First, thanks to everyone who commented and said kind things about my hiatus posts. I was pleasantly surprised to find that people still appreciated my often years-old thoughts. Y’all rock. :) Anyways, on to my first proper post since my two week virtual absence.
Long ago, when this site was still called Scattered Cels, I reviewed the raw of the first part of this film. Without understanding any of the details of the dialogue, I could still follow the story, be amazed at the lush backgrounds and lighting, and still question whether Makoto Shinkai has only one story in him to tell. Having now seen the remaining two parts, and watching the first part with translated dialogue for the first time, I have to say that my judgment hasn’t changed overall. This film is ravishing, melancholy, and at times captures like no other the texture, the color, and the perfect modulation of loneliness. I just still wonder whether that is all there is.
The idea of filming a collection of interrelated short stories, rather than a 90 minute feature film, was the right step for Shinkai to take. I think he clearly realized that short stories are his strength. The immaculately crafted perfection of Voices of a Distant Star and even his five minute She and Her Cat testify to how well he is at evoking a single mood, and feature-length developed stories can’t just be about one mood. Shinkai is all about snapshots: snapshots of light playing through the interstices of everyday life, snapshots of the moment when children run through the darkened hallways, snapshots of the opportunity one could have taken, but didn’t. You can’t do a conventional narrative feature film just on that, unless, as he chose to do here, the connections between them are relatively loose and don’t require things like second and third acts and single climaxes.
This is also Shinkai’s first step into realistic fiction, with no science fiction elements. In a way, too, he’s also very suited for this genre, and I suppose I’m one of those who think he should have made this step sooner. The sci-fi element of The Place Promised in Our Early Days was a hinderance, as large stretches were spent explaining arcane time-travel concepts rather than concentrating on what Shinkai does best: eloquent monologues (its only equal in that department is Honey and Clover) and realistic dialogue which actually sounds like ordinary speech. Voices was better, because the concept was so integral to the theme of the story, but it was also short–and I still found the battle scenes a little jarring, and not in the good way. They broke the “continuous dream” which John Gardener defined as the goal of all good fiction. This isn’t because I hate sci-fi and fantasy and only like realistic fiction, like my old creative writing teacher did. Not in the least. But I think this film, more than any other, shows that Shinkai’s strengths are best suited for that kind of story.
The first part, “Oukashou,” is still the strongest. The struggle and conflict is simple, but compelling. The images of ordinary life are startling in both their beauty and realism, evoking perfectly the pre-internet world of the late 1980s or early 1990s. The reunion and kiss at the end feel, as they say in creative writing workshops, “earned.” On its own it’s at least the equal of Voices, because the theme of reunion serves as a sharp focus that enables Shinkai to explore all the crevices and details of what loneliness feels like.
How do the other parts stack up? By themselves, I’d say they proceed in declining order of quality (though not by much). The second part, “Cosmonaut,” threatens to introduce more sci-fi elements which, again, I felt would be out of place. It doesn’t, however–it is only a metaphor–and the introduction of a new character struggling to express her buried feelings is, perhaps, common, but she is a relatively well-rounded person who has her own aspirations, dreams, and desires. (Shinkai actually explains what she sees in him!) Some of the most beautiful imagery is also here, particularly the satellite launch, and I love the way the metaphor of increasing speed–from 5 cm/s to 5 km/s, and more–is handled. The third part is the weakest, and only because I felt the music video portion didn’t work as well as it should have. The driving, seemingly upbeat song (the music, not the lyrics) felt more intrusive than Honey and Clover‘s insert songs–which I consider to be a near-perfect use of the medium–and using it to close the film was less than ideal. It may have been a way to quickly go through all the images of the past in a quick and succinct manner, or perhaps an impression of the way memories flip like a flipbook through the protagonist’s head at that moment when he thinks he sees his ex-girlfriend standing on the other side of the tracks. The theme of missed opportunities and the buildup of regret is wonderfully handled, but the story is also the thinnest in the final part. Part of me wished for more resolution and definition.
But then again, one thing about good literary stories is that they let you ponder the significance and connections yourself. They show, not tell. Shinkai does break one significant filmaking rule in that most of his films are driven by monologue rather than dialogue, but such finely crafted monologues they are! They express perfectly the sensation of loneliness, to the point where one can say–yes, I remember what that was like, or, yes, that’s exactly how I feel right now. Putting three interlocking stories together too is a strikingly “literary” move. At the risk of overstatement, this feels like reading a Chekhov anthology or a collection of episodes from Proust. The stories may have somewhat different characters and time periods, but a single voice, a single style, comes through all of them and they are of perfect emotional calibration.
The thing is, as I’ve noted before, I keep wondering whether Shinkai really only has one emotion to give us–loneliness. It’s been said that every great writer has only one story to tell, but every Shinkai story has been the same so far: childhood lovers separated by time and space. I think Byousoku marks the logical culmination of that storyline and any more stories of this ilk are just going to be treading water. I really can’t see where else he has to go. His skills would actually be perfect for telling much more adult kind of stories: not XXX kind of adult, you perv, but mature stories about grown-ups who have responsibility and have to make decisions with consequences. We start to see hints of this in part three. He could be the anime equivalent of Kryzstof Kieslowski or somebody like that if he wanted–someone who films beautiful scenes with pretty music, and can express the ups and downs of ordinary life with tremendous significance, like in his Decalogue series and in the Three Colors triology. But who knows what his next project will be.
I still highly recommend this film, or film anthology as it were. It is, as Owen put it, like sex for your eyes: nobody does backgrounds and incidental details better. The dialogue and monologues are a joy to listen to and read, if only because they are so well-crafted. The three parts work well together on the whole, and as a whole, they paint a portrait of a man full of quiet, desperate regret, the kind that at times we all feel when we catch a glimpse of the places and paths we could have traveled, but no longer can. And the only thing you can say is: “if only…”
This film is one long, beautiful sigh of “if only.”
Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances
Animation: 100%. The equivalent of a gourmet, three star meal. Has no equal outside of Studio Ghibli, and even they would kill for that kind of lighting.
Sound/Music: 85%. The most memorable theme is the piano theme that was featured heavily in the trailer. At times, it threatens to become just a little too precious, but that’s the case in all of Shinkai’s work. The closing music video song actually is a fine song on its own, but it doesn’t work as well in the context of the whole.
Story: 90%. This is not a story driven set of films; it is more character-driven, and the few characters that have prominent roles are exquisite in their loneliness and eloquence.
Overall: 88%. A must see if you love melancholy, love animation backgrounds, and love short stories. Subtract 20% if you don’t like angst and want to see your giant robots again.