Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 31st 2008
5 Centimeters Per Second
Takaki and Akari attended elementary school together, where a mutual interest in the library led them to become good friends. Their parents' work situation ultimately foiled their plans to attend the same middle school, but they kept in contact by mail. One snowy night, shortly before another move takes him too far away for an easy visit, Takaki hops on a train to visit Akari one last time. Years later, in high school on Kagoshima, a girl named Kanae finds herself smitten with archery-minded Takaki, but her struggles to summon enough courage to confess her feelings are mirrored by her difficulty properly catching a wave in her surfing hobby. And it always seems like Takaki is messaging someone. . . Further years pass and Takaki finds himself working in Tokyo, where a chance encounter just might change his life.
Makoto Shinkai has been hailed by some as “the next Miyazaki,” but such praise is premature at best and hyperbole at worst. While this newest project confirms the remarkable talent he displayed in his previous efforts, he has yet to show any range or variety. Like Voices of a Distant Star and Place Promised in Our Earlier Days (and, for that matter, his first short She and Her Cat, too), Five Centimeters Per Second is a story about longing, about the isolating feeling of loneliness and the desire to make and maintain connections. But though it may not differ much in style, tone, sound, or look from his other productions, you will not find another anime director better at hitting just the right note, and using just the right combination of lines and visuals, to much such stories work.
Shinkai's previous projects have shown that his storytelling style is best-suited to shorter, more intimate works, so he tackles this 62-minute feature by breaking it down into three sequential parts showing chief protagonist Takaki at different stages of his life; the first in middle school, the second in high school, and the third as an adult. The first part, with Takaki striving to meet Akari despite weather that seems determined to thwart him, is the strongest and the one most able to stand on its own. It offers such a beautiful and delicate look at the development and exercise of young love that it can appeal to a viewer's emotions without being sappy. The second part, where Takaki becomes a supporting character while the focus falls on Kanae, is more an exercise in unrequited love, with an unusual (and in some senses unsettling) twist late in its run. The third and by far shortest piece, where Takaki splits feature time with Akari, has a “moving forward with your lives” element to it and is the part least likely to match with viewer expectations.
Taken individually, the parts offer nice little vignettes, but taken as a whole they paint a broader picture about the progression of life and love. The ending, which is where this work differs most from Shinkai's previous efforts, will doubtless be controversial and may leave some fans unsatisfied, as it opens itself to multiple interpretations. Some may feel as if it just ends without resolving anything, but if one considers Takaki's few lines of narration in part two, how that part ends, and how everything fits together, it becomes clearer that actually resolving things was never the point. Whereas Voices was about trying to maintain a connection and Place Promised was about reestablishing one, Five Centimeters is ultimately about moving on from past connections instead of just living in the past, about finding a way to become happy in the present rather than just pining for what has been lost over time. In that sense Five Centimeters is Shinkai's most mature and complicated work yet.
As with Place Promised, Shinkai was directly involved in nearly every aspect of this production, which leaves his stamp on this work as indelibly as Miyazaki does on any of his movies. (This is the one place where comparisons between the two are justifiable.) All of the elements seen in his previous works are here: extensive use of in-character narration, nearly photorealistic recreations of actual real-world settings, impressive use of lighting effects, scene selections chosen with an eye to establishing and enhancing mood, occasionally dazzling vistas, and carefully-crafted, precisely-worded dialog which avoids any extraneous comment and invariably contributes to the overall feel of the work. Striking, as always, is his vivid use of color, although it seems a bit brighter and glossier here than in his previous work. His character designs have improved markedly since his work on Voices but are still the weak point of the artistry, as is the character animation; scenes of moving clouds and vehicles, blowing snow and grass, crossing gates, even birds – really, he excels in animating everything except people, and his scene selections strongly suggest that he realizes that.
Tenmon, the artist who did the music for Voices, returns for this project, and indeed his score for the first part is only a minor stylistic variation on the light piano numbers used in Voices. Large sections of the second part pass without any score, and the bits that do have it offer a similar blend of poignant, low-key piano numbers mixed with light orchestration. Part 3 lacks a score until the background song “One More Time, One More Chance” takes over; though it may be a little too loud, it fits quite well in both lyrics and tone. The production also excels in its use of sound effects, especially in the bow-shooting scenes in Part 2.
The Japanese dub uses a different seiyuu for Akari between Parts 1 and 3, while the English dub uses Hilary Haag passably well at both ages. David Matranga, as Takaki, strains a bit when attempting to voice a very young version of his character but otherwise does a fine job, and Serena Varghese hits the mark just right as Kanae. Because so much of the dialog is narration, the English script varies very little from the subtitles, although in many places the English spoken lines and Japanese spoken lines have somewhat different timing. (This is not easily noticeable unless you listen to the English dub with the subtitles on, however.)
Amongst the Extras on the disc are a photo montage of setting scouting for the movie that can make a viewer appreciate exactly how accurately detailed some of the background animation really is. Also included are two interviews: one with Shinkai and the other with members of the Japanese cast. Although ADV's production lists the three parts as if they were episodes on the menu, it uses no chapter breaks within a part.
The question that will inevitably get asked is where this work stands compared to Shinkai's previous efforts. It is his best effort to date, or his worst? The answer depends heavily on what you are expecting to get out of it. Evaluated purely on technical merits, the overall artistry is a very slight step down from Place Promised, but the timing and pacing of its storytelling is better. It has better character designs and more complexity than Voices, but not as broad an appeal nor as poignant and heartfelt an ending. It achieves the same degree of elegance and eloquence in storytelling, so the decision largely comes down to a matter of personal preference. From this reviewer's perspective, Voices is the true masterpiece of the lot, but this one works just fine, as long as you can come to terms with the ending.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Superb first part, more mature and complex storytelling than previous efforts.
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