On Mars, one of the earth’s colonies has been attacked by the aliens known as Tarsians. In response, the United Nations uses recovered Tarsian technology to make a fleet of starships that will scour the solar system – and beyond – to counter their threat. Mikako, a young student, is recruited to pilot one of the mecha that will be used in combat against the aliens. Though she is eager to help fend off the threat to humanity, she must be separated from Noboru, the one she deeply cares about. They try to retain their relationship throughout the expedition into space, but it becomes clear that distance and time will strain their connection.
Voices of a Distant Star is a compelling example of how good independent anime can be. Despite only being Shinkai Makoto’s second major work, this short OVA displays an astonishing amount of maturity and directorial keenness. Beginning with the introduction of the two main characters, Voices goes on to weave a love story across vast spans of time and space. Here is where you can see Shinkai’s single-minded devotion to telling his story as best he can, leaving us with an emotionally poignant drama that treats its science fiction elements in an intelligent manner.
Shinkai’s innovation is the way he handles the sci-fi part, using it only to escalate the anxiety of separation between Noboru and Mikako. Since Noboru and Mikako can only communicate via text messages on their phones, the distance between them becomes a huge obstacle. As Mikako goes further and further away for her duties, her messages take longer to reach earth. Shinkai brilliantly captures the tension and longing between messages, as they are unexpected and unpredictable events. The use of text-only communication increases the sense of remoteness, turning Mikako (from Noboru’s perspective) into someone intangible and unreachable.
Obviously, Voices is an allegory for long distance relationships (a common theme of Shinkai’s subsequent work). But there’s something extraordinary about the amount of skill in the writing. The main narrative is easy to pick up, and the military setting provides logical opportunities to advance the plot. Attention is given to the consequences of Mikako’s faster than light travels, which have resulted in her aging more slowly than Noboru. The age discrepancy could potentially become an insurmountable obstacle, although this angle wasn’t shown in more depth.
Find someone who has tried to sustain a long distance relationship, and they’ll point out the inherent truths featured in the anime. The only real concession I’d make, in terms of plot devices, is that the U.N. would probably not draft a girl just entering high school for a space expedition. Aside from that, all the dealings with Tarsians and spacecraft and giant robots are only there to add a few more dimensions to the core story. Voices would work just as well set in Wisconsin, and that transcendent quality is really what makes it feel so personal.
We are introduced to Mikako’s world through a symbolic representation of her loneliness. From there on, Shinkai drapes the OVA with lashings of melancholy and isolation. Voices builds to a moving, if ambiguous, conclusion that (for me, anyway) is strongly tied to the reality of Mikako’s situation. I would like to have seen more of the consequences of her relativistic journey, which could have opened up possibilities never before covered in anime. But in the grand scheme of things, this is only a minor complaint. The fine dramatic writing, backed by a logical narrative, is more than enough for a deeply affecting experience.
Well, there are only two characters: Noboru and Mikako, and neither of them are extremely complex. However, that isn’t to say they aren’t carefully made. The economy of characters makes the drama all the more relevant and intimate in this case. Shinkai chooses to put more importance on the relationships between the cast, rather than its development. The big question, from Noboru’s perspective, is whether or not he should move on with his life. For Mikako, her lack of aging puts a literal spin on her own attachment to Noboru. It’s a clever use of a relativistic principle to contrast their two worlds.
While watching, I got the sense that neither of the two wanted to face reality. There’s a sort of cognisance that they got swept up by reality, and are trying to adapt to a different world. Noboru, specifically, is forced to deal with these changes, all the while holding on to Mikako’s memory. Fundamentally, that’s the whole point of Voices, to see how far Noboru and Mikako would go to protect that hopelessly fragile, precious connection.
In that respect, the characterization is perfect. You feel that they are going against logic and common sense for the sake of each other, which is typical of teenage relations. Shinkai wrote these characters with an inescapable humanity to them, and that is what will make the audience care. It’s too easy to look at the two kids and think, “Maybe that was me once.”
The OVA’s technical production is a huge triumph, especially considering that Shinkai did it all without any professional equipment. His scenes are composed with such care and inspiration that you could say they were orchestrated. Voices draws a lot of power from its visuals, especially by elevating common, everyday settings into artistic compositions. This is done through the frequent use of contrasting colors, moods, lighting, and scale.
Shinkai’s character designs, though, are a bit crude. They are, at times, de-emphasized by his use of tight camera angles, or drowned out by the magnificent scenery. The use of CGI isn’t out of place, and helps give the action sequences a little more punch. As far as the visual design goes, Voices of a Distant Star gets it right. Unfortunately, the DVD transfer isn’t terribly sharp, and tends to mute the colors slightly.
Both the Japanese and English dubs are pretty good, although Noboru’s voice in the English dub is too deep (a common problem with English dubs). The audio production is at its finest while featuring Tenmon’s piano-driven score. The theme song isn’t bad, but the background music is great for stand-alone listening. The score is uniquely suited to the story, using variatons on a common theme to draw out feelings of sadness and nostalgia.