In a decade that was great for rich-looking animated features from Japan, 2016's A Silent Voice is one of the richest. It's a small-scale human drama, with a main character who has become so pent-up and insular that he can barely interact with the world around him, taking place in a reasonably small number of fairly uninteresting locations. Perhaps to accentuate all of this and offer come kind of counterpoint, or perhaps to tunnel into the kind of intense awareness of his surroundings that this situations leads our main character to, the film portrays its world as a splendid array of sublimely detailed background paintings, mixed in with digital lighting effects that add a lovely pale hue to much of what we see. It's a sumptuous movie, fully of strong colors that are never bold, but always create a sense of softness and fuzziness; this gives it a very subdued, quiet feeling, calming and maybe just slightly wistful or melancholic. Given that the story being told, adapted from a manga series by Oima Yoshitoki, is about regretting the past and doubting the present can be fixed, this melancholy is exactly the right fit, creating an emotional sensibility that's almost overwhelming in its soft, gentle sadness.

I'm honestly not entirely sure that's a good thing, but we'll get there by the end. There's little doubt that the film is a huge triumph for Yamada Naoko, who became with this film by far the most internationally prominent woman director of an animated feature in Japanese history (a field dominated by men even more than it is in the United States). It is a marvelously subtle work of visual storytelling: obviously, every piece of animation involves an impossibly complete level of control over every aspect of the film frame, but plenty of animation directors don't really do anything with that Godlike power. Yamada does; she approaches A Silent Voice with an extraordinary level of thoughtfulness about how to compose images, both for triggering the right reaction from the audience and for exploring what's going on in the mind of her characters. The film uses several POV shots, even more shots that don't present a POV, but at least get us close to the subjective perspective of the main character, and these are magnificently off-kilter; one of the strongest motifs in the film is to cut off the tops of characters, roughly from the sternum up, to replicate his almost physical inability to make eye contact. Beyond that, the film leaves compositions unbalanced, making negative space feel almost aggressively big and noticeable.

The story hangs on Ishida Shoya (voiced by Irino Miyu for most of the film, Matsuoka Mayu in flashbacks), an unbelievable asshole. In elementary school, Shoya and his friends were the school's bullies and clowns, making life hell for everybody around them; but it got especially worse when a new student transferred in, Nishimiya Shoko (Hayami Saori). For Shoko was deaf and didn't speak, and while it's clear that Shoya would have tormented her regardless, this physical limitation made an irresistible target for someone of such cruel, low character. Eventually his treatment of her led to the rest of the class, including his fellow bullies, to shun him, right about the time that the school administration finally intervened, and Shoko was transferred to another school. This is all shown to us in the form of an extended flashback when Shoya, years later, has settled all the affairs that a high school student can be expected to have that need settling, and is preparing to end his life by jumping off a bridge. He does not do this; instead, he decides to dedicate his wretched, friendless life to finding Shoko and making amends.

This process occupies nearly all of the film's running time. A Silent Voice is firmly a story about redemption, but it is also a story that believes that redemption is really damn hard. The film makes it immediately clear, in a visceral way, how miserable Shoya has become - all of those shocking, imbalanced compositions, the low-key fantastic motif that everyone at school has big blue Xs over their faces, symbolising his inability to look anyone in the eye - and as easy as it is to hate him in the flashbacks, it's just as easy to feel sorry for the pathetic thing he has become. But the film does not imagine feeling sorry for someone to mean that they're worthy of forgiveness, and the rest of A Silent Voice is basically about watching Shoya slowly and with great humiliation earn that forgiveness.

It's a very generous-minded thing, nakedly emotional and very charming. Shoya immediately gets in Shoko's good graces; it's everybody else who's slower to let him off the hook for what he's done, but by pushing that onto the supporting characters, A Silent Voice manages to makes its story of repentance even a bit charming and sweet. It goes off the rails near the end, largely by giving Shoko a very strange internal conflict that's much more complicated than anything else in the story, and also by forcing that conflict to come to the fore through a rather arbitrary plot development that works in the moment, but makes it feel almost immediately like we're in a different film with much less focus and awareness of how its characters work. Still, up to that point, the film has a sensitivity that's extremely appealing, married by its clean character designs and that rich lighting and coloring.

That being said, for all that this is lovely and sentimental, it is also an extremely heavy film. And not, weirdly, because of the vicious things young Shoya does to Shoko. The heaviness comes later, as the film starts to develop its plot, and it comes clear how very slowly A Silent Voice is going to move - and at 130 minutes, it's taking its time and then some. Everything seems to have the most intense gravity attached to it, and to an extent, this fits with Shoya's mind: he is tormented and every decision he makes is weighed in terms of whether it will increase his torment, and if he doesn't deserve to increase his torment. Slowing things down to make every plot beat a distinct, self-contained thud fits within that; but it doesn't make it any less effortful to watch. There are other things contributing to this feeling as well, especially the score by Ushio Kensuke that's made up largely of thick, individual piano keys being pressed down with great force, and miked so closely that you can hear the grinding of the piano works as they scrape. It's sort of like if the menacing, ominous piano music from Eyes Wide Shut was somehow made even more plonking and weighty and emphatic.

There are good, solid thematic reasons for A Silent Voice to be this heavy, to be sure, and the solemn procession of the plot even fits in nicely with the lush visuals in way. But it's, like, a little exhausting to watch it, and I'm not actually sure that's to its benefit. So much of what works about the movie is its nice charm; the ponderousness of it works against that. And it also calls more attention to the annoying comic relief character, Tomohiro (Ono Kensho), a bizarrely rounded cartoon character full of the snappy animation and exaggerated facial expressions of comic anime and manga that exist nowhere else in this movie; he's a grueling drag on the film, to be quite frank about it, and I think that's made worse by the film's overall feeling of solemnity.

These are not terribly significant complaints, to be sure; the film's not, like crushing. It's just less fleet-footed than it seems like it ought to be, and that running time is pretty onerous by the time it gets done. But the film is so lovely, so kind, and so good that I think it's not too hard to get past all of that, and appreciate the story of the exhausting work of repentance that the filmmakers have so gracefully assembled for us.