomi leaving in their first year of high school.Moreover, the way time is presented differs even more in Liz : its protagonists’ haunting past is largely put aside in favor of juxtaposition (the tale and the main plot) or continuity between past and present. Indeed, nothing seems to change in the duration of the film, which opens and closes with a similar line, “why the questioning tone ?” – with this sensible difference that the movie starts with the two girls entering school, and ends with them leaving it. But even then, it’s like the action just lasted the duration of a school day, whereas it covers up at least a few months. The film almost ends where it began, and it’s like time barely passes by : there are almost no marks of objective time, except a very brief evocation of summer break and storms. And even if like in other Yamada works, the end of highschool is something problematic, the issue is mostly psychological and not chronological. What’s at stake here is the friendship between Nozomi and Mizore, not the pressing question of what will happen with their lives once high school is over. On this note, comparing the relation that each character has to time is telling : Nozomi is trusting in the future and impatient, as shown in the opening scene where she says “We still have time. I can’t wait to play this on stage !” On the contrary, Mizore is the one asking “Do you like practice ?” and who stays in some sort of absolute present, in the negation of a passing time that would put an end to this moment with Nozomi. During most of the film, we follow Mizore’s perspective, and it is this timeless perspective that makes the movie timeless as well.

This is also why the movie is entirely built around the rejection of a classical dramatic time. Indeed, even though it can be divided in parts, a climax isolated, etc., the cyclical nature of the plot, the interweaving of different stories and timelines all go against the idea of a classically linear plot which Yamada had followed up until now. Moreover, it’s not only dramatic time that’s discarded : it’s also the case with dramatic elements and every kind of expected scenes. This is the case with the end of high school as a pretext for drama and not the essence of the drama between the characters ; but it becomes even more visible when one looks at the concert that the concert band is supposed to be preparing : it never happens, and the musical problem that is the gap in talent between Nozomi and Mizore is not resolved in the course of the movie. As for the concert, one might argue that it does happen ; but first, we must note that it is only practice, and not the real thing – the movie is more on Mizore’s side, who wishes that practice would never end, than on Nozomi’s. Moreover, it’s easy to see how the way the scene is shot is in complete opposition with concerts in regular music anime : look no further than the final concert in Hibike’s second season to see the contrast. In Liz, no sweat drops falling from the characters, and Taki-sensei’s moves as a director are very subdued, far from the usual and expected exaggeration. There are no big camera movements, except the two final travellings that close the scene ; and finally, if crying there is, it’s held back and barely shown  : Nozomi goes to cry off-screen.

From this perspective, the two scenes before and after the “concert” are quite interesting ; as the most talkative of the movie, I feel that they are the least good ; but we should note that the respective soliloquies of the two girls just after the performance do not end in words but in gestures : most notably the hug asked for during the whole film. And it is only this that can liberate, like a dam breaking off, sincere words, that is, Mizore’s (interrupted) confession. Everything concurs to making gestures as important and words as secondary.

This could be explained by two factors. First, externally, is the relative freedom that Yamada obtained compared to A Silent Voice, her most verbose work to date. Its principal fault lay in its scenario : not that it was bad (quite the opposite), but that it was too rich and complex, and Yamada, as in every adaptation, had to make choices and lost some of her freedom as a creator. On the contrary, even if Liz is part of a pre-existing franchise, it’s a completely original work. This independence is what allowed the director to free herself even more from the scenario, which went to the background : see how simple the plot is and how transparent the motifs and symbolism are. The other explanation would be more internal : the object of Liz is not its plot, but the exploration of subjectivity. Everything aims towards it : the impossibility of communication which rises of their subjective differences and experiences ; the blurring of time ; and, obviously, the direction itself. The examples are plenty, but the performance scene is the most striking. Whereas Hibike’s concerts put the emphasis on the performance as a collective effort, and hinted at other stories that weren’t even shown on screen, in Liz, the concert is shot as a progression inside the two characters’ consciousness. The most flagrant effect showing it is the progressive intensification of blurring effects, and the transition from mostly middle shots to close-ups.

