Monday, April 11, 2011

Voices Of A Distant Star

"I just gazed at the passing clouds and the star-filled sky, and thought, 'These problems of mine are small things not worth taking note of in this world... I have a feeling that I am alone in this vast world, but I am here.'" -Makoto Shinkai [sleeve notes of Voices Of A Distant Star]-

Can you hear me now? The electronic blips from a cell phone keypad. The cold disconnect of an automated response. “You are out of your calling area.” These feelings of isolation and distance accurately reflect the heart of the film short Voices Of A Distant Star [2002]. Establishing shots and images speak volumes about the film's intentions.

The use of pillow shots in anime is one of my favorite aspects of the genre. Love those powerlines!

There is a tone of loneliness surrounding this “love story that transcends time and space” between two separated lovers. Director Makoto Shinkai knows how to manage an image and utilizes each passing frame of his short film to great effect building upon each moment with new emotions.

Voices Of A Distant Star was the film that truly ushered the arrival of Shinkai following his everso brief five minute opus She And Her Cat [1999; included on the DVD for Voices Of A Distant Star]. He would move on to lengthier storytelling with similarly stunning visual results in the ambitious The Place Promised In Our Early Days and even more beautiful 5 Centimeters Per Second. These films, beginning with Voices Of A Distant Star, were entirely conceived, produced and animated by the creative mind of Makoto Shinkai. In a quiet, minimalist, cerebral kind of way, the short feature film had gradually attained notice in the world of anime. Rarely does a film arrive with so little fanfare, yet leave audiences stunned, affected or moved by the sheer beauty of the production before them. This was precisely the effect of Shinkai's Voices Of A Distant Star. It was like the little film that could. The effort is a shining example of the kind of meticulous craftsman Shinkai would prove to be. A virtual unknown, Shinkai’s little independent film continues to soldier on gaining the attention of anime fans the world over.

Astoundingly Shinkai has achieved no small feat handling his own chores outside of the anime mainstream [if there is such a thing]. Shinkai has forsaken the big studio route in favor of a personal computer on Voices Of A Distant Star. Miraculously, his non-studio supported indie budget has single-handedly driven his success all the way to the bank while garnering across-the-board critical acclaim. Shinkai gambled in pursuing his vision and moved 5,000 copies initially, but ADV Films picked up distribution rights and turned production into 120,000 copies. The result is a short and sweet love story for dreamers.

It is an amazing, mighty little work with deep, emotional resonance thanks to Shinkai's attention to the spare, simple, beauty in character and an accompanying mood, emotion and atmosphere. It's a great example of achieving great things with a simple approach. It is a gentle, understated, pretty, quiet, poetic romance and makes exceptional use of Shinkai's singular focus. It is easy to see why Voices Of A Distant Star was the launching pad for one of Japan’s finest new and inspired talents.

The year is 2046. An alien race, an alien race, the Tarsians, are intent, persistent and unrelenting in their efforts to destroy the human race and plague the solar system. Earth’s defense is on offense as fleets head into the void of space in the hopes of destroying the enemy before reaching Earth.

Shinkai, like the great Hayao Miyazaki for whom he is tiresomely compared, establishes a heroine in the lead as his mecha-pilot. The female combat pilot has certainly been firmly established in series like Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion with heroines anchoring works like Major Motoko Kusanagi in Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell. This turn is certainly not new to anime, but Shinkai takes a more emotional, tender route in his direction and style. It is distinct and certainly what sets him apart from others. His story centers on two fully realized characterizations. Lead character Mikako Negamine always dreamed of working for the United Nations and enlists into service as an ace space pilot. She leaves behind Noboru Terao, her one true love, so that she may join the war effort and pilot a Tracer in the Third Platoon to resist the Tarsians' offense. Her male counterpart waits back on the blue planet’s home front. The male/female juxtaposition is an interesting twist when considering the concept of spousal separation during wartime particularly during World War I or II when women often remained on the homefront.

Through time, Mikako yearns for her provincial home and the arms of Noboru. Though she cannot see him Noboru nourishes her survival giving her hope for the future as she fights through electronic communications. Modern day love letters in the form of e-mail text messages are sent back and forth to one another on cell phones. Incrementally, the electronic mail takes days, weeks, months, eventually even years to reach Noboru the further Mikako reaches back into the vastness of space. The endless distance is a symbol to the strength of their growing, unconditional love. Mikako’s desire to return to him drives her. He too is lost without her. Inevitably Noboru moves on with life despite the pain, as Mikako is separated by the span of eight years. She breaks down, as any soldier would, from the ache of loneliness. Shinkai is a master of manipulating emotion and his writing is clearly from the heart. It would be a quality he would cultivate further in later films.

