Most artistic endeavors are impressive no matter how many people work on them. Some things are awe inspiring when done alone. It just boggles the mind that one person could be so dedicated and talented that they could do such an enormous endeavor solo. One man wrote, animated, and produced Voices of a Distant Star. In the original version the only help he had was his fiancee providing some voice acting and a friend providing the music. Makoto Shinkai made by himself as an amateur what usually takes a team of professional animators to do. He did the work of a writer, director, producer, traditional animator, CG animator, and even a voice actor. Although it looks amateurish at points it is as good as most mass produced professional anime works. It is awe inspiring because one man did brilliantly what a team so often can’t do together.
I heard a lot about this movie when it was originally released and for some unknown reason it just slipped right on past me until this year. And honestly, I feel sort of ashamed now that I have seen it. How could I let something so beautiful and amazing, not only because of the one man team but because of its simple and thoughtful story, go unwatched! Not to mention it’s ability to create something so remarkable in just 30 or so minutes of film. Well, I have now reconciled this grave oversight! Now I share it with all of you just in case you too have missed this little treasure.
In 2047 Earth has gone into the far reaches of space. While excavating some ruins on Mars a race of aliens, dubbed the Tarsians, began to attack humanity. Using the technology found on Mars humans created a fleet of faster than light ships to strike back at the aliens. Mikako Nagamine becomes a space pilot to fight against the threat. This inevitably separates her from boyfriend Noboru Terao. They communicate over their cellphones but the further she gets from home the longer it takes their messages to reach each other. It is a love story over a seemingly insurmountable distance of both time and space.
We are set down a fast track path, only getting snippets and glaces at these characters. Nevertheless, their path becomes entangled with our own. Mikaki exhibits a fascination with space (which also seems to be a theme in Makoto’s works) and also a bit of naivete of what it would be like fighting out there. Both Terao and her start off seeing it like an adventure, that the distance will not stop them. As we continue on with them, the natural doubts of not seeing someone creep in but are pushed away. Even when you think Terao might move on, or even when he thinks he might, memory and hope move to block the path. It is hard to pinpoint what is so engaging about Mikako’s characterization style, but perhaps he just knows us better than we know our selves.
The classic boy and girl that are separated by extraordinary circumstances is where our characters start. We never really learn a great deal about either of them. I think this is deliberate because they are supposed to be universal characters. They are human and sympathetic enough that we gain a connection to them by how Makoto Shinkai films them. We see Mikako as competent and skillful but not amazing as a pilot. We see that she has her doubts not only about her relationship but her chances of survival. We see her cling to her love as an anchor in the storm. We see Terao stay steadfast to his relationship despite the fact that time is passing much faster for him. But he is not unrealistically loyal. He has doubts and hesitation but he remains hopeful even when most other people would have moved on. Being such a short story we never feel the need to learn more about the characters. We know who they are. They are us or atleast who we might be.
I think everyone likes to believe in a love that knows not the boundaries of time and distance. Makoto takes this idea and really spins it into galaxy crossing dilemma. Though I do find the portrayal of distance kind of incomprehensible. Just as I know what a million dollars is, I have never held it or seen it before my very eyes, I similarly know what a light year is, but I have never experienced that distance. The innocence of the love between these two is refreshing and reminds us of the bonds of childhood. But at the same time I didn’t find it childish, it was a true and equal love.
This love story sets the tone for the rest of the movies that Makoto Shinkai works on. It is about how distance effects relationships. Is there anything worth pouring your heart into when it might very well be doomed? Is there any amount of space or time that love cannot overcome? Depending on your interpretation of the end it is either a somber affirmation of the power of love or a bitter reminder that all things eventually fall apart. It leaves the viewer to decide what has happened. I think either way it clearly shows the power and the pain of trying to remain connected to someone despite the vast distance between them.
This man creates some of the most lush and beautiful settings which in turn tell a story without words. He knows how to use lighting, angel, and color with deference. His character designs are simplistic and while this probably comes out of ease to animate them, it is creates the feeling of them being us. It is clear he has plenty of artistic talent to go around. Which brings us to his CG work which is still impressive seven years later.
For an amateur work by a single artist the art is amazing. Makoto Shinkai’s CG work is far better than his traditional animation but that is more in praise of his CG than determent to his hand done skill. All the traditional animation is smooth but at points it has that unmistakable amateur feeling. The CG on the other hand is remarkably professional throughout. Any scene of Mikako in her mecha is a joy to behold and the CG background and items are often seamless.
This film is a beautiful and poignant look at love across a distance. It also stands up through the minor amount of time that has passed since its release. While the setting is science fiction based, the story rings soundly. And its ending can be seen in a couple of ways and I prefer a hopefully outlook for the future. In addition to this piece, there is also a short Makoto created called She and Her Cat included on the DVD. It is a lonely little piece showing the mind set of a cat and her owner.
She and Her Cat is a quirky little short that is less a love story and more an examination of love. It was a welcome extra. I have always been of the philosophy that a good science fiction story should be able to be set in anywhere with a minor amount of changes and still be a good. A good story is universal. Voices of a Distant Star works because no matter if it had been set in the 1800s or today it would still work as it is. The feelings it provokes would still be as true in the characters as separated by a sea of water or a sea of stars.
Top 5 anime that made me take note of the director
5. Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon)
4. Neon Genesis Evangelion (Hideaki Anno)
3. 5cm Per Second (Makoto Shinkai)
2. Cowboy Bebop (Shinichiro Watanabe)
1. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)