Review: Byousoku 5cm–The Color of Regret

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.

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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.

Just when you thought there was going to be some space travel.

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.

This scene encapsulates everything you need to know about Shinkai.

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.

Background porn.

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.”

Waiting.

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.

8 thoughts on “Review: Byousoku 5cm–The Color of Regret”

  1. “Part of me wished for more resolution and definition”

    That sums up my opinion, except if you replace “part of me” with “most of me”.

    Other than that, I recognize it’s an excellent piece of work, but I would also welcome a little more diversity in any upcoming works.

  2. Great review. I saw this at Otakon, in a chilly, crowded theater where I had to crane my head to see subtitles obscured by the heads of others. They had tried to get a 35mm print, but ended up showing a DVD; amusingly, they neglected to turn on the subtitles at first, which provoked quite a reaction from the audience. Despite the less-than-optimal viewing experience, it was one of the highlights of the con for me–worth the $50 registration fee all by itself.

    I agree that the three segments are arranged in decreasing order of quality. “Oukashou” is by far the strongest and could stand on its own without the later parts, having its own buildup, climax, and denouement. Part of me wishes it did; “Cosmonaut” and “Byousoku 5 centimeter” are almost a letdown after the sheer beauty and joy of the first part, and the ending would be more satisfying if they’d stopped after the lovers’ reunion. Still, there’s no way a thirty-minute movie with such lavish, presumably high-budget animation could get made–it’s barely long enough for a theatrical feature even with all three segments–so I’ll accept the other two parts, even if they do fall short of perfection :-).

    Also agreed that moving away from sci-fi is a net positive for the director’s development as a filmmaker, and that he’ll eventually have to move away from the “childhood lovers separated” theme as well, but having seen 5cm I am now thoroughly convinced that Makoto Shinkai has taken his place among the giants of Japanese animation.

  3. XXX, I more or less agree with you–he needs new material. :)

    Andrew F., I was originally actually planning to see it Anime Expo this year, but I was too tired and it was showing very late. I would love to see it on a big screen, which would do the visuals justice. And yes, I do think Makoto Shinkai is currently one of THE greats, alongside Miyazaki, Anno, Oshii, and Takahata (the director whose vision he is closest to, I think). Though in a way I think this film marks, or ought to mark, the end of phase 1 of his career. If he continue to grow, he will have secured his place in the pantheon.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree that this should mark a turning point in Shinkai’s career – he’s brought isolation and loneliness spectacularly to the screen but for his next movie I’m hoping he’ll do something different.

    It’s interesting that you compare his style with Takahata – the ‘new Miyazaki’ comparisons continue to irk me when the likes of this movie are more in the style of, say, Only Yesterday, which is a mastpiece of drama and nostalgia. At the end of the day though, Shinkai has nailed a style of his own that has led me to place him in my top five directors so I’m praying that he’ll use it to explore other themes as well as he has done with this one.

    The DVD can’t come soon enough – it’s out in December in the US iirc, but I’m not sure about Europe and elsewhere.

  5. I think his narrative monologues are what make Shinkai Shinkai. It’s almost like a visual novel made good turned anime, and the lines they spout are beautifully poetic, almost story-like in their essence. I wouldn’t say that they’re irreplaceable, but when I heard the first letter being read aloud in Oukashou, I knew for sure that this IS a Shinkai trademark, after his majestic sunsets.

  6. Indeed, Owen. That’s why literary analogues like Proust and Chekhov sprang so quickly to mind–so much of it working is dependent on their eloquence. Honey and Clover actually works similarly, too; most of the devastating accuracy about life is contained in the monologues. This is something more common to the short story and novel than film, which is properly a visual rather than verbal medium. Being a prose fiction writer myself, I love good writing when I hear it!

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