In the same vein, most of the secondary characters are relegated to a minor role : we do see most of Hibike’s characters (most notably Reina and Kumiko), but nothing more. The only two other characters sharing a fraction of the central duo’s importance are Natsuki and Yuuko. But even their role is only the one that Mizore’s point of view gives them. For example, the order of appearance of characters in the end of the opening scene, is quite significant, as it appears to closely follow the order of importance of the characters, both for the plot and for Mizore. First, it’s only her and Nozomi : she’s the only one that matters, the central couple is the focus of the movie. Then, it’s their two close friends, Yuuko and Natsuki ; after them, Kumiko and Reina (yet another feminine couple  – might this be a motif ?), and finally, the group of Nozomi’s kôhai, who take her away from Mizore. However, all these people don’t seem to really matter : later, when the central third-year quartet is assembled, Mizore starts playing piano in the middle of the conversation, not listening, and only stops to stare at Nozomi. However, for the perspective to be subjective does not imply that the viewer is locked in a single point of view, on the contrary. This same scene centers as much on little gestures (quivers of hands, legs) as on eyes, and lets us explore that of each character.

Therefore, perspective does not mean imprisonment. And even if we are, during most of the film, following Mizore’s, other points of view and stories are always there, in the background. It is especially the case with the kôhai group : Nozomi’s first, who, even though we almost never see their faces, constitute a cohesive group living a love story straight out of a shôjo. Then, there are Mizore’s, most notably the adorable Ririka, which is another instance of a refusal to pander to genre convention : the classical afternoon to the pool is only talked about, and barely shown through a photo. That’s because it doesn’t really matter to Mizore, even though it could have constituted an suitable secondary plot, or even an entire work : this is Kyoto Animation after all, the masterminds behind the Endless Eight.

But then, secondary characters become something other than characters, that is other than acting subjects or simple background figures : they become signs, which contribute to the formal and symbolical coherence of the work. Ririka is here exemplary : her efforts to befriend Mizore are in clear parallel with the latter’s attempts at becoming closer to Nozomi. But this movement is also a key part of the plot, as it is this relationship burgeoning between Mizore and her kôhai that makes Nozomi realize the potential autonomy of her friend. The same function is accomplished by the Kumiko-Reina couple, at the center of Hibike ! Already in the TV series, their relationship served as a parallel and contrast to the one formed between Nozomi and Mizore ; but here, it is even more obvious, both thanks to the fact that Kumiko and Reina unsubtly play the same solo as them, and to a few shots adopting Reina’s perspective, until the key moment where she confronts Mizore about her playing.

Beyond characters, which are by nature some sort of a function in narration, the whole movie is built around signs and their interpretation. It is precisely one of the characteristics of Yamada’s filmmaking understood as a cinema about nothing. I highlighted three traits of it ; the second one has just been studied in detail. The first, that is, focusing on objects normally considered to be insignificant, is quite complex : because so many shots in Liz are subjective, everything is significant, that is, everything has meaning for the person who’s watching. This is precisely what’s paradoxical about this “nothing” : it’s always something for someone, the spectator. In other words, Yamada’s style is completely unsubtle, precisely as it points out very subtle things.

Indeed, Yamada keeps on looking for meaning where the spectator does not expect it (in this sense it is “nothing”, or not much), but where it in fact culminates (and in that sense it is “something) : not in words, but in gestures. I don’t think it’s necessary to comment a lot on all these shots showing the quiver of a hand, the little movement of hair or eyebrows, or that oh-so-Yamada rhetoric of feet – without even talking about the masterful opening sequence where nothing is said but where everything is shown. This rule of show don’t tell has been so very well understood by Yamada that she seems to expect her characters to follow it as well : whereas Mizore is almost mute, and therefore each of her words is full of latent meaning and therefore says too much, Nozomi is far to talkative for her words to carry any individual significance and therefore says too little. The issue is therefore for the two girls to find a common space for communication that is neither lacking nor excessive – a communication that may be verbal, but not only nor necessarily. As I said, in the final confrontation, it is a hug and laughter that put an end to the conflict, rather than Mizore’s confession and its ambiguous reception by Nozomi (1) ; and in the last scene, the last conversation between the girls is perfectly mundane – because what matters is not what is said but the context in which it is said. In a movie where real communication is rarely verbal, communicating is less about saying and listening, but more about emitting and picking up signs – a remark which would also apply to Koe no Katachi, where real or metaphorical deafness is one more goad towards this nonverbal communication which becomes thanks to it even more intense.

