Reviewby Jonathan Mays, Jul 4th 2003
Voices of a Distant Star
Makoto Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star is truly a work of love--created, produced, and animated all by a single man. Using the focus and cohesiveness that only an individual work can provide, Shinkai has created a masterpiece, blending luscious animation, a tear-jerking story, and beautifully honest dialogue to create one of 2003's very finest releases.
Years ago, Noboru Terao and Mikako Nagamine were inseparable. Enjoying other's company, sharing their lives at school, eating ice cream at the convenience store, and walking each other home each day, Noboru and Mikako always dreamed of a fulfilling life together. But in one moment, a planetary disaster stole one of them away.
Now, they are friends separated by war. It's 2046, and the United Nations has assembled a force to hunt down the mysterious alien race that ambushed a Mars expeditionary team. Among those recruited to defend humanity is Mikako herself, selected for her high test scores and exceptional physical shape. With only cell phone text messages to keep in touch, the weeks, months, and years of distance begin to take their toll on the star-crossed lovers. Mikako struggles to balance her military duties with her longing for Noboru, as her companion fights to live through each day's loneliness, waiting faithfully--perhaps futilely--for the day that they may embrace each other again.
The plot sounds archetypal: "Two lovers, separated by fate...Will they ever meet again?" But the execution is brilliant. One of creator Shinkai's most impressive skills is that he manages to draw viewers into the story of Noboru and Mikako almost instantly, allowing a full twenty-five minutes to develop their relationship. Perhaps his video game company background helped develop his instant-capture abilities, but whatever the reason, it's clear that Shinkai is a master of hooking--and retaining--interest.
Shinkai's choice and restrained use of dialogue are two other keys to the film's success. Too often do anime series maintain a steady level of speaking, and most of what's said is unimportant. But the dialogue in Voices comes in waves, and every word is meaningful. Characters grow, perspectives change, and shifting dialogue tones accompany each development. Those typically frustrated by lazy and imprecise wording will revel in Shinkai's obsessive attention to detail.
And 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. Most arresting is Shinkai's masterful use of lighting. Not only is it incredibly realistic, but it also manages to convey the mood of the characters in each scene, whether the distance of a sparkling star, the cold isolation of space, or the warm reminiscence of days long passed. While the characters are unoriginal, other items like Mikako's full-view cockpit and massive warships blend classic sci-fi with Shinkai's vision to create remarkable designs. It's unfortunate that such innovation is restrained to a 25-minute featurette, as it would have been thrilling to see Shinkai's artwork in a thirteen or 26-episode series.
The significance of setting is not lost on Voices' characters. In one of the film's most sobering moments, Mikako sits in her Tracer on a planet over eight light-years from Noboru, quietly patrolling the land. Silence yields to the cool whispering of a passing rainstorm. Staring up towards a fading sun, Mikako begins to cry, unable to repress her yearning for Noboru. She tears open her cell phone, hurriedly types a short message, and sends the note on its voyage of eight years, 224 days, and eighteen hours. And then, she waits.
Action-craving fans might be left a little unfulfilled; the few space battles aren't exactly Sunrise smooth. But that's no reason to pass up Voices of a Distant Star, because almost everything else is pure perfection. Story, pacing, characterization, focus--it's all perfect. And to complement the elegant animation, Tenmon, one of three others who helped Shinkai realize his vision, offers a wonderfully delicate, understated piano score.
Alas, one aspect of Voices is far from perfect, but it's not Makoto Shinkai's fault. When ADV began the dubbing process, they handed the job to Steven Foster, an anime enthusiast with a reputation for adapting (instead of translating) the script for a series. The trend continues here, as Foster carelessly omits critical details, completely rewrites some scenes, misinterprets emotions, and even adds new dialogue where the original track had silence. It doesn't ruin the show, but it certainly knocks the charm down a few levels.
The subtitle track:
Noboru: Those Tarsians, I wonder where they came from...
Noboru: Nagamine, you're not interested?
And Foster's "interpretation:"
Noboru: Hey, do you remember what it was like before the war?
Noboru: I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything.
Another particularly distressing item is the frequent misinterpretation of Nagame's character. Quiet confidence becomes arrogance in the English dub, both in Foster's rewritten lines (complete with some fresh new cursing!) and Cynthia Martinez's voice inflections--sarcasm, overconfidence, and fascination in place of the original character's detachment. It's obvious that much time and effort went into making the "best" possible dub, and most of it is quite well acted, but the liberal changes throughout the script provide for a much less fulfilling experience. Steven Foster's Voices of a Distant Star is good, but Makoto Shinkai's is better.
Origin and English dub aside, Voices of a Distant Star is a stunningly magnificent film, weaving artful storytelling into a fabric of elegant animation; it is a tear-jerking featurette laced with love. A thrilling yet sobering piece, it is among the very best half-hours anime has to offer. That it was created, directed, and animated by a single man on a Macintosh G4/400 computer only adds to the magnitude of this achievement. Even the voice acting in the original cut (included on the DVD) was performed by Shinkai and his fiancée.
Voices of a Distant Star is the rare story that has the potential to move the most mild-tempered individuals to tears. Anyone who has ever endured a distance relationship, or any sense of loneliness at all will be able to relate to every emotion Shinkai explores. The honesty and clarity with which the creator conveys each sentiment is the single strongest aspect of Shinkai's work. It's difficult to qualify Shinkai's masterpiece because, simply put, it has no equal. But it's easy to call this masterpiece a must-see.
Overall (dub) : D
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ A marvelous film in almost every way
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