Tuesday, January 05, 2010

5 Centimeters per Second and the other films of Makoto Shinkai

As I mentioned a few days ago, I fully intend to start going through my backlog of unwatched movies, and the first one on the docket was 5 Centimeters per Second, which I found myself liking quite a bit, and more as I wrote up the review. Enough, in fact, that I was inspired to get out my other Shinkai discs and see how much I still loved them.

"Voices of a Distant Star", as I expected, is still kind of amazing. It is sort of amazing to see how Shinkai's rendering has gotten better, as he's gotten more resources and moved past "one guy on his Mac" status, but I remain a little bit in awe at the level of accomplishment for such humble beginnings, and I still love the hard sci-fi idea underneath it.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days, however, seemed to really grow in retrospect. I was surprised at how much better the animation was than "Voices", even though the upgrade wasn't that big, and on the second time through, I was able to see the story more clearly as I wasn't trying to process the alternate history so much. It's an ambitious work, and I do think I'd like the science fiction harder and more directly integrated into the story as it was with "Voices" - there's a lot of hand-waving and going with gut instincts, especially toward the end - but a pretty good one. One thing surprised me while looking at the extras on the disc was that there were some scenes animated that really looked like they could have added to the movie; I wonder if they were just done for the trailer. It kind of confuses me when I see extra scenes for an animated production; I always figured that most of the editing was done before filming, in the storyboard and animatic stages.

From just these three, it's pretty clear to see themes emerging in Shinkai's work: Friendships and romances dating back to junior high; distance and separation; communication; science. That's not a complaint; I like the naturalism in Miyazaki's work, for instance, and it does not seem to be leading to Shinkai telling the same story every time out. He does still seem to have trouble with endings; Place is the only one that really seems to come to a definitive conclusion, and all three of his films seem to jump a little toward the end, skipping over something that could be really useful.

Of course, the trouble right now is that all three of his films were distributed by AD Vision, which is more or less kaput. I won't miss them much (but let's not discuss the misquote on the cover of Synesthesia again...), but it means that digging up copies of these spiffy animated movies means renting and hoping for the best, at least until some other company picks up distribution and/or releases them again. Shinkai is working on a new film, so here's hoping it proves a good reason to re-release the whole collection.

In the meantime, 5 Centimeters per Second gives me a ready-made response as to why I buy movies when I might not watch them right away. Only available for four months!

Next up: Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of As You Like It.

Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru (5 Centimeters per Second)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

I wish I'd watched and written about this movie when I actually purchased the DVD almost two years ago since, this is a great little movie that was only available on North American DVD for a lousy four months. My recommendation probably wouldn't have done much to keep it in print - I've got no delusions about my reviews having any great influence - but at least it would have been a lot easier for those who read this to act on it.

5 Centimeters per Second is the second feature-length film by Makoto Shinkai, though just barely, with a length of just over an hour. It's actually something of an anthology piece told as three connected shorter stories. In the first, "Cherry Blossoms", thirteen-year-old Takaki Tono (voice of Kenji Mizhuhashi), upon learning that his parents are moving again, makes a train trip to visit best friend Akari Shinohara (voice of Yoshimi Kondou), who herself moved away from Tokyo a year ago. The second, "Cosmonaut", is told from the perspective of Kanai Sumita (voice of Satomi Hanamura), a girl on the island of Tanegashima who has a crush on high-school senior Takaki. Then, in the final segment ("5 Centimeters per Second"), we catch up with Takaki and Akari as adults in their late twenties, with Akari engaged and Takaki finding no joy in either his work or three-year relationship.

Despite the title of the second segment and the occasional use of space-related images, this is a down-to-earth story, eschewing the science-fictional premises of Shinkai's previous films. It still covers much of the same emotional territory, though - especially early on in "Cherry Blossoms", where we only glimpse Akari through the letters she writes, it's hard not to think of Shinkai's short-film masterpiece "Voices of a Distant Star" - with a focus on trying to connect across distance, whether it be physical or emotional. Here, he uses it to tell stories of first love, and how they can be joyous and tragic, and how it can eithr strengthen a person or become an unapproachable ideal as he or she grows older.

The stories are rooted in things that are familiar, even mundane. Shinkai and his team did extensive location scouting for photo reference, so when his characters visit a place, the location is authentic down to small details. The opening story about Takaki traveling by train from Tokyo to Akari's home in Tochigi, only to have a snowstorm cause delays that he had not figured into his itinerary, is especially pitch-perfect; it captures the combination of frustration and absurdity in the situation exactly. "Cosmonaut" is a beautiful evocation of how overwhelming the emotions of adolescence can be, both in terms of attraction and having to make decisions about the direction of one's life. The last segment is a little weaker, story-wise, featuring a number of loose threads that don't seem to come together.

At least, not in a strict narrative sense. Indeed, for the finale, Shinkai creates a music video that is almost a tone poem. It uses a sentimental song from the 1990s as the background, cutting from scene to scene at a brisk pace, with what we see combining bits from the present day, clips from the previous segments, and new shots of both. It is almost impossible to process these scenes individually - they come and go too quickly - but Shinkai does the kind of editing that most quick-cutters can only dream of managing, so that the emotions of the film can roll over the audience like waves. The musical montage is often a trite, overused device, but Shinkai turns it into something exceptional with precise attention to every second.

That shouldn't be much of a surprise - that is what Makoto Shinkai does. As with all of his films, 5 Centimeters per Second is made by a relatively small team (especially in comparison to major-studio releases) with Shinkai wearing multiple hats (IMDB has him working ten jobs). He is thus able to exercise tight control, and he uses it to create a picture that is often understated in both visual design and score, but also to do awe-inspiring things when the movie calls for them. The closing montage is just one of the most obvious examples; there are many other moments in this film that are simply sublime, such as when he opts to reduce the detail in the animation to suggest silhouettes but retain color and light, the dazzling starscapes in Takaki's and Kanae's night sky, or the beautiful, inspiring, and revelatory scene of a rocket launch.

Though not full of science fiction scenarios in the way his previous films were, there's little doubt that 5 Centimeters per Second is fantastic. I eagerly await Shinkai's next work, and I certainly won't delay seeing it.

Also at HBS


drexu said...

I really love the works of shinkai though I have watched only two of it yet. I definitely agreeing that 5 cm per second is so fantastic. Nice!

adman said...

Great review, couldn't agree more. Wish that it wasnt so heart wrenching though.