This downplaying of dialogue is a key factor in the overall downplaying of scenario. And this is done in an extremely systematic manner : many comments have already been made about the fact that in the opening scene, the beat to the extra-diegetic music is given by the girls’ walking, and that their rhythm at the start of the movie is very different (60 beats per minute for Mizore, 110 for Nozomi) whereas it equalizes at the end (oscillating between 99 and 101). Naturally, the parallel effect created by the tale contributes a lot to all of this.

All these elements ultimately make for a very formalist work, far from the realism Yamada is famous for. For example, we can see that her care for composition, a leftover from her photography studies, reaches its peak. In a direct continuity with Koe no Katachi, some shots have something almost abstract in their geometry. However, what is especially striking in Koe, is that it is the most photorealistic shots that seem the most abstract and irreal : this is mostly the case of the crematorium sequence, or the highly metaphorical images of the very real contemporary installation of Yoro. Should this be seen as a paradox, where the most realistic images are at the same time the most abstract ? On the contrary. Indeed, what’s most noticeable in Yamada’s movies, and which has been pushed to the extreme in Koe no Katachi, is the imitation of live action cinema. This could be nuanced considering Liz’s use of watercolour in the tale sequences and techniques such as decalcomania ; but the essentials remain, most notably a frequent use of depth of field effects and a rejection of exaggeration in acting in favor of a radically realistic animation – something in which she goes further in Liz than in Koe, if that was ever possible. Therefore, Yamada’s relationship to animation has something unique, quite different from other (arguably) realist anime directors such as Isao Takahata or Makoto Shinkai : with those two, even though they are realists, animation is a necessary medium, whether to express the seamless transition from the physical to the spiritual (Takahata), or to sublime the physical and material world thanks to overly detailed photorealistic backgrounds (Shinkai). 

What’s different, then, with Yamada ? It’s precisely her choice to imitate live-action while still doing animation : her most significant and original esthetical decision lies not in her objects (adolescence, communication, subjectivity, etc.), her genre (nichijou-kei), or even her style (cinema about nothing), but the medium itself, that is, animation. Liz, and especially Koe no Katachi, could very well have been made in live-action ; however, having chosen animation changes radically the nature of the work. The same gestures could very well have been accomplished by an actor, but they would not have had the same meaning. The quiver of a hand, the twitching of a leg, or especially the slow descent of hair down one’s shoulder are but reflex and natural movements which in effect mean nothing, and are but, even if deliberate, the mechanical result of the physical position of a physical body. On the contrary, animating those movements is making them artificial, and therefore deliberate : from simple movements, we are in a realm of acts, which are each an individual artistic gesture. Not one single strand of hair could have so much texture, personality or meaning if it wasn’t deliberately created and animated by a real person with a clear creative intent. In the same way, filming two highschoolers going to class, in a real high school, would be purely anecdotal ; but choosing to draw the very same and very real school in every detail, and representing the life of those who spend their time here, is creation. This is where Yamada does art like Flaubert and makes, like him, a real masterpiece : in the same movement, she both perfects and overcomes realism, because she makes her art a deliberate gesture rather than a simple representation.

Notes :

(1) To be quite honest, I don’t know how to understand Nozomi’s reaction to what is, without any ambiguity, a confession of romantic love. Does she cut Mizore off to avoid the consequences of having to face this confession (which would therefore mean that Nozomi doesn’t love Mizore in that way) ; or is it just her accepting Mizore’s feelings but acknowledging that her own feelings are not, and will never be that strong ?

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