Makoto Shinkai’s work has been compared to Miyazaki’s – a very strange comparison that I can’t see having any real basis in Makoto’s films. Both men have individual directing voices, which is itself pretty scarce in anime, and neither’s work is characterized by the “extremes” which often come to define the anime style. Violence isn’t absent in either filmmaker’s work, but it is rarely the major thrust. When it is necessary for the story, it is employed.
The Voices Of A Distant Star is the short film that first brought Shinkai to a wide audience. In summary the plot looks like it could belong to any anime TV series: high school students are recruited to join the fleet and pilot big robots to strike back against alien invaders. Ender’s Game via Evangelion. The tone and the focus of the story are what set Voices apart.
Noboru and Mikako are just out of their final year in middle school. Noboru hopes Mikako goes to the same high school he does, but she tests out – into the United Nations fighting force, flying out into space against the aforementioned aliens. The only dialogue (besides a shipboard computer that speaks hilarious English) is between the two adolescents, either in conversation before she leaves or in e-mails which come later and later as Mikako flies further out into space. At home Noboru grows more and more disconsolate as the ties that connect him to Mikako stretch thin.
Eventually Mikako gets into a real fight with the liquid-metal-looking aliens, and the fleet jumps a light year away, en route to another long jump, eight light years hence. Mikako sends what will likely be her last message to Noboru, when he’s 24 but she’s still 15. As a metaphor for the way the promise of youthful love decays under the auspices of time, Voices is delicate, and somewhat heartbreaking*. As a story it is a little slow, small, and perhaps sentimental. The central conflict, of the separation of the two would-be lovers, does not develop. When Mikako leaves, it is clear their relationship is doomed, and though Noboru’s determination to wait for her (however that means) is sweet, it also faces no real challenges. In the world of Voices, there are no other people. Tokyo is desolate, and no other human faces appear to tempt Mikako toward something less romantic and more realistic (there is a single shot with a girl, but I was unable to determine if it was actually a memory of Mikako).
*Can something be “somewhat” heartbreaking? Maybe it would be better put that the film is emotive, and effective, if not strictly a jerker of tears.
In Voices Makato creates something like an anime tone poem. He visualizes Mikako and Noboru as locked in their own space capsule – Mikako’s literal, Noboru’s the empty shell of the city. Noboru’s scenes are exclusively urban, and in fact filled with views from a thousand Tokyo-based anime. Convenience stores, railroad crossings, sidewalk steps, rain and power lines and concrete dot, traverse, and bisect Noboru’s world. Makoto brings over the visual language he first developed in She and Her Cat, a kind of urban naturalism where the features of urban life are as legitimate a source of observant contemplation as any natural landscape.
Makoto created this short virtually by himself, and faithfully evokes the feeling of a lover’s inner world, one wholly beautiful and coherent to the lovers and impenetrable to outsiders. It’s the anime equivalent of two people walking down the street with their hands in each other’s back pockets. They might think it’s the greatest thing in the world. To everyone not in that relationship, though, reactions likely range from indifference to annoyance.
The Voices Of A Distant Star is often beautiful. It creates its own world, and that world is not for everyone, nor does it want to be.