Perhaps best known as the director of the critically acclaimed 2016 animated film Your Name, Makoto Shinkai has been directing and animating films and short films since the 90s, and is known for his distinct visual style and focus on relationships between young people. His most recent film, Weathering with You, was released in 2019. As is common for many anime directors who find popularity and success, Shinkai is often touted as the next Hayao Miyazaki (Mamoru Hosoda is another director who tends to share this “honour” – a director whose collected works I also happen to have reviewed). This title tends to be slung around so much that it has lost all relevant meaning – but at the very least when it is used it is generally indicative of quality. So when Madman released the Makoto Shinkai Classics collection, I was keen to see more of his work. The aptly named Makoto Shinkai Classics features two of Shinkai’s earlier works, the short film Voices of a Distant Star (2002) and the episodic film 5 Centimetres per Second (2007). While I found that the two works in the collection lacked a certain polish, they share a lot in common and are an interesting insight into the themes Shinkai is fond of exploring and showcase his distinct visual style prior to its refinement in films like Your Name and Weathering with You.
Voices of a Distant Star follows the story of a young student named Mikako who leaves Earth to fight against the hostile Tarsians. But doing so means leaving behind Noboru, the one she loves, and as Mikako delves deeper into space the messages she sends to him take longer to arrive, and what feels like days for Mikako turns into years for Noboru. Voices of a Distant Star is an excellent concept and does things that my favourite stories do – establishes an expansive world and focus on a very tiny slice of it, exploring problems disconnected from what could be considered the main threat, but matter to those involved. Case in point – what does it mean to send messages to someone you care about, knowing it will not reach them for years? Unfortunately, the short film suffers from a case of concept over substance and does not ultimately deliver a satisfying product due to erratic editing that turned what was meant to be emotional scenes into gags and characters that delivered dialogue that didn’t feel like something a living person would ever say.
However, given the context of the short film, it’s easy to forgive these shortcomings. For some context, Shinkai was the producer, director, writer, character designer and animator (and even a voice actor for the original video) for Voices of a Distant Star. For a piece of media created primarily by one person, Voices of a Distant Star is impressive and it does condense some complex ideas into a simpler narrative that focuses on communication between two individuals with some cool sci-fi, alien fighting set dressing. As a professionally published piece of media, it feels like a first draft that needed some extra work to smooth out the pacing of scenes, dialogue, and some of the more abstract segments that could have benefited from more clarity. That being said, it is neat to see what is essentially an early passion project, from a creator who has since become one of the best known anime directors in the business.
5 Centimetres per Second is a film divided into episodes, each focusing on a boy named Takaki and his relationship with childhood friend Akari, their promise to watch cherry blossoms together, and how their relationship changes after they move cities, the years pass and the distance between them grows. There are three episodes in the film: Cherry Blossoms, Cosmonaut, and 5 Centimetres per Second. The first episode details Takaki’s long journey to meet up with Akari after she moves to Tochigi. Takaki, who is about to move to Kagoshima, wants to see her one last time before the distance between them becomes too great to traverse. Takaki boards a series of trains to reach Akari, only for poor weather conditions to delay the schedule, and as each excruciating minute passes he reflects on his relationship with Akari as time stretches on. Episode two follows Takaki’s fellow student Kanae, who has a crush on Takaki and wants to become closer with him, and the final is a sombre look at Takaki and Akari’s adulthood almost 10 years after the events of the first episode.
Cherry Blossoms is the strongest and most ‘complete’ episode of 5 Centimetres per Second, with a story that could have easily been condensed into a short film. Takaki’s reflection on his and Akari’s relationship as he tries to reach the station in her town at the agreed time as train upon train gets delayed makes for some relatable and sympathetic cinema, and you can feel Takaki’s hopelessness grow as time drags on. The visuals also do a lot to push this point – crisp, cool night air and cold neon lighting isolates Takaki on his journey and is really effective at relating the anxiety and hopelessness of the situation. In comparison, Kanae and Takaki’s story in Cosmonaut is disjointed and suffers from some of the same issues as Voices of a Distant Star – erratic editing and odd dialogue choices don’t do the episode any favours and things tend to just happen with no rhyme or reason, sometimes at a rate akin to parody. The final episode, 5 Centimetres per Second, is a fine enough conclusion to the episodes that shows Takaki and Akari’s lives as adults, but a majority of it is taken up by a music video that I didn’t find particularly satisfactory, and I can’t help but thinking it would have been more effective to just re-edit the whole thing to be an epilogue for the first episode. 5 Centimetres per Second is a film that comes out of the gate strong but peters out until it has a rather lacklustre finish, struggling to maintain the emotional stakes it establishes in its first episode.
Even though I didn’t personally love the works included in Makoto Shinkai Classics, it is interesting watching them having seen some of Shinkai’s more recent works, and seeing how his interest in certain themes and stories has continued. The two films included in the collection explore the desire between people to connect, to communicate, and how despite this desire, people can drift apart for various reasons – whether it be because of a war in deep space or because people move to different towns. Additionally, the two films really showcase Shinkai’s love of power lines, as they are a staple background element in each of his films. But that’s probably an aesthetic choice, and not actually related to his theme of communication! Another thing that Voices of a Distant Star and 5 Centimetres per Second share with each other and the rest of the Shinkai catalogue is the focus on love over time, space and distance – and the desire to connect despite this distance, as well as why this causes relationships to dissolve. It is easy to see how these films were the product of the director behind Your Name, if not the actual precursor – it features two youths who communicate through indirect means and whose relationship spans across time and distance. It’s an interesting and cool theme to explore and I can’t blame Shinkai for continuing to return to it, and the themes and their likeness was one of the things I enjoyed most about the works in the collection.
While I may not have enjoyed all aspects of Makoto Shinkai Classics, there is no denying that Shinkai’s films are beautiful, nicely detailed, and expertly coloured (even Voices of a Distant Star, which is a bit rough around the edges and has some awkward CG that has not aged well). While enjoying the background art and lighting of 5 Centimetres per Second, I couldn’t help reflecting back on my abysmal viewing experience of Psychic School Wars, with its poor lighting and copious amount of lens flares in each frame, and thinking this was probably the kind of polished style it wanted to pull off (obligatory Psychic School Wars review plug here). Interestingly, in terms of visuals, Shinkai’s films appear more complex than a Studio Ghibli or Studio Chizu film in terms of the amount of detail and lighting effects, but manages to not be cluttered or overwhelming despite the mount of detail on display. It’s an interesting balance and always impressive, even if the narrative being presented on screen is wanting in places.
After viewing Makoto Shinkai Classics I came to understand that Shinkai’s older works were just not my thing. They were a little too disjointed and while I enjoyed the themes of connection and distance, its introspectiveness generally failed to grab my attention. It sort of felt like walking into an art museum and seeing well-known art pieces hanging up in gilded frames on the wall. I can respect the effort and ideas behind the work, but at the end of the day, it didn’t appeal to me personally. But if you’re a Makoto Shinkai fan and want to see his earlier works or if somewhat sombre, pretty and introspective romances about kids who struggle to stay connected is your thing, then this is one for you.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.
@Makoto Shinkai/CoMix Wave Films