I just wanna get something to eat, at the bus stop, with you… I just wanna see him again… tell him I love him,” she cries alone in the recesses of black, cavernous space. It is an intimate, romantic film surrounding two lovers torn apart by war, space and time. The memories nurture their survival, but their yearning desire to be together juxtaposed by their physical distance begs the question to all of us: how long would you be willing to wait for someone? Could you do it?

The film underlines these substantive existential and philosophical questions. Mikako asks Noburo if the mere singular thought in and of itself of one’s existence is enough to sustain love. If it were so, it would be remember, “I am here.” That poetic sentiment is real and is at the heart of Shinkai's short picture. He conveys real feeling in this mighty little film better than many in recent memory. Isn’t that sentiment, the knowledge of existence, what connects us to friends and lovers past and to those we love present? To at least know they are out there and they live. To know they live and they exist still and that their lives, which touched our lives endures somehow transcends the physical. The connection to these people is what sustains our existence emotionally. This is the affecting power and sweet truth of Voices Of A Distant Star and Shinkai understands this depth of emotion inherent in human nature. He knows how to deliver it through film in image, character and music.

Visually, Shinkai serves up a deft blend of 2D and 3D digital animation. His matte-like backgrounds are spectacular. The director's transition was quite natural moving from his exposure within the graphic designer world of the video game industry to animation easily. His keen eye for detail is striking and beauty is unveiled in the simplest things. He is a master of light manipulation thanks to a love of computers. His strength in animating his vision is drawn from his knowledge of technology and how to attach and utilize these resources to great effect.

The coloring is lush with picturesque greens and blues. It's like the vast world of a painted watercolor-flavored vista come to life. Warm, soft, inviting colors are awash in the memories of a beautiful once upon a time; of things remembered lovingly. The welcoming, nostalgic, sometimes photo-real locations complement the story as Mikako and Noboru reminisce of the special places spent together.

The film, like his first short She And Her Cat, is loaded with stills in what the Japanese often refer to as pillow shots. The quiet and tranquil images offer a window into a character's world that even words need not describe: the train tracks, the skyline, a school classroom. Each snapshot is so detailed Shinkai is able to bring the world of Voices From A Distant Star to life without uttering a word. Artists like Hayao Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno have employed similar effects in their works to great effect. These artists offer some of the best anime has to offer. These affecting, simple images drive the film along injecting further poignancy into a story.

When Noboru or Mikako recall, “summer clouds and cold rain, quiet snow, I remember good things like these,” it is Shinkai speaking those sentiments. He recollects those moments strongly from his youth in the liner notes. “The distinctly prominent outline of the scenery from those times remains strongly impressed upon me. I’ve packed in as much of my feelings from those times as possible into Voices Of A Distant Star."

Shinkai's auteur-like hand often evokes the power of a gifted filmmaker like Hayao Miyazaki often striking the comparison. Three films later the comparison has become tiresome and cliched. He offers something entirely his own just as the late Satoshi Kon, too, was a unique visionary. There are certainly plenty of wonderful trademarks to look forward to from Shinkai, but before he is annointed the next Miyazaki let's see a little more than a couple of films.

As a designer Shinkai imagined mecha with some fresh concepts. Mikako appears in space inside a transparent cockpit. Externally the Tracer units harness a unique propulsive engine system that allows for quick, aggressive movements in zero gravity. The metal chassis is backed by an automated force-field array that is initialized instantly when engaged by enemy fire. Tracer flight and defensive abilities are only rivaled by their sheer firepower from laser-generated sword and rapid-fire machine gun cannon to six motion-seeking missiles or tracers. Shinkai’s bullet-riddled, delayed impact, Tarsian blood-bursting destruction is splendid, simple, but decisively special. The enormous bi-ped units depart from a cosmonaut space freighter known as the Lysithea. The starships, having applied Tarsian technology, have allowed the human race to take the offensive beyond Earth. The battle intensity is heart-pounding and captured with staggering intimacy. When Shinkai’s massive Tracer units land on foreign planetary soil they lumber slowly with the kind of weight and real hydraulic power one might expect from such a colossal machine. Voices Of A Distant Star suspends disbelief by giving credence to its science fiction. The mechanisms feel real just as the solitude and isolation feels real. The sense of physical and emotional realism infuses the film with depth.

