House of 1000 Manga 5 Centimeters per Second
by Shaenon K. Garrity, Mar 13th 2014
Few animators—hell, few filmmakers—have launched their careers with as sudden and spectacular a debut as Makoto Shinkai. In 2002, Shinkai, a graphic designer and video-game animator, released the 25-minute film Voices of a Distant Star, which he had made on his Macintosh G4 using commercial software like Photoshop and AfterEffects. He and his girlfriend provided the voices for the initial soundtrack. In the early 2000s, other animators were beginning to produce impressive work on home computers, but Voices of a Distant Star was a giant leap forward: a well-written, fully-fleshed short film with animation comparable in quality to the work coming out of major Japanese studios. (Shinkai wasn't the only early adopter with big plans for home animation technology; at the time Voices came out, U.S. animator Nina Paley was working on her spectacular Flash-animated feature Sita Sings the Blues.)
In the heat of excitement over his debut work, Shinkai was sometimes called “the new Miyazaki,” not only for his technical skills as an animator but for the gentle, human perspective of his stories. Voices of a Distant Star is a quiet love story about a boy and girl who communicate by cell phone after the girl is recruited for an interstellar military mission. Most of Shinkai's other works express a similar romantic, wistful tone. If anything, he's more sentimental than the Studio Ghibli auteurs; Shinkai could use some of Miyazaki's earthy pragmatism.
How sentimental is Shinkai's 5 Centimeters per Second? For starters, the title refers to the speed at which cherry blossom petals fall. When you see cherry blossoms, you know you're in for some hardcore mono no aware. Shinkai's first non-science fiction or fantasy film, 5 Centimeters feels like a project close to the animator's heart. In addition to directing the one-hour animated film, he wrote the prose novel adaptation, illustrated with his own photographs, and scripted the manga.
It starts, of course, with a new kid coming to school. Akari is a shy country girl who has trouble fitting in at her new school in Tokyo until Takaki, another transfer student from the boonies, befriends her and shows her around town. The two join the same clubs and bond over their mutual interest in science. “I read through four billion years in one night,” Akari confides while sharing a book on prehistoric life. “Isn't that incredible? Four billion years, in one night!” Takaki dreams of becoming an astronaut, and the two follow the development of an international space program that brings rockets to Japan—the manga's one fantastic element.
But when your family moves a lot, it's dangerous to make close friends. It'll break your heart. Within a few years, both Akari and Takaki have moved away from Tokyo and live hours apart—an impossible distance for children to cross. Voices of a Distant Star also dealt with the hardships of a long-distance relationship, with its central conceit of cell phones connecting two people over interstellar space. 5 Centimeters takes place more or less in the world of Shinkai's youth, a world without cell phones or the Internet. Takaki and Akari communicate via letters and dream of seeing each other's faces. And then, inevitably, they drift apart.
Is it cynical of me to call it inevitable? Maybe. When I was six, my family moved from upstate New York to a small town in Texas. Two years later, we moved to Ohio. My classmates made me a goodbye card with the lyrics to that song, Make new friends but keep the old. I wrote back and forth with Heather and Stacey and my best friend Joshua. Then, over the years, it got harder to write. We knew different people, did different things. Around sixth grade, Josh and I finally stopped writing. My mother found the goodbye card last week, cleaning out the basement.
Maybe it's different now, in this more connected world. As 5 Centimeters progresses, the characters move forward into what looks increasingly like today, and modern communication technology creeps into their lives. In the manga's strongest early sequence, the young Takaki and Akari make plans to meet by train, and Takaki's desperate effort to make the rendezvous, through snow delays, is detailed over 30-odd pages of tension. If anything goes wrong, if either person loses faith, they'll be lost to each other. The sequence is mirrored later on when the adult Takaki makes the same trip with another woman. But when the two are separated, they simply call each other on their cell phones.
Loneliness and connection are Shinkai's favorite themes. Such themes have become common in recent anime and manga dramas, often as part of a general expression of moe sad-woobieness. 5 Centimeters escapes pure sentimental wallow by striking out into the reality of life after the loss of a meaningful relationship. Takaki grows up and meets other girls, girls he could be happy with: first an energetic high-school surfer who crushes hard on her quiet classmate, then an adult girlfriend who sees a future with Takaki but is frustrated by his inability to open up. Akari is now long gone from Takaki's life, but her presence remains. Is the junior-high girl in his heart a shining beacon of love, or a shadow he needs to get out from under if he wants to live a full life? Either way, she keeps drifting further and further out of reach, like the spacecraft that once seemed breathtakingly close but now soar impossibly far over the adult Takaki's white-collar office.
In his anime, Shinkai creates stunning scenery and light effects, but his character designs are on the bland side. (Maybe that's why, whenever possible, he hides their pointy-nosed faces in dramatic washes of shadow or light.) Yukiko Seike, the artist of the manga adaptation, retains this look with shonen-standard faces against detailed seinen-style backgrounds. Her character designs and expressions get more confident as the manga progresses, making the adult versions of the characters more appealing than the children—a probably unintended but not inappropriate effect. The manga is the right length, too; it adds some depth missing from the anime, but covers it succinctly enough to complete its story in one fat volume (available in English from Vertical).
In the end, 5 Centimeters isn't about the relationship between Takaki and Akari so much as it is about what they do with that relationship. Do they let it weigh them down or turn it into a source of strength? Do they nurture it or let it go? I don't know which choices are right, and I like that the manga doesn't know either, that it trusts its characters to follow their hearts. Last month I saw Joshua for the first time in 30 years. We hadn't changed that much. I love you dearly, Josh. The friendship you gave me is gold.
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