Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders how somebody rates a greatest hits collection after making only two movies.
"I was filled with an energy, a drive I didn't understand, but I ended up not knowing which way I should go."—Takuya Shirakawa, The Place Promised in Our Early Days
Every few years, fans (and occasionally critics) latch obsessively onto the "next big thing." Sometimes, this new artist lives up to the hype. Sometimes, the artist has a few years of popularity, then fades into a life of steady mediocrity. A couple of years ago, I kept hearing my friends talk about this gorgeous short film. They said it was moving and profound and full of great animation. It was called Voices of a Distant Star, and I was pressed to see it as soon as I possibly could. Yet somehow I kept missing it. I would be on a convention panel at the same time it was screening. I had an emergency crop up that kept me from visiting a friend who was planning to show it.
So when DVD Verdict received a copy of Shinkai: Collection to review, I thought that I might finally have the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. This boxed set from ADV packages Makoto Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star with his feature film The Place Promised in Our Early Days. My colleagues Rob Lineberger and Joel Pearce have already weighed in on these discs in their individual releases. But—wait a minute, there is something rather strange going on here. "Collections" are usually reserved for artists who have produced a substantial body of work. Right away, you see the difficulty we have when approaching Shinkai: Collection, even before unwrapping the discs. Releasing a "collection" for a guy who has only made one feature and a popular short film suggests a level of reverence that is wildly out of proportion to the actual talent on display, much like a band that gets a "greatest hits" package from its record company after only releasing two albums. It smacks of a studio trying to salvage a career already on the rocks.
Perhaps I am being too cynical. On the other hand, I am skeptical of marketing hype, and something like Shinkai: Collection smacks of hype. Even the title feels pretentious, as if it is solemnly announcing itself in brusque terms, instead of the more sensible-sounding "The Shinkai Collection." So does the new golden boy of anime live up to the cult following he has built up in only a few short years? Let us consider each of the two discs in this set and what this "collection" might suggest about Makoto Shinkai's career so far.
Voices of a Distant Star
My first thoughts upon hearing the premise of this 25-minute animated film were a flurry of ideas about the tension between speech (the face to face encounter) and writing (which defers meaning over space and time). I built up great hopes for the film as an exploration of philosophical ideas—which is pretty consistent with what fans told me about Shinkai's short long before I ever slipped this disc into my DVD player.
These high expectations have a lot to do with the film's intriguing premise. Teen Mikako is a mecha pilot sent for training on Mars, then shipped off to war. Her nascent romance with Noboru takes place entirely through emails, each stretched across a wider expanse. As Noboru grows older, his love evolves into nostalgia. But for Mikako, the relationship still seems fresh and alive, her only connection with a world gradually slipping away into the darkness of empty space.
The plot itself is fairly overworked: the young mecha pilot who must surrender love for duty. Even the time-dilation business was developed more thoroughly in works like Haldeman's The Forever War and Hideaki Anno's Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. Shinkai's accomplishment in Voices is really a matter of restraint. When he does less, it always seems like more. The indirect approach carries more weight. When he goes ahead and shows what he means, it is too familiar. For example, The film's key emotional moment, the central hook, comes in a brief sequence in which Mikako, still only fifteen, expresses her isolation to Noboru eight years in the future. Unfortunately, Shinkai counterprograms the moment with a Gundam-style space battle (with CG that already looks dated) that undercuts the tragic loss by pandering to the otaku contingent. It is only in the fact that the film is so short (25 minutes), that Shinkai makes it seem more oblique than it really is, since the sentimental reverie stands in equal proportion to the battle sequences (where a longer film would have had to add more plot).
The sequences on Earth do show a penchant for strong imagery. But where Shinkai falls flat is as a storyteller. When he evokes, lets the images show the story, the film is effective. But he keeps trying to tell instead of show, to have the characters talk about their feelings. Consider the striking differences between Voices and Shinkai's first major project, the short She and Her Cat. Again, less is more. We are treated to three edits here, each of which shows us a young woman's lonely life from the perspective of her cat. Shinkai counters stark, photographic images with the cat's dryly poetic observations. The audience must fill in the blanks, exactly what Shinkai does not do in Voices by using omniscient-camera space battles which pull us out of Mikako's psyche. Surprisingly, all three variations work well and show Shinkai's real flexibility as an artist.