If you’re engaged by off-camera dialogue, over a single shot of cel animation a la Neon Genesis Evangelion, then it’s a good sign you'll revel in this mesmerizing play. Shinkai produced Voices Of A Distant Star with a power MacIntosh G4/4000 MHz implementing Adobe Photoshop 5.0 and Lightwave 6.2 3D CG. A number of filtering effects were applied enhancing the gentle energy of the story with blurred or grainy imaging for touching scenes. Only the music, sound [exceptional work by Pastral Sound] and voice dubbing were outsourced to complete the project. One thing Shinkai teaches the aspiring artist, regardless of the desired medium, is that the tools are out there, limited only by the power of imagination. Shinkai believed in the pioneering, independent spirit of filmmaking in anime. His work is free of the ties binding artists within the studio model [Gainax, Sunrise, Gonzo, Madhouse]; a new wave of anime filmmaker. The notion of the well-funded studio as the only way to bring creative expression to fruition is no longer true. He understood the studio was not the pre-requisite absolute to success. He focused on the art and less so the economics. Make no mistake, execution is imperative and Shinkai has achieved an extraordinary feat in writing and directing his dream. For more on this process, storyboarding, the making of, reflections by Shinkai, an interview with Tenmon and an explanation of terms be sure to grab the exclusive Voices Of A Distant Star/ The Place Promised In Our Early Days.

Speaking of Tenmon, Voices Of A Distant Star is supported by a spare, tender, ambient score by the musical composer, a friend formerly working within the gaming industry himself. Shinkai and Tenmon worked closely during storyboarding to synchronize the animation and music. “Sometimes I had to change the animation between these lovers." The music truly underscores and heightens the impact of the film. Tenmon’s opening ballad, Through The Years And Far Away (Hello, Little Star), is vocalized by Low and effectively and beautifully captures the emotional anguish and longing tone of the film. Sometimes J-pop theme songs can sound like poetic gibberish, but not here. Tenmon intentionally kept things simple with a heavy emphasis on piano. He veered clear of synthesizers at Shinkai’s request due to the director’s inherent aversion to their overuse in film often leaving a dated or hollow sound in their wake [Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind]. The score is entirely in keeping with the film’s atmosphere and themes.

Ultimately, the crux of great filmmaking is writing. It’s essential and must be fostered in young artists. Shinkai, Kon, Miyazaki, Anno all deliver, not just delicious animation, but strong writing. Voices Of A Distant Star is essentially a training ground for Shinkai and his writing strenths would be more pronounced on his more recent works, The Place Promised In Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second.

Shinkai even won the award for Most Valuable Newcomer at the Tokyo Anime Fair. So, is it fair to compare Shinkai to Kon or Miyazaki? Time will tell, but judging by the fruits of his distinctly stylized labors, he’ll be putting his money where his dreams are for years to come.

Voices Of A Distant Star may be short, but it is an essential viewing experience. You’ve heard the cliché big things in small packages or less is more, well here it is. With Voices Of A Distant Star another substantial talent is born, finds that distinct, director's voice and shines. Are you still out there?

Voices Of A Distant Star: A

Writer: Makoto Shinkai

Director: Makoto Shinkai

DVD Extras: The film short She And Her Cat: Their Standing Points [1999] is included. It is presented in black and white and is equally attractive in its simplicity. It is loaded with pillow stills referencing the feline’s world and the love it has for its owner from the cat's point-of-view. The short is a fancy feast for the eyes. ;) The gentle strike of Tenmon’s piano is a highlight once again. Shinkai was honored with two esteemed Japanese Grand Prix Awards for it. The short is semi-autobiographical of his own life at the time and composed on a shoestring budget via hand-drawn illustrations, photographs and some 2D/3D digital animation.

Several cuts of Voices Of A Distant Star are enclosed including a Director's Cut with voice work from Shinkai himself and his then fiance. An interview lends insight into his thriving independent spirit versus the studio system.


le0pard13 said...

Based on your wonderful screencaps and clips alone, I need to see this one. Fine examination, SFF. Thanks.

SFF said...

It's indeed a short, sweet, beautiful little work. His animation improves with each new release.

Interestingly, I did check out the director's Place Promised In Our Early Years film and, while beautiful, was a little sidelined by a bizarre story for the second half that didn't quite work for me.

I'm going to check that one out more closely. But I'm definitely more inclined to thing his third film may be the best. We'll see.

Will said...

This looks really awesome. I will seek it out. The visuals are beautiful.

If you were to only have one more choice of the director's films, which would it be (and I'll seek that out as well)?

SFF said...

Hellllloooo! Will!

Yes, if I had to pick. I think 5 Centimeters is the one to go with. It's available. It's affordable. It's the Director's best. I'd go with that one first. It's incredibly sad but beautiful.

I'll get things sorted out when I return. I like this new site of yours my friend. Best of luck with it. I will get you added to my site when I get back. Cheers.