Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: 5 Centimeters Per Second

It feels really weird to call 5 Centimeters Per Second a divisive movie. It's such a minor piece, only wishing to be about the distance between two people that threatens to ruin the life of one of them. I suppose that's the reason why there are so many mixed feelings here. It's here where Shinkai's bullcookie publicity as "the next Miyazaki" hit full saturation and probably where a great many people walked into his career and said, "This is it?" This is Shinkai stripped of most of his fantastical elements, leaving the core of people separated by time, space, emotion, or all three. These are the most resonant parts of his work and the most well executed, so I don't mind at all, but I imagine those who were attracted by the more grandiose sections of his oeuvre would beg to differ.

The story is broken up into 3 vignettes. The first one, "Cherry Blossom," features Takaki and Akari, two elementary school kids who are constantly transferring schools due to their parents' work. They meet in the library as sickly, lonely youth, and form a strong bond that gets them made fun of. Alas, Akari's parents transfer her to a school outside of Tokyo at the end of their elementary school, and the two are separated. They communicate through letters which are read while snippets of Takaki's school life unspools on screen. Eventually, Takaki is forced to transfer to a school even farther away from Akari, so he makes an effort to have one fond farewell by taking a long series of train rides to where Akari lives during an increasingly treacherous snowstorm.

In the second vignette "Cosmonaut," it fast-forwards to Takaki's new coastal high school from the perspective of Kanae, a rudderless girl who at is end of high school with no prospects and hasn't even been able to surf to take her mind off things for six months. Yet what she does know is she loves Takaki and the kindness he shows towards her, even when he ducks off to a hill and sends text messages to a mysterious person. Her parents are pushing her to decide what she wants to do with her life while her sister is the mediator. This is the most straightforward one, only giving the briefest glimpse to something beyond it with a few asides about a space launch that is traveling the Solar System as a metaphor for jumping into adulthood. The final short catches up with the leads in their adult lives and how their experiences have shaped them for better or worse. When it gets just enough of an idea of how they're doing, it ends cutting off a character in the middle of a monologue with musical montage from a Japanese one-hit wonder and the movie just ends. Not even joking.

At the start of my first Shinkai article, I made note to him having a massive blockbuster as akin to Terrence Malick conquering the world of public popularity, and while it was a surface-level comparison at the time, it's actually apt in some ways. "Cherry Blossom" itself seems like a visual tone poem to the world of average Tokyo high school life and later, the Japanese rail system done in those ways directors take the most mundane aspects of the world and make them glow. Even if you've seen cherry blossoms in almost every damn slice-of-life anime ever, it feels like you're looking at them for the first time. The same with train stations, snowstorms, and skyscrapers. Shinkai seems to dote on every lived-in corner and wants to show all of it (According to a couple people I know, the detail within the rail lines is amazingly accurate), which may lead some viewers checking their watches at ten minutes in. With a full production crew at last, it all looks above and beyond his previous works with a minimum of production shortcuts (There may have been one or two shots that lingered a bit too long).

The difference is Malick tends to let the original concept, its script, and its actors get away from him, and instead goes off on whatever visual tangent his muse takes him. Shinkai is far more composed and organized (Probably since he wrote the script himself). In "Cherry Blossom," the editing at the beginning is somewhat rapid with plenty of cutting between everything around Takaki's school life as he reads the letters from Akari. This shows the little bits of life Takaki is ignoring as he tries to keep up with the relationship most important to him. One of the few times they linger on him actually talking to other people is when he's wondering how far it is to where Akari's living. It's not judgmental about it and in fact, the second half of the segment is all about the huge emotional bursts that occur within these relationships, ending with the warmest one. The generic nature of the letter and their conversations do make me wonder if they were intentional either to make it more universal for the audience to relate or to underline the fact that even as they interact like they're the only two people in the world, they really don't know that much about each other. I have been in a long-distance relationship that's like the latter.

While the shorts are certainly understanding of where Takaki is coming from, it's also an empathy machine for others, as shown is "Cosmonaut." Kanae is someone who finds Takaki's general pleasantness a cruelty. That's generic fodder for melodrama like this season's middling romancer, Fuuka, but here, it feels genuine in the ways teenagers actually look past the other people in their lives for "something else." That said, "Cosmonaut" is my least-liked short. Romanticism is always a hard act to follow as the emotions are usually so unfiltered and the imagery eye grabbing. Kanae's story is fairly standard delivered with mostly realism (Though there are occasional sparks of visual flash) and tethered with a clunky metaphor about how exploring life outside of the Solar System is kind of like jumping into the adult world. It works. The revelations are simply predictable and don't connect as hard.

When I first watched the whole piece, I was speechless with how to react to the ending. It was like I was watching the movie taped on VHS and right when it got to the climax, it ran out of tape and the player stopped, going to MTV in the middle of a music video (I'm getting so old, half of you will be scratching your head at that comparison). Giving myself some distance and time, I went back again with the knowledge of the DVD supplementals that said the use of the Japanese one-hit-wonder at the end was supposed to trigger a nostalgic connection for the audience and that link was supposed to be the finale (Like using "Don't Look Back in Anger" by Oasis for people like me. My age is showing so badly right now). The lyrics and the emotions triggered by the song are supposed to be the wrap up. I can see it, and I can also see the threads of conclusion. There's a good idea of where the characters are going and definitely the proper structure built to support how they got there. I just come from a writing background where I would rather spend ten more minutes with the characters and then bid them farewell than let a song finish their story. It doesn't need a bow or a happy ending, but this seems like the CliffsNotes version of the ending and a part of me will always be angry at it no matter how much I understand.

If it did have those extra ten minutes, I would consider 5 Centimeters Per Second a minor masterpiece. Shinkai is in total control of his art form here, telling exactly the story he wants to tell how he wants to tell it. From lyrical celebration of a long-distance relationship to the muted dread of being thrown to a world the lead isn't ready for, it's not exactly an epic meant to have its greatness shouted to the hills, but it is the best of Shinkai that he's shown so far mostly distilled away from the aspects of his early works that were problematic and distracting (Ever if they were the selling points). There's nice touches down to the clever use of the title as dialogue to show the change of characters through time. It is a quietly impressive film, showcasing Shinkai's strengths and minimizing his weakness. It is also heartwarming, heartbreaking, happy, melancholy, and a celebration of love that also mourns how it can be destructive if held onto too hard. As a second feature-length film for a director, that's pretty damn good.

However, I do understand those who would find it rather underwhelming. I especially understand if you watched it first with the dub. I swear Steven Foster went into the future and got an Amazon Echo so Alexa could recite all of Akari's letters. There is a difference between underplaying emotions and NOT PORTRAYING ANY AT ALL. The robotic readings completely take the viewer out of the scene and sours the movie for its opening seven minutes. People were going to bash it for being a small movie that unwinds at a relaxed pace anyway. This is putting it on a tee for them. This number rating is ALL for the sub.


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