Our review of Shinkai: Collection, published January 13th, 2006, is also available.
You are out of your calling area…
Facts of the Case
Humankind's first inkling of extraterrestrial life was the brutal annihilation of our Martian colony. Schoolchildren Mikako and Noboru have grown up with the threat of interstellar war. Though both are capable students, Mikako's breadth of ability leads to her selection by the military. She will accompany the starship Lysithea on a retaliatory mission beyond the solar system.
The two have just formed an emotional bond, but Noboru must stay behind while Mikako seeks the Tarsian aggressors. Their only means of communication is text messaging via cell phone. As Mikako moves through the solar system, it takes longer and longer for her messages to reach Noboru. And though Mikako has aged weeks, Noboru has aged years. The sooner the Lysithea encounters the Tarsians, the sooner Mikako can return home. But nobody knows where the Tarsians are.
Both of the definitions in the Opening Statement apply. Voices of a Distant Star is moving in a physical sense as Mikako travels farther and farther away from her beloved Noboru. Physics of space, time, and movement are central to the work. Voices of a Distant Star is sentimentally moving as well. Its central strength is the ability to ensnare viewers in a powerful emotional net.
Those captivated by this anime focus on the emotional impact it had on them. You would not believe the intensity of feeling this anime generates in its brief 25-minute window. Voices of a Distant Star is a model of brevity. Burgeoning love is depicted through the grip of a hand or the inflection of a word. Loneliness is overwhelming, sadness inherent in every gesture. There were entire subplots that lasted fleeting seconds—gentle fingers striking a chord, unleashing palpable melancholy into the room that dies with the vibration of the strings. The story is so sad, yet it captures your heart through earnest originality and vast theme. The ungraspable scale of war's toll is depicted through the struggle of one 15-year-old girl. She fights for her life on an alien plain, with only the memory of a few shared afternoons to warm her.
The immense emotional depth is achieved through remarkable cohesiveness. The writer identified a theme, and every element of the production unites towards its elucidation. The director prunes composition and story to the essential elements, giving each word and gesture immediacy and weight. The animator carefully rendered the chosen mood. The reason for Voices of a Distant Star's unusual synergy is that the director, writer, and animator are the same person: Makoto Shinkai. This feat accounts for much of the buzz surrounding Voices of a Distant Star. Makato has done what entire studios typically do. There have been individual anime projects before, but none has rivaled the studios at this level. The visual look, narrative structure, and sonic elements all seem fresh. Though it is possible to analyze each element separately, most striking is how well everything works together.
Voices of a Distant Star is a visual gem. The animation is actually not as sophisticated as efforts from established studios. That does not diminish the visual impact of Shinkai's creative vision. He knew his limitations as an animator and worked around them. The result does not feel incomplete. Rather, the visual feel is unique and probably better thought out. So Shinkai doesn't employ every tool in the animation kit; many a work of art has been created with a simple pencil. Moments of still artwork invite contemplation, just as the characters are contemplating their own futures. Pans over large canvases reveal the desolation of the environment. These moments of stillness contrast with intense three-dimensional combat scenes. Robots gleam as volleys of rockets spew forth. Light is particularly well-handled, from the warm palette of dusk to the neon glow of computer panels. During the entire film, the only visual defect I noticed was occasional and minor anti-aliasing. This transfer is as sharp, bright, and bold as they come.
Sound is the one element not handled personally by Shinkai. Outsourcing was a great decision. The simple score infuses the animation with meaning. Solitary piano notes are sluggish, as though the pianist lacked the enthusiasm needed to pick up his fingers. When the action kicks in, it arrives with a sonic punch from 5.1 speakers. Rockets scream around you, birds move overhead, engines thrum quietly in your wake. The soundtrack does what it is supposed to do: transport you to another world.
The voice acting in both tracks is superlative. Emotion is heavy in these voices even as hope creeps in. The English dub is evocative but does have issues; see the Rebuttal Witnesses for more information.
Some movies grab you through manipulation of cinematic elements, programming you to cry or laugh. Upon analyzing why the film had a particular effect on you, you may feel cheated and rue the emotion you spent. In Voices of a Distant Star, it is readily discernable why certain moments evoke specific emotions. Mikako slowly shuts a door, staring at her feet with the sun setting behind her. Insects chirp but no human activity is apparent. The setting sun, buzzing insects, and closing door work to seal Mikako in with her loneliness. Later she is depicted at the heart of a vast array of metal and silicone, quietly grasping her cell phone in despair. I can tell you exactly how Makoto provokes certain emotional responses through clever use of scale and perspective. Instead of feeling manipulated, I feel awed. This technical, stylistic, and narrative breakthrough earned him the "Most Valuable Newcomer" award at the 2002 Tokyo International Anime Fair.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are some frustrating technical glitches present in the DVD. The original animatic is sans subtitles, so you won't be able to tell exactly what is going on. The director's cut does not contain the alternate vocal track, which defeats the purpose of having the extra. To their credit, ADV is replacing the affected DVDs. Check their website (linked at right) for more information. Be patient; ADV has received overwhelming response to their replacement offer.
Voices of a Distant Star is only 25 minutes long, but the story is ambitious. Thus, you must choose between two evils. The first evil is to listen to the Japanese vocal track and read careening subtitles at warp speed. If you can read those paragraph-long disclaimer notices they flash at the end of commercials, you'll be fine. This option is frustrating not only because of the rapid-fire words, but because subtitles frequently obscure half of the picture. You lose both inner peace and animation. The second evil is to watch with the English vocal track playing. The voice actors did a fine job, but there is too much to cram in. Shinkai's craftsmanship depends on close timing. At several moments in the film I was simply lost. Entire concepts are absent in the English dub. For example, Japanese audiences will have no trouble reading the text messages on the cell phones, but without subtitles turned on there is no way for English speakers to tell what is printed. Less problematic but equally annoying is that the English Mikako and Noboru are sometimes pointing at one thing while talking about another. The best solution I can recommend is to watch the first time through with the English track for an idea of what the film is about, then watch with the Japanese track and marvel at additional nuances that emerge.
The extras seem more impressive than they are. There is an animated short with three different versions. It is a mildly informative exercise in editing, but really: do we need three versions of a five-minute animation? (Although I must admit it is a fine animated short.) The director's cut is practically useless without the alternate vocals. The original animatics are fascinating for those who are interested in the origins of the concept, but most viewers will find it a curiosity. The interview with Makoto Shinkai is sort of painful because, like, his grammar is sort of, like littered sort of with, like, verbal tics. He does impart several important ideas, if you can discern them. The trailers are cool, but they repeat huge chunks of the anime. When all is said and done, you will have seen the same snippets of animation up to eight times, with the same plaintive piano plucks in accompaniment. Nonetheless, I have scored the extras highly because I believe ADV dug up as much appropriate material as possible. Anime titles don't receive vast critical or economic acclaim, so the effort they spent here is noteworthy.
Voices of a Distant Star is worth the price of admission for the non-trite, ineffable love story alone. This love story is set within a fascinating science fiction concept. This concept contains lots of frantic space battles. These space battles are rendered in exquisite detail with unique style. These positives snowball into one fine anime. When that snowball hits you, be sure to have the handkerchief ready.
There is one culprit in this caper: Makoto Shinkai. As the mastermind behind Voices of a Distant Star, this court sentences you to pen more anime. Please do not burn out or fade away.
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