This feature film, directed by a Studio Ghibli castoff and with character designs by Gainax co-founder Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, is anime’s version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–a thoughtful, touching parable with some light sci-fi elements. A few plot twists were a bit difficult to swallow, but the vivid and accurate characterization, nostalgic mood, and lovely soundtrack more than make up for it. It’s well worth your 100 minutes.
There have always been two dominant kinds of science fiction: one kind focuses mainly on cool ideas and concepts and their implications. A classic example is the work of Arthur C. Clarke, especially books like Rendezvous with Rama. Scientific accuracy, careful exposition, and attention to technical detail are hallmarks of this “hard science fiction.” But there’s always been “soft science fiction,” where character comes first and the science fiction or fantasy aspects are merely a backdrop or a means to reveal deeper truths about the characters. This film falls decidedly in the latter category, and I admit some bias, because I’ve always preferred the latter over the former.
The comparison with Eternal Sunshine is striking: both movies have relationship issues at their core. Both feature characters who are in some way trying to do a “reset” on their pasts and finding out the unpleasant consequences of doing so. However, the atmosphere of the anime film is, unsurprisingly for a Ghibli veteran, closer to the quiet Whisper of the Heart and Only Yesterday than the manic music-video informed style of Michel Gondry. I once wrote that Makoto Shikai ought to team up with a very talented dramatist, so we’d get both beautiful atmosphere and a significant story. This movie is probably the closest we’ll get to that: it combines Shinkai’s eye for accurate backgrounds and character motions with a story that is not only interesting and poignant, but meaningful. It has a weight that Shinkai’s light-verging-on-fluffy tales of reuniting young lovers lacks.
The trouble with time travel stories, of course, is that they get convoluted real quick and it’s far too easy to resort to cop-outs to solve intractable plot problems. There are two plot twists in the latter half of the film that, to me, do not quite feel earned even though they can be explained logically. They are either introduced too late or just feel too convenient. Also, the time references are also occasionally overbearing, and the time travel sequences a bit too CGI-ish for my taste. On the positive side, the movie does not choose to go with the easy ending anyway and so by the very end, I learned to overlook the plot problems and bask in the summery warmth that this film exudes so well.
The emotional power of this film sneaks up on you as well. The first half of the film is lighthearted, even goofy, and at first glance the trio of main characters don’t seem particularly distinct. Makoto, the protagonist, describes herself as relentlessly average, and her buddies Chiaki and Kousuke relatively nondescript. The film shines in the little details: the way the characters throw a baseball, the little gestures, the way they react to situations. So when the story becomes more dramatic, we have learned to care for all of them.
I really wish there were more anime like this: it’s just plain good storytelling, on par with any contemporary fantasy film, and the writing is several cuts above what we normally see in TV anime. This is one of the few animes I would be very comfortable showing to people new to anime or who are somewhat skeptical that it’s anything except gratuitous sex and violence. It’s well deserving of all the awards that it’s won and the attention it’s received on the international festival circuit: it’s a fine showcase of what anime can do that doesn’t have the name “Miyazaki” or “Takahata” attached to it.
|Anime Diet Recommended Daily Allowances|
|Animation Quality: 90% (great backgrounds, very accurate capturing of human motion)|
|Music: 85% (adds to the poignant mood, if somewhat repetitive and monochromatic. Excellent closing song.)|
|Voice Acting: 90% (the voice actress for Makoto is superb and captures her spunky, carefree, and caring character very well)|
|Story: 95% (all but perfect; plot twists questionable, but defensible)|
|Overall Anime Deliciousness: 93%. An outstanding piece of work.|