5 Centimeters Per Second
Takaki Tono befriends Akari Shinohara when she transfers to his elementary school. The two quickly become close, but when the two graduate, Akari is forced to move again because of her parents' jobs, and Takaki soon discovers that he will also be moving to a place where the traveling distance will prevent the two from seeing each other at all. The film contains three segments, the first of which depicts their initial friendship and separation, the second of which depicts Takaki's lonely high school life, and the last of which depicts their respective existences as young adults, all tied together by observations on memory and the slow march of time.
Makoto Shinkai's talent rests in his distinctive style of computer animation and in his ability to allow an audience to experience the same feelings of nostalgia and longing that his characters almost invariably do. His style is hard to mistake, and while his works lack a firm intellectual focus or strong character development, I, like many other anime fans, have enjoyed the experience brought about by his combination of breathtaking astral vistas, wistful narration, and lovelorn protagonists. And yet after one has seen a director make a movie whose underlying theme and tone are too similar to too many of his other works, one desires him to challenge himself and use his talent to take cinematic risks. 5 Centimeters Per Second, Shinkai's 2nd feature film, spends part of its run polishing his previous formulae to near perfection and then collapses under weak character development and an unsatisfying ending, and yet, more than anything, its problem is that its entirety speaks complacency. For as moving as parts of this movie are, the fact remains that Shinkai has told the same story of separated lovers in all of his movies and OAVs, and his frustrating lack of diversity as a director eventually causes 5 Centimeters Per Second to wear thin in spite of its still-considerable merits.
If there is one consistency that's welcome in Shinkai's repertoire, it's the brilliance of his art, and in 5 Centimeters Per Second, he continues to use expansive vistas and bright, detailed starscapes to give an appealingly ethereal sheen to scenes such as train rides across snowy plains and summer evenings spent walking down remote country roads. His color scheme is permeated by a warm but lonely quality that no other filmmaker achieves, and the contrast between the sheen of the bright, cherry blossom-filled days in which the protagonists appear as friends and the cold and alien glow of the snowy wilderness Takaki travels through during an attempt to reconnect are essential to highlighting the story's progression. It's a film in which I felt reminded of Earth's beauty and inspired by one person's interpretation of that beauty and its perception, and even the least interesting moments were, to some extent, saved by its incomparable visuals. Meanwhile, the majority of the musical score is performed by Tenmon, a friend and frequent collaborator of Shinkai's whose piano and light orchestration merge beautifully with the soft-spoken dialogue. 5 Centimeters Per Second remains as kind on the senses as any of Shinkai's other works; it really is worth watching for the sights alone just as even the briefest visit to the San Fransisco Bay Area might be to catch sight of the majesty present in the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding ocean and mountains.
For part of its run, 5 Centimeters Per Second works almost perfectly, bringing forth a stripped-down version of the sentiments present in his past films and nearly escaping some of their limitations. Aside from a single oblique reference in the second segment, the science fiction of Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days is absent from this film, in which Shinkai's characters appear in what could very well be our own version of Japan. Shinkai's films have always drawn his story from his characters' experiences and emotions instead of their personalities, with his characters usually being likable but a bit bland, and whereas, for example, the sometimes-overbearing and confusing alternate history of The Place Promised in Our Early Days falters a bit with the agency of characters who don't seem quite capable of handling it, the simple storytelling of 5 Centimeters Per Second works because of its newfound lack of pretentiousness. His style of simple and heavily symbolic stories filled with long, wistful monologues thrives with the newfound freedom to relax, the story gaining a further dimension of poignancy in its accessibility to the audience. 5 Centimeters Per Second is an emotional film rather than an intellectual film, its musings being observational rather than truly philosophical, but the stark simplicity moved me at several points in spite of everything, and the fact that the main characters have a considerable amount of time together before being separated also aids the movie's intent. The first segment of 5 Centimeters Per Second is thus lightly touching and rather charming to watch, with Shinkai's pedestrian characterization being made up for by the empathy that his directorial skill so successfully evokes in the viewer.
It is in the latter parts of the film, unfortunately, where the problems begin to emerge. As Shinkai's story inevitably separates its characters, it breaks the link between them that makes their story interesting to watch, and while it is still possible to sympathize with them, a great deal of the film is spent in meandering. It's at this point that Shinkai's recurring traits become tiresome: his brooding male lead boring instead of intriguing, a recurrent secondary theme of fulfilling one's vocational and recreational dreams even less relevant than it was in his other films, and the monologues distant and disconnected as the film's story continues with no clear direction. An attempt at introducing a third character, Kanae, who arrives during the high school years depicted in the second segment, buckles as the plot simultaneously over-emphasizes her importance and fails to give her time to develop as a character. Her presence seems designed to give third-person perspective to Takaki's loneliness, but as the audience automatically has this already, her relative uselessness outside of this function and Shinkai's failure to enliven her as a distinctive personality render her role inconsequential by film's end. Indeed, a good chunk of the film is spent on her and a secondary romance that never flowers nor even reaches any sort of confrontation, with hardly any of it feeling relevant to the ultimate outcome of the movie and the two main characters experiencing no particular development (or even having much dialogue) for the majority of the film's run. Without spoiling the ending, meanwhile, I will say that I found it to be vaguely unsatisfying, with the key moment being well-scripted but brought down somewhat by an overuse of dual-narration and the ultimate result leaving me a little colder than I've been used to after seeing Shinkai's movies. There's a montage of scenes from the entire movie that caps the story well, but by this point I unfortunately found it too easy to feel cynical and too hard to feel enraptured after my frustration had built up.
5 Centimeters Per Second is a film I liked but didn't love, one in which my patience for Shinkai's occasionally questionable narrative choices wore a bit thin as I watched his same basic plot unfold yet again and suffer from some misguided deviations in the movie's middle section. There's a part of this film that I quite enjoyed and that stands on its own rather well, but I found the rest of it to be a bit of a mess in everything besides the artistic department, and at this point in Shinkai's career, I really wouldn't mind him being a bit more willing to take risks. I've seen the man step out of his niche a few times: as his entry to the Ani*Kuri15 anthology shows, he's actually more capable of inciting laughter than I would ever have guessed, and his featurette She and Her Cat (one of his earlier works) benefits from a complete lack of plot, drama, or pathos of any sort and rests comfortably as a sort of cinematic tone-poem. I'd like to not be the one knocking his rapidly-rising reputation down as over-hyped, and while his talent as an artist remains important, he's given the slightest hints of the versatility needed to secure his reputation. The problem is, 5 Centimeters Per Second doesn't really show it.
While I loved a sizable chunk of this film and can't say I actively disliked much, it's time that Makoto Shinkai tried something different. Those who may be a bit less reserved in their praise of his work than I am may add a star. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: There's no violence, sexual content, profanity, or drug abuse to be seen, although the tone, subject matter, and slow pace of the film will make it more appealing to teenagers and adults than most children.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (1/1)
5 Centimeters Per Second © 2007 Shinkai Makoto
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