Two of Makoto Shinkai's works, Voices from a Distant Star
(2002) and 5 Centimeters per Second
(2005), will be screened next Thursday at the Japanese embassy in Cairo. To many this will be their first encounter with this captivating Japanese animator.
One could consider the work of Shinkai (born as Makoto Niitsu, in 1973), the auteur of Japanese animation, as themes of distance, time, childhood memories and loneliness. His visuals, also quite distinctive, catch sun rays blinking through train windows, sakura (cherry blossom) slowly falling into a puddle, and a bird soaring against a grandiose skyline. One of the things that Shinkai does best, is make the space that separates two people, and the fragile string that connects them, so palpable.
Voices from a Distant Star is the first video animation released by Shinkai. In this 25-minute film, the distance between a boy (Noburo) and a girl (Mikako) reaches its extreme as the girl goes out into space, through our Solar System and beyond to fight off aliens called Tarsians. Though it has some elements of the Mecha Anime – anime in which robots fight - the war is a mere backdrop to the story. The real conflict is the expanding distance between Noburo and Mikako, who are in contact through emails that take longer to arrive as she travels further into space. What keeps them going are the memories deeply engraved in their minds. They feed off these memories just to survive.
The barren lifeless planets in our Solar System heighten the deep need for human connection, but it’s the earth-like planet that Mikako encounters that makes her break down completely.
Still from Voices of a Distant Star
“It’s quite like earth but it’s not the same,” she says. There is something baffling about the notion of life elsewhere and being on a planet similar to Earth. One cannot even imagine what it would be like in such a familiar but distant place.
Shinkai's second 90-minute film, The Place Promised in our Early Days (2004), is evocative of Voices of a Distant Star, as it goes back in time to picture a Japan divided between the US and the Soviet Union.
In The Place Promised in Our Early Days, again, Shinkai manages to weave in these poetic sentiments and emotional stories with familiar anime themes like war, post-apocalyptic cities and giant robots. The film concentrates on dreams of childhood and the beauty of adolescent years but still manages to tap into sci-fi themes like parallel universes.
5 Centimeters is his best film to date. He approaches distance more realistically. The protagonist, Takaki, has to move to another city and corresponds through letters. The eloquence of the letters, along with images of everyday details, the playfulness between light and shadow and the interposition of the delicate piano soundtrack emit a highly poetic feel.
The enchantment of first love and the magical world that surrounds it sets the mood for the first part of the film. The second part, dubbed ‘Cosmonaut’, is distinguished by astounding landscape images and the overarching shimmering skyline. In its turn, the third and last part, bereft of music, captures the realistic and mundane adult life.
Still from 5 Centimeters per Second
There’s something quite entrancing about the skies that Makoto Shinkai draws, a certain vividness that draws one in. In an interview with Anime News Network he explains his special care with drawing skies: “I grew up in the countryside when I was a little kid. That was before Nintendos. The only way I could spend time was to watch the sky and the mountains; that was all I could do back then. So now I'm trying to recreate what I imagined back when I was watching these scenes, like 'I want to stand on that cloud', or maybe some monster in the trees on the mountain.”
Though Shinkai is often dubbed the new Hayao Miyazaki, an iconic Japanese animator, manga artist and film director (born 1941), their works are incomparable and are beautiful in different ways. Miyazaki creates rich fantastical worlds, while Shinkai creates new worlds out of the details of daily life.
One might find a parallel with Miyazaki in one of Shinkai's recent features, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, released in 2011. In it, Shinkai experiments with making a fantastical underworld similar to Miyazaki’s, however, it seems that the adventure genre did not work for him. The film did not evoke the same feelings as the previous ones. The plot was not engaging and it lacked that very distinctive voice of his.
It is definitely in his last 45-minutes film, Garden of Words (2013), that he regained his strength. The film revolves around a schoolboy, who meets a woman in the park whenever he skips school during rainy days. Throughout the film one can witness the gradual change in their relationship and their own growth. One can also sense his own development in creating interesting well-rounded characters. Perhaps the film needed more time because the highly emotional scenes were hurried and needed more time.
Thursday 20 March at 6pm
81 Corniche El-Nil Street, Maadi, Cairo