Anime Review: 5 Centimeters Per Second

5 Centimeters Per Second consists of 3 short stories, “Oukashou,” “Cosmonaut,” and “5 Centimeters Per Second.” They each show the life of a young man, Tohno Takaki, at different stages as he deals with his feelings for a childhood friend. As time passes, they drift further apart, but Takaki seems unable to move on.

Plot

I had been anticipating this release to the point where it actually hurt to wait for a subbed version. Ever since the “Oukashou” segment was released via streaming video, I was convinced that this would be the one. Shinkai Makoto will finally show us how much he has grown with 5 Centimeters Per Second. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s still dwelling on the depression of largely helpless characters stuck in a big world. Even so, this is still one fantastic piece of animation, and easily one of the best dramatic titles of the year.

The problem with 5 Centimeters Per Second is really down to Shinkai. It’s time for him to start telling a different story, I think. With the plot being more or less static by nature, it’s difficult to really enjoy the story being played out. Several scenes teeter on the edge of self-indulgence, and you can never shake the feeling of deja vu as you watch Takaki hopelessly pining over Akari.

Don’t let that discourage you, though, because Shinkai does enough with the material to make it worth watching. Although the story is one that we’re quite familiar with, Shinkai does take extra care in making it feel relevant to us. He excises the science fiction elements that were present in his previous works, and takes a more understated, intimate approach. The result is an amplification of the dramatic elements with little else to distract our attention.

Shinkai also addresses the underlying causes of Takaki’s depression in a direct, honest manner. What we see is a complex, realistic character whose motivations are clear to us, but hidden from the people around him. It’s because of this introversion that the events of the second segment feel all the more poignant.

Throughout the film, we are shown bits of Takaki’s life at different stages in time, and from different perspectives. I like this narrative technique because it emphasizes one of the most important motifs of the film: how people move in and out of our lives. Several visual cues help reinforce this motif, most notably the falling sakura petals to which the title refers. Out of all of Shinkai’s movies, I’d say 5 Centimeters Per Second has the strongest imagery. Every scene is an example of a mundane detail made extravagantly beautiful simply by a change of perspective, or an overlay of color. Shinkai’s world is one of transient beauty, and the bittersweet feeling it evokes is perfectly suitable for telling Takaki’s story.

Another major motif is distance, beginning with the literal distance between Takaki and Akari as they move further apart over time. The second segment introduces Sumita Kanae, who is kept always at arm’s length by Takaki. Here, Shinkai uses the imagery of the sky to create a sense of distance and insignificance; he frequently contrasts the smallness of a human being to the vastness of the sky and clouds. The Japanese space agency is mentioned as well, used in the sense of someone reaching for something extremely important but far away. The idea of distance comes out in many ways, from the letters that Akari writes to the various modes of transportation featured throughout. It almost makes the viewer feel completely destitute, as if there is no closeness in this fictional world.

The richness of Shinkai’s story mostly makes up for the fact that it is a tune we’ve heard many times before. Although I’m disappointed that we don’t learn anything new about the nature of these unattainable relationships, I still have to applaud the director for depicting it so powerfully and thoughtfully. 5 Centimeters Per Second represents a refinement of Shinkai’s methods, though only an evolutionary one.

Characters

The story begins by introducing Takaki and his relationship with Akari. The two have been close friends since childhood, but are how separated because Akari’s family chose to move. Now Takaki’s family is also moving, and the two decide to meet one more time beforehand. With this relationship, the stakes are set, and the rest of the movie is characterized by Takaki’s longing to be back with Akari. We can see that Takaki is unable to cope with his isolation, but we see far less of Akari’s perspective.

This changes their relationship; whereas it used to be one of mutual longing, we can see as time passes that Akari has been able to move on while Takaki has not. The situation becomes more complex as Kanae is introduced, and we see that she and Takaki are very similar. They both suffer from a feeling of inability, yet Takaki is to her what Akari is to him. I found this character play to be a little ironic, though I do sympathize for both Takaki and Kanae. I just wish Shinkai had used their situation to say something worthwhile. And he could have, easily, but he was more content to just let the time pass.

While we do learn more about the characters as the film progresses, we don’t see them grow or change. Kanae is unable to overcome her shyness, and Takaki doesn’t even try to let go of Akari’s memory. I can’t help but wonder what the latest advances in telecommunications would do for them. Would Shinkai be telling the same story if it included online communities and instant messaging? It’s an intriguing question. Certainly, he is aware of the effects of technology on interpersonal relationships; cell phones feature prominently in this film, but they seem more like instruments of self-deception rather than true communication.

Ultimately, Shinkai knows his audience. You could either sit there in agitated frustration wondering why Takaki doesn’t simply call her, or you could feel that the characters hit a little too close to home. Either way, it’s the characters that make 5 Centimeters Per Second work – that is if it works for you at all. To me, the completeness of their personalities is impressive, as is the genuine reliance of the plot on their relationships.

Technical

From a technical standpoint, 5 Centimeters Per Second is almost perfect. Shinkai’s animation techniques have greatly improved, and his scenic compositions are unbelievably vivid. Watching him unleash his barrage of color and detail is a treat in itself, but this time, each scene feels somehow more measured and deliberate. Of course, I don’t have to say how much the visuals enhance the story. It’s something that can’t quite be described in words.

Given the sparsity of the dialogue, there weren’t many chances for the voice actors to show much range. They did very well with the material, though, and I’d have to say the voices fit the characters nicely. The exposition is mainly done through voiceover, but even then the actors managed not to sound robotic.

Once again, Tenmon provides the score. The music is mostly unintrusive, but when it kicks in, it’s easy to get lost in just the sensory experience of the film. The music consists of simplistic piano melodies, periodically enhanced by other instruments – if you’re familiar with Tenmon’s scores, there won’t be any surprises. I was a little put off by the music video ending of the third segment, though, because it didn’t add anything to the story. Instead, it seemed like a rushed effort to conclude a movie that had used up its ideas.

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