By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Rating: Pretty good!
Thirty-five-year-old Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai often gets called “the new Miyazaki.” Having learned this, you should forget it. Hayao Miyazaki represents the gold standard of Japanese anime to the West.
Admittedly Shinkai, as a younger man coming up through the ranks, benefits from the comparison. But he should be considered as separately from the older man as Scotch is from cognac.
Shinkai first came to prominence by quitting his day job at the Falcom video game company and hunkering down with his Macintosh computer. Seven months later he put the finishing touches on “Voices Of A Distant Star,” which runs roughly 30 minutes.
In “Star,” in the moderately distant future, a young schoolgirl named Mikako and a young schoolboy named Norbu fall in love. They have a chaste and warmly understated relationship, punctuated by furtive hand-holding and leaning towards each other as they wait out a passing train (all of Shinkai’s longer works feature prominent railroading).
Mikako gets called up to fight aliens from a distant galaxy. As she learns to pilot her “mecha,” or giant robot fighting machine, she keeps corresponding with Norbu by cell phone. But the further she gets from Earth, the longer the messages take to reach Norbu. How will their feelings survive the increasing distance, and Norbu’s relatively rapid aging?
Shinkai followed “Voices” with “The Place Promised In Our Early Days,” a full-length 90-minute production expanding on his command of time, space and atmosphere. Here, two boys, Hiroki and Takuya, bond over rebuilding a crushed flying machine. They also find time to compete over a girl their age, Sayuri.
Making extensive use of dream states and set in an alternate timeline where the Allied powers have divided Japan in half following the end of World War II, “Place” requires strict attention to its complexities. However, it rewards such attention with its assured command of subtle emotions. (Watch and listen to the girl and one of the boys standing back-to-back for a violin duet.) Shinkai has a breathtaking grasp of light and color, especially as it slants through windows.
In “5 Centimeters Per Second,” the romance angle switches to one boy torn between two girls. Takaki and Akari meet in school but get separated. Later on, Kanae, another schoolgirl, develops a huge crush on Takaki, but he cannot return this affection, so fixated is he on the absent Akari. The boy takes a long, snowstorm-plagued train trip to see his beloved, but what it actually accomplishes may not be what either party planned for. Watch for a gloriously composed shot featuring one boy, one girl and the elegant colorations thrown off by a huge space ship lifting with a roar off its launch pad.
Overall Shinkai’s work eschews the fantastical imagery of Miyazaki to focus on moments: a lowered barrier for a passing train, the hustle and clunk of the train itself, two lovers caught on the same side, waiting together or on opposite sides, wondering if they’ll ever connect.
Praise Shinkai, and study him well, for he may embody a new anime era with its own rules. ♦
“Voices Of A Distant Star,” “The Place Promised In Our Early Days” and “5 Centimeters Per Second” are available in the USA from ADV Films. Check your local DVD store for availability and prices.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.