The interview with Shinkai on the Voices of a Distant Star disc reveals that he indeed have no experience or training in narrative when he set off to create Voices pretty much on his own. It shows: the beats are instinctual, culled from watching other movies. Shinkai's industriousness in making this short virtually solo is certainly admirable. While the packaging on his discs often declares him "the new Miyazaki," the comparison is specious. The work and backgrounds of these two men could not be more different. Instead, a more reasonable comparison would be to Hideaki Anno, founder of GAINAX. Anno and his fellow GAINAX artists were fanboys who studied their favorite anime, then learned to step past it through deft parodies (Gunbuster, Otaku No Video, Evangelion) that added depth and wit to make the works stand on their own. Shinkai also comes at anime from the perspective of an earnest fanboy, although he lacks the wit and inventiveness of the GAINAX crew. His solemnity seems to be his undoing.
Extras on the Voices of a Distant Star disc include a "director's cut" with a scratch audio track (merely a curiosity), animatics and storyboards, and trailers. The big addition over the previous release of the film is a CD soundtrack—if you are into that sort of thing.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days
The main drawback to Voices of a Distant Star is that, while emotional, it does not offer a fleshed-out world we have not seen a million times. This is not the fault of its running time. Consider how Miyazaki creates a vividly detailed world just in the length of a music video like "On Your Mark." Shinkai merely recycles mecha show clichés. Consider how Hideaki Anno's Aim for the Top! Gunbuster touched the same time-dilation theme as Voices, played off a similar "pretty girl pilot lost amidst galactic events" plot, and yet had plenty of details to make it stand out from the pack. Shinkai does not give us unique aliens, inventive gadgetry, or philosophical complexity, just an emotional twinge for a few key seconds. Those few seconds seem like a lot in proportion to a 25-minute film though.
The unexpected cult success of Voices did accomplish one thing: it allowed Shinkai the opportunity to show off his potential to make something really unique, something with a flavor that we have not tasted already. And so: The Place Promised in Our Early Days.
Two teenage boys, Hiroki and Takuya, live in the shadow of an alternate-world Japan split in half by the US-occupied South and the nationalistic North. They are fascinated by an impossibly high tower just across the border, and they are building an airplane to get there. Their muse is a pretty but vapid girl named Sayuri who soon slips into a mysterious coma, dreaming of the Tower.
Three years later, Takuya works for a government project to investigate parallel worlds that is connected to the mystery of the Tower. Hiroki spends his time in Tokyo obsessively narrating everything and draining the movie of its energy.
Once again, Shinkai shows his inability to tell a compelling story. The scenes with Takuya, involving terrorist conspiracies and a weird (though woefully undercooked) SF premise, is engaging. But Shinkai lets the movie get taken over by the tedious Hiroki, whose tepid navel-gazing once again tells us instead of showing us.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a series of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential. This is one of those movies where you feel yourself second-guessing Shinkai's choices to the point of griping at your television. This bit of dialogue should be tighter. This scene should have better pacing. The character designs should be more expressive. The Tower, the girl, the wonder of flight—these should have more allure, allowing us to empathize with the two young men. Something—anything—should happen to keep the film from dragging. I wonder if Shinkai began this project as a short film (he did make a 3-minute version to drum up financing) that the producers insisted padding to a marketable feature.
The GAINAX influence is discernable in this film as well. The airplane launch and the sociopolitical conflict reminded me of Hiroyuki Yamaga's Wings of Honneamise, although Shinkai cannot establish any real global tension (he has this same problem with the aliens in Voices). I am not sure what to make of the whole "parallel world" business, which never really gets developed. I certainly did not find any insight in the brief interviews with Shinkai and the main cast that form the bulk of the extras on this disc.
There is much hype surrounding Makoto Shinkai, but the truth is that the work he has produced so far is pedestrian. He may be a sincere fan with a flair for catching a powerful image from time to time, but he has yet to create any memorable characters or original story points. I hesitate to give anybody in Shinkai's position career advice, especially since he is likely to get new projects for several years while coasting on this whole "next big thing" vibe, but he might be better off adapting some established literary work for his next project. It might help him learn to capitalize on his visual strengths while the existing story would cover his weaknesses. Maybe, somewhere down the road, the time might actually be right for a real "Shinkai Collection" that would spotlight his range. But not today.
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Scales of Justice, Voices Of A Distant Star
Perp Profile, Voices Of A Distant Star
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, Voices Of A Distant Star
• CD Soundtrack
Scales of Justice, The Place Promised In Our Early Days
Perp Profile, The Place Promised In Our Early Days
Studio: ADV Films
Distinguishing Marks, The Place Promised In Our Early Days
• Interviews with Makoto Shinkai and Others
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