Thoughts on the DVD of Makoto Shinkai’s first real production. (****)
Hoshi no Koe

“Luke Skywal – ah! Ie, Noboru-kun wa daisuki…” …heh, come on, you thought the same thing…

Makoto Shinkai‘s status as a heavyweight in the Japanese animation industry is only disputable in that ‘heavyweight‘ is a severely ill-chosen word for Shinkai. You’d need to have watched some of his work to understand – in terribly insufficient words, Shinkai’s productions are highly-tempered, finely-tuned, reflective, retrospective, introspective; a confection of delicate (and sometimes surreal) beauty with a central, solid core of some true observation on life. His latest work, Byousoku 5 Centimeter, was essentially a treatise on distance, love, and longing – while Byousoku focuses on spatial distance, Hoshi no Koe focuses on a more abstract form of distance: time. His characters in Hoshi are removed from each other by miles, yes, thousands and thousands of miles, but their situation is compounded by their being unable to communicate in any form other than by cell-phone messages, and those messages, like delayed carrier pigeons facing the approach of winter in the olden days, take increasing amounts of time to reach each other. By the film’s last quarter, this length of time, as Noboru reflects, pretty much means ‘forever’.
Being only 25 minutes long, Hoshi no Koe doesn’t actually have a whole lot of emotional journeying to take us on. An air of the bittersweet introduces, surrounds, and concludes the film; in between, we get more comfortably (uncomfortably? disturbingly? I rather think that we all enjoy getting depressed in this movie though) acquainted with melancholy and longing. And yet, at the end, there’s also hope – Mikako’s meeting with her own self, imagination or projection, is reassuring, and probably a little cathartic. Besides, if you watch with a careful eye for Noboru’s newspaper clippings and the sign he glances at towards the end of the film, Shinkai seems in favour of reunion. Perhaps a little surprising, considering that Shinkai chose to go the realist’s way in Byousoku 5 Centimeter, and perhaps not, because one gets the feeling Shinkai is really a sentimental fellow at heart. All the same, I don’t think the conclusion is the most important part of Shinkai’s work so much as the characters’ persistence in love and remembrance, and yet in acceptance, is significant. It looks like Shinkai’s aim is in portraying the conflict between moving on and ‘staying here’. Like good short stories and manga, he leaves the problem open and doesn’t attempt to solve it for us. That would be pre-emptive. We would be indignant.

Tracers!

Graphics-wise, Hoshi no Koe was Shinkai’s garden in new spring. He’d already established a kind of balance between CGI and pen-and-paper that was significantly his own: take, for example, the outset scenes of Mikako entering her school’s staircase up to the classroom. The flitting between sketchy lines and fully-shaded animation was intriguing – perhaps it reflects Mikako’s brief journey into a place from her past, into the unreal. While it isn’t quite the same effect, I’m reminded of Byousoku‘s transitions between shots of unnervingly realistic environment detail, like the moving floors of the train carriages, against the two-dimensional faces of the characters. And all of this is combined with an ethereal beauty throughout: curtained snow, single sakura petals, crested roads, ruffled leaves, the looming, wondrous backdrop of Jupiter, the sleek, smoothed edges of the Tarsians. Note that while Byousoku dwelled heavily on the daily and the ordinary, Hoshi takes advantage of the surreal space setting to inject a sense of wonder, of alien-ness (the what am I doing here? pressure), of the unbelievable and the impossible and vast loneliness.

The DVD I borrowed from my (most accommodating) local library also had a bunch of special features that made it worth putting a 25-minute film on DVD – a ‘director’s cut’ version with Makoto Shinkai and his wife as seiyuu, which I genuinely thought better than the original version; several versions of another early work Kanojo to Kanojo no Neko (She and Her Cat), 5 minutes in its entirety, which I wholly enjoyed – more Shinkai bittersweet goodness, about embracing life as it is; and an interview with the man behind it all. I loved the interview, especially. Before ever watching anything Japanese, or reading anything from Japan, I’d always thought of the Japanese as rather stately, prim and reserved people; the impression is hard to shake off, despite knowing so much better now. In fact, I’m quite prepared to assert that the Japanese, as represented by their artists the likes of Shinkai, Chika Umino, even Kazuo Ishiguro, are probably one of the most sensitive peoples in the world. I’ve never known anything so beautifully evocative on so many levels as the Japanese arts can be – I was moved to tears, to laughter, to thought, to action, to pensive reflection. Just hearing about Shinkai’s initial uncertainty about working on his own, eventually translating in a bold move to quitting his job at his company to produce Hoshi no Koe, was enough to make me grin foolishly and start making plans of my own. Then Shinkai went on to talk about the nature of what he made: lighthearted entertainment “intertwined with daily life”, which was yet something that people could keep “close to their souls”, intimate, personal, enduring. He referred to the 5 minute song you could listen to on the train, or the novel you could secretly read in class, and how those apparently brief moments in contact with them could stay with you for an indefinitely long time. That was what he set out to create, and I suppose I’m both motivated and intensely jealous of his success: would that I could create such art as Shinkai makes!

Hoshi no Koe - alternative pic

But enough of myself and inspiration. (Wow, those two nouns don’t normally end up on the same line.) I’ve referred to Sumomo Yumeka’s adaptation of Hoshi no Koe to manga, and now that I’ve seen Shinkai’s anime, I’m glad to recommend both manga and anime to everyone in need of a little twanging of the heartstrings. Perhaps you should watch the anime first, and then download the manga from the site I linked in that previous post – Sumomo Yumeka expands on several events and scenes only referred to in passing in the anime. Uh, example, if you were paying attention to the scene instead of the narration, there’s a point where Noboru turns away from another girl, before hiding in the bus shelter Noboru and Mikako were once in, out of the rain. The manga shows you the history and details of the scene; and actually gets you a little involved with that other girl as well. You end up feeling sorry for a great many people in Hoshi no Koe. Best of all about the manga is the increased detail of Mikako’s and Noboru’s individual lives in the time they spend apart from one another.

A final note on the DVD – I was pretty disappointed by the English dub. Keep your DVD control arrows depressed in the opposite direction of anything that looks like “English 5.1” or “Language: English”. Or only go near it if you’re interested to hear a childlike Mikako with less poignancy and more blithe youth, a general reduced sense of wonder in the anime, a curtailed discussion of the effects of perpetual longing. The English dub changes the dialogue very often, and very unnecessarily – instead of Mikako’s unwilling, spare responses (‘Yeah.’) to Noboru’s comments on Lysithea and the Tarsian war, Mikako actively joins in the discussion, and so removes the idea that she knew all along, but wished not to think of her conscription to Lysithea. More annoyingly, one of my favourite narrations gets changed to basically a whine – Noboru’s reflection that his persistent waiting for Mikako’s delayed messages is changing him, turning him into something he doesn’t want to be, is gone. Grr. Instead, English-Noboru repeats: “No message”, or something equally obvious.

That just reinforces the lesson all connoiseurs of anime should have learned by now – stick to the original. Japanese voices for Japanese anime. 😛

Rate-me time! I give:

**** (4 stars out of 5)

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