Far East Alchemy
Makoto Shinkai's Anime
Hi, my name is Jenny and I'm an anime addict. Six years ago, I broke up
with my first serious college boyfriend and fell into a depressed haze.
One of my friends, an aspiring writer named Django Wexler, made it his
unofficial duty to make sure that I ate and to offer me a place to hang out when my
loneliness got too hard to bear. Every evening, I'd gather with him and his friends,
crammed into the tiny dorm room he shared with his roommate, Dave, and we
would huddle around his 20" TV, watching anime.
I hated it at first: the strange pictures, the odd stories, and the Japanese
language that I couldn't understand. From my place on the bed, I had trouble
reading the English subtitles, which just made the shows we watched even more
incomprehensible. But somehow, over the course of a month, I crept down from
the bed and inched closer to the TV, bit by bit as I got drawn into this strange, new
world. Suddenly, I cared about the silly show we were watching, and I wanted to
know how it ended. By the time we had finished watching "The Irresponsible
Captain Tylor" (the aforementioned silly show), and had moved on to "Neon
Genesis Evangelion", I was hooked.
Some of the shows called to something deep inside me, and there were
stories that needed to be sharedanime tales that crossed cultural boundaries; that
changed how I thought about SF itself; and that shouted to be heard, for they were
truly remarkable pieces of entertainment and art.
Makoto Shinkai's original masterpiece,
Hoshi no Koe ("Voices of a Distant Star") is one of thoseit began for him when he
envisioned an image of a girl in a transparent cockpit, clutching her cell phone
amidst the blackness and stars of space.
He took that image, and in a feat of self-ingenuity, spent the next seven months
creating a twenty-five minute animated film by himself on his Mac. For one man
to do this alone was astonishing to the Japanese anime community, since the
majority of anime is created by large teams of people at major animation studios.
What was even more astonishing was the quality of Mr. Shinkai's work: the
beautiful backgrounds, the haunting use of music, and the excellence of the CG
(computer graphics) that he had created.
At its heart, "Voices of a Distant Star" is a love story, set in the not-so-distant future Japan of 2047. Two middle school students, Mikako and Noboru,
are inseparable, hanging out after school and planning on attending the same high
school together. But the events of the world around them take precedence, when
Mikako is chosen by the UN Space Agency to pilot one of the giant flying robots
called Tracers. The Tracers are to be used to fight against the Tarsians, an alien
race that decimated the human colony on Mars, and could potentially attack again.
Now, alien invasion stories are a staple of SF, and similarly, giant robots are
a traditional anime staple. But "Voices of a Distant Star" turns both those ideas
upside down by making the Tarsians appear as amorphous, opalescent blobs. They
are so foreign a creature that humanity itself cannot communicate with them, and
has no idea why they don't press their obvious combat advantage against mankind.
There is such a palpable sense of loneliness about the Tarsians that one wonders
why they've even approached humanity in the first place. What have they
achieved by decimating the Mars colony, and is there even a point to the upcoming
combat that Mikako and the others aboard the UN ship Lystheria are sure to face?
Mikako herself is as lonely as the Tarsians. Separated from Noboru, Mikako
spends all her free time writing e-mails to him on her cell phone, as she drifts
within the cockpit of her Tracer. The farther the Lystheria travels from Earth, the
longer it takes for Mikako's e-mails to travel back to poor Noboru, who is caught
in a teenage limbo of indecision over whether he should move onwards in his life
without her. In a move that mirrors the Tarsians inability to communicate with the
humans, Mikako's e-mails go forth into an ever-increasing void of time and space,
trapping her in Noboru's past. At one point, she writes Noboru an e-mail from her
fifteen year old self, and poignantly acknowledges that it will not reach him until
he is twenty-four years old.
Yet, despite the immense obstacles in place, the overall message of "Voices
of a Distant Star" is that these can be overcome. A love and a friendship that can
reach across the stars is something worth pursuing, no matter how lonely the
participants become. It is only because she understands how lonely the Tarsians
are that Mikako is able to eventually briefly communicate with them from the
isolation of her Tracer cockpit. For one small second, her humanity and their
foreign nature touch, reaching across the atmosphere of a strange planet, and
reaffirming her belief that Noboru is still there. It is a minor miracle of sorts, and
Mr. Shinkai deliberately allows the ending of the film to be ambiguouswhether
Mikako and Noboru ever reconnect in person is left for the viewer to fill in, as is
the fate of the Lystheria and the Tarsians. But within the dimness of the
conclusion, there lies the smallest sparkle of hope that eventually, love will really
The American DVD release of "Voices of a Distant Star" is well done, in
terms of the translation into English of the main feature. I'll put in the disclaimer
here that I rarely watch the dubbed versions of anime, since I prefer to hear the
original nuance and emotion of the Japanese voice actorssubtitles are my best
friend. There are only two flaws to the DVD that should be addressed. The first is
rather serious because although the e-mails between the Mikako and Noboru are
subtitled, the text flashes by so quickly that it is often hard to read the entire e-mail.
Astute viewers may want to pause their DVD players at points, as so much of
Mikako and Noboru's story is told through their text communication.
The second flaw is that in the included extras, the interview with Mr.
