Voices of a Distant Star (2003) | The Films of Makoto Shinkai
(The term Anime Nonsense is NOT a reflection of each individual title covered under its label. Rather, it is simply a section of reviews dedicated to the often bizarre and interesting stories featured in Japanese Anime.)
Today I’d like to start discussing the films of Makoto Shinkai, who so far has directed 5 films: Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and Garden of Words. I will of course begin by discussing his personal passion project, Voices of a Distant Star; which he produced, directed and animated entirely on his own back in 2002. But before I do that, I’d like to talk about probably the main thing that stands out about all of Makoto’s films: that being his cinematography.
Cinematography in 2D animation is a strange bird, because you can’t approach it in the same way as you do in live action. Animation cameras don’t use multiple different lenses, in fact these days they don’t use lenses at all. It’s all created by scanning in the animation frames and then maybe blurring certain elements of the shot to give them the illusion of shallow focus. But most often shallow focus is never used unless absolutely necessary. Filters are done digitally as well. And back in the day you either shot through foggy filters or panes of fractured glass; but that was about it. The color though, is the real point of interest, because every single shot is crafted in the mind of the director. He can make it look any way he wants. I know there were reference photos taken around different towns and areas that were similar to what Makoto was looking for. Much the same is done for a lot of the Ghibli films as well. But beyond that, the color space, the cloud formations, and lens flares and light blooms, and the over-exposed nature of the image was all a fabrication of the director’s unique vision.
In short Makoto Shinkai has a solely unique design for the environments in his films. They are extremely similar to the digital paintings of skies and rolling green hills you might see on deviantart; but nowhere will you see something quite like them in a motion picture except here in Makoto’s. The clouds are crisp and majestic. The sky is bluer than blue. The sun is almost always setting. And every shot is filled with blues, pinks, oranges, and occasionally greens. Except now of course, he’s filled Garden of Words full of green; so we know he’s coming out of his comfort zone. Lol
Anyhow, you can definitely tell when you’re watching a Makoto Shinkai film. There’s no mistaking his visual mark, no matter what stage the animation quality is at between all five pictures.
So now let’s move on to Voices of a Distant Star. It’s a relatively short film: about 25 minutes long. And it follows the story of two young teenagers, Mikako Nagamine and Noboru Terao, as Mikako is recruited into the UN Space Army to pilot a mech-suit and fight off an alien force known as the Tarsians. During the course of the film, Mikako periodically sends Noboru emails through their cell-phones. And as the legion of ships carrying Mikako into deep space gets farther and farther away from Earth, the emails take longer and longer to reach Noboru. Eventually one of the last ones reaches him a whole 8 years after she would have sent it.
Speaking of space and time for a moment, there’s no real way to determine whether or not what is happening to Mikako and what is happening to Noboru are happening at relatively the same time: as if time on earth is progressing faster than time out in space. Space/Time fluctuates dramatically near different regions of space and near different celestial objects. So for all we know, it does take 8 years for Mikako’s message to reach Noboru, but he could also be receiving the message 4 or 6 years after she sent it (her time). So there’s a chance that things aren’t happening parallel to each other, because the message still has to travel 8 years, it’s not like the emails travel instantaneously to an Earth that is 8 years into the future. It literally takes 8 years to get there. So Mikako and Noboru would both still age over the course of the message being sent, but they also may not age the same amount. Interesting little thought exercise for you. XD.
Returning to the story, Mikako gets into the heat of battle soon after sending her final message to Noboru, expressing that she loves him. In her experience of time, she’s likely only been traveling into deep space for a few Earth days, which is why she only sends him a few short texts. After she pilots her mech into the fray and pushes back the alien forces, her mech is left adrift in the wreckage of the battle, and she longs to see her first and only love, Noboru, once again.
In the end, things are left ambiguous as to what happened afterward. Although in the manga adaptation, a little more info is given as to the potential fate of the two. Noboru becomes part of the UN Space Force himself and is taken along with the rescue mission sent to retrieve the survivors of the battle. So Mikako and Noboru may indeed meet again someday.
Personally speaking, this film didn’t affect to me as much as I would have liked. There was probably too much stuff to take in along with the core narrative. It’s a little like watching a romantic drama of a long distance relationship that suddenly turns into Ender’s Game; but without battle being made to look like a fake.
Jonathan Mays of Anime News Network expressed his views on the OVA short, saying that…
“The animation is breathtaking. Shinkai’s backgrounds have very few equals. The character designs look uninspired, but paired with the animator’s beautifully realized worlds, the generic appearance fades into the magnificence of the scene.” He also said that Shinkai’s use of lighting is “masterful”, “incredibly realistic, and conveys the characters’ moods well.”
Which is very much how I feel. The character designs here, as well as in his next film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, have that generic, novice anime design that you see from people just starting to learn to draw in that style. But the approach to the background artwork is much much stronger, becoming the overarching high-point of all of his productions: and definitely the thing that you most recognize them for.
1. Voices of a Distant Star won the Animation Kobe award for packaged work in 2002 and the 2003 Seiun Award for best media. (Wikipedia)
2. There seems to be a bit more high praise and recognition given to the manga adaptation than to the OVA, which isn’t too surprising. There’s so much more freedom and ease that can be had with a manga than with an animated short. There’s more subplots and details that help build the relationship that Mikako and Noboru actually have, and the potential for their future together. I may check it out myself.
3. The big thing that you take away from this film is that the entire production, from beginning to end, was created by one man working from home for 7 months. The Castle of Cagliostro took 7 months and was created with an entire team of people, and wasn’t a whole lot more technically impressive than this short, relatively speaking. Simply put, the pure dedication is astounding. Now there have been other personal projects like this: including the pilot short for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, James Lee’s “TARBOY,” and Lindsey Fleay’s masterpiece “The Magic Portal” (The first and biggest Lego fan-film). But you don’t see most animation students creating something this broad and impressive in under a year, all on their own. So it just goes to show you the dedication and the skill level of the Japanese animation industry, even on the independent front.
4. Along with that, Makoto Shinkai had to create a working dub before sending the short to festivals, requiring that he dub in the voice of Noboru himself, while his wife played Mikako. Later on, when the film gained recognition and was released on Japanese DVD, a professional voice cast was brought in to redub the film.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a review written by user “dbborroughs” on IMDB from 2004…
“Its a flawed masterpieces of short science fiction literature. I have never run across a piece of scifi that does what this does. Its a melding of image, word and music into a 25 minute tone poem or short story of what our futures hold.”
Could not have explained it better myself.
Also, you should totally check out this interview and discussion of 2D animation in the digital age with Makoto Shinkai: http://www.tested.com/art/movies/442545-2d-animation-digital-era-interview-japanese-director-makoto-shinkai/
Next up, we’ll talk about his follow-up film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days.