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Byousoku 5 Cm, Part 1 – the Raw Review

This shot pretty much captures Makoto Shinkai’s essence in a nutshell: light, shadows, gleam, and two kids holding hands.

It’s a strange experience, watching anime raw without knowing Japanese. But that’s how badly I wanted to see this. I saw the teaser for this film, Makoto Shinkai’s latest work, several months ago, and the combination of gorgeous backdrops, music, and fluid animations compelled me to see this the moment it was available. Even if I couldn’t understand a word of it. So this will not be the usual kind of review, where things like character and dialogue make a difference…

…and that is just as well, as far as I can tell. This is a simple story of separation and reunion, a universal tale that needs little translation or explanation in its broad strokes. I can’t tell whether the words the two characters (the girl’s name is Akari, I think) are saying are hackneyed or poetic, realistic or contrived, though if Shinkai’s past two works are any guide, they should flow fairly well. But this is a short film that invites you to say: who the hell cares, when things look this beautiful:

One early reviewer has called this “Japan porn,” and not without justification. This is ordinary life in Japan drawn in exacting detail–but with a glossy sheen over everything. I’ve visited Japan before, and it looks much less attractive than it does here. I’ve never seen so much lens flare and chiaroscuro in anime before; almost any object with a reflective surface gleams and every shot draped in dramatic shadowplay. I think it’s appropriate: the story is about that magical moment when your hopes and dreams of youth come true and even the mundane world suddenly seems imbued with life and significance. This is the way the world looks to a 13 year old in love.

Look how clean and shiny even Shinjuku train station looks. Japan is clean, but not THAT clean–I’ve been there…

Some have complained that the premise–a young couple separated by only two hours’ travel and feeling tremendous angst about it–is unrealistic, or at least stretched beyond believability. I think this is missing the point. Shinkai excels at one thing–mood–and after the slight misstep that was his feature-length film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, he has returned to creating half hour mood pieces in the vein of Voices of a Distant Star, because he knows that is what he does best. And, unless the dialogue truly blows chunks more than I know, he’s done it again. Watching without understanding the words really brought home his talents as a visual artist and that is what he should be judged as primarily.

I really would like to see Shinkai teamed up with a person who can write stories of real drama and substance–someone like Hayao Miyazaki or the writer of Fullmetal Alchemist. Shinkai is a master of what he does, but what he does is very limited–always about a boy and a girl separated by time and distance reuniting in some way. His attempt to tell a fuller story was bogged down by technical jargon and fell flat emotionally. His visual talents combined with an even more talented storyteller would create a superb work of animated art.

So can anyone tell me who knows Japanese if the dialogue is good or bad? How does it compare to Voices of a Distant Star? Am I just dreaming that it’s as poetic as it sounds? 🙂

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