Shinkai is very poorly translated. The two years of Japanese that I took in college
are very rusty, but even my boyfriend, who speaks no Japanese, could tell that
something was wrong with the interview. Whoever translated it seems to have
taken Mr. Shinkai's meanings literally, and didn't bother to shape the translation
with any knowledge of English grammar or syntax. What is discernible from the
poor translation is that Mr. Shinkai strove to create a work of art that would have a
lasting impression on people, the same way that a good novel or a good song can
cast a shadow on someone's soul, imprinting them with something indefinable.
With "Voices of a Distant Star" he has come close to accomplishing that.
For his second major piece of anime, Mr. Shinkai directed a much longer
film, Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho ("The Place Promised in Our Early
Days") in collaboration with the anime production company, CoMix Wave. The
literal translation of the Japanese is "Beyond the Clouds, The Place Promised", but
for some reason the English translators opted to go with the former title.
Regardless of that small oddity, this film is also engrossing to watch, and has much
more meatiness and depth to its plot than "Voices of a Distant Star", as well as
being much longer.
Set in the year 1996 in an alternate timeline Japan, WWII has ended
differently and a mysterious political entity known as the "Union" has taken
control of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido. From Aomori Prefecture on the
island of Honshu (the same island that Tokyo is on), you can look across the
Tsugaru Strait and see the strange tower that the Union has built on the island they
have renamed Ezo. It stretches into the sky, seemingly without end, and is a source
of much mystery and confusion.
For two middle school friends in Aomori, Hiroki and Takuya, it is a goal to
be conquered, and they set about doing just that. The two boys get part-time jobs
working at a munitions factory, and use the money they earn and the connections
they make to get parts for the airplane they are building. Their plan is to use it to
fly undetected across the Tsugaru Strait, in order to explore the tower. What could
just be dismissed as an inspirational story of "boys triumphing over adversity" gets
considerably more complicated with the addition of the third main character,
Sayuri is a classmate of Hiroki and Takuya's, a quiet girl who tags along
with them to the abandoned train station where they are constructing their airplane.
The entire plan fascinates her, and she begs them to allow her to join them when
they fly the plane to the Ezo Tower. As their friendship with Sayuri deepens, the
boys agree, and thus, it becomes "the place promised in our early days". After the
summer day when they make that promise, however, everything changes. Sayuri
disappears, and the boys are separated and grow apart, attending different high
schools and following different paths for three years. The plane is never
completed, and simply sits and gathers dust.
This is the point in the movie where the SF portion really kicks in. The Ezo
Tower, we soon discover, is being used by the Union to interchange the physical
matter around it with that of a parallel universe. Not being a theoretical physicist, I
can't really say whether this is possible or not, but let's assume that we buy it for
the sake of the plot. No one knows why the Union is doing this, but the Japanese
government is desperate to technologically catch up with them, especially as
tensions have worsened significantly between the two nations. The precociously
brilliant Takuya ends up being involved in the physics behind the Japanese
government's attempt, and through his involvement makes the startling discovery
that Sayuri is also involved with the government. Except that she's asleep. Yes,
asleep, as in has been sleeping for the past three years ever since her
Saying any more would spoil the rest of the movie, but suffice it to say that
there is a mysterious connection between Sayuri and the Ezo Tower. Thematically,
"The Place Promised in Our Early Days" is very similar to "Voices of a Distant
Star", with its emphasis on teenage characters that are separated by unreachable
distances. Mr. Shinkai once again explores the everlasting effects of love and
friendship, as he details and deepens the relationships between the three main
characters. The friendship between Hiroki and Takuya is just as crucial to the
movie, as is the friendship that Sayuri shares with Hiroki and the separate
friendship that she shares with Takuya. Unlike "Voices of a Distant Star",
however, the full ramifications of the separation of the three friends are brought to
a satisfying and less ambiguous conclusion.
In terms of the animation itself, Mr. Shinkai had the good fortune to work
with a wonderful team of people who completely understood his style and vision.
The man responsible for the backgrounds, Takumi Tanji, purposely based them off
those found in "Voices of a Distant Star", and worked in close collaboration with
Mr. Shinkai to achieve just the right shades of each color used. Ushio Tazawa, the
Chief Director of Animation, and the man responsible for the majority of the
animation in the movie, took Mr. Shinkai's storyboards and translated them
beautifully into living, breathing characters.
All of this information can be found in the extras of the American DVD
release, in the director's interview with Mr. Shinkai. Thankfully, the translation of
this interview is excellent, and you can really get a feel for his vision and
philosophy of work. There are also interviews with the three main voice actors,
which tend to be somewhat formulaic, but give you a good idea of the work that
went into making the movie. Interestingly enough, the two men that Mr. Shinkai
chose to play Hiroki and Takuya, were actors from live-action films, and had never
really done voice work before. Both men, Hidetaka Yoshioka (Hiroki) and Masato
Hagiwara (Takuya) did excellent jobs, as did Yuuka Nanri, who played Sayuri.
Currently, Mr. Shinkai is working on a triptych of three short films to be
released in Japan in 2006; all of them are said to revolve around a central character
of a little boy, and are currently untitled. Whether they will eventually see
American DVD release is up to the American companies that license anime for
translationI would imagine that sales of the DVDs of "Voices of a Distant Star"
and "The Place Promised in Our Early Days" would directly affect their business
decision over whether to license his further work. So with that in mind, go forth,
intergalactic brethren, and watch the American DVD releases, sharing in the
haunting anime that Mr. Shinkai has created for the world to watch and hopefully