Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Far East Alchemy
  by Jenny Rae Rappaport
June 2006

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 shared—anime 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 those—it 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 ambiguous—whether 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 conquer all.

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 actors—subtitles 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.

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 disappearance.

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 translation—I 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 cherish.

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