Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: Voices of a Distant Star

Despite owning every domestic release of Makoto Shinkai's work, I am one of the most surprised he has the #1 grossing movie in the WORLD (As far as the relatively calm box offices of January-February 2017 are concerned). Don't get me wrong, he is an amazing talent with vision and skill, but anybody who tells you he's the next Miyazaki is just pandering for your attention or trying to get you to buy something. But this isn't yet another article on how nobody's the next Miyazaki and it's just weightless buzz for a niche market trying to get all the money it can find. For all he does well, his anime doesn't scream massive mainstream hit machine. Even though his early work is mostly done by himself (Almost literally), his features have a split focus many times between its awesome ideas and what the movies are really about. His deliberate pacing and need to take in every bit of setting is not ideal for pleasing massive audiences. It's kind of like Terrence Malick having the #1 movie in the world. The guy's a helluva filmmaker, but he doesn't exactly bring all the boys to the yard.

So, since now seems to be an opportune time and frankly, I've got nothing in a pipeline except a very long, very depressing (but important!) essay on Texhnolyze, I'll take a look at Shinkai's work leading up to Your Name. First on the list is his breakout short Voices of a Distant Star, which was written, produced, directed, animated, storyboarded, character designed, and edited all by the man himself. Hell, there's a "director's cut" with alternate audio where Shinkai and his fiancee play the leads (This was a more temporary voice track than ADV's feature list on the DVD would lead you to believe. It was made to set things like the lip flaps until they could get more professional audio). February marks the 15th anniversary of its original release, so hey, good timing!

Voices of a Distant Star starts in the year 2046. Noboru and Mikako are close friends with a possible deeper connection. Noboru wants to gets into the same high school, clubs, and classes, but this is not to be as Mikako drops a bomb that she's been selected to join a U.N. space task force to investigate and confront aliens known as the Tarsians. The aliens completely annihilated a settlement on Mars and Earth is looking to respond. Mikako pilots a mech attached to an interstellar ship the Lysithea, capable of long-distance warp jumps.

She communicates with Noboru via a cell phone that has amazing signal, able to send text mail millions of miles away. The distance between them grows and so does the time between messages, at first days, and eventually, a year. The waits wear on Noboru, who becomes adrift, crashing out of school with nothing in his life except waiting by the phone.

Shinkai's visual trademarks are obvious from the get-go. A DVD insert includes some comments from the director, stating, "Around the time I was Mikako and Noboru's age, I have the feeling that I was always look up at the sky." It shows in this short, portraying gigantic skies and complex clouds beautifully organized and contrasted with space and the planets Mikako visits. Also becoming director trademarks is how even in something with a limited running time, it takes the time to soak in the surroundings. Whether this a bi-product of Shinkai needing to limit human animation for this undertaking, there are constant cuts to the world around the characters and information handed off to the audience in newspapers and text messages. Most of it involves classrooms and the boring details hit with a shot of nostalgia to make them artful. In my latest viewing, I especially caught how color is used to show Noboru's graying life and the fantastical places Mikako winds up. The rain is a sticking point, being a part of a pivotal moment for the two and triggering an important memory, but there is only a rain effect for the foreground with no depth to it, even with the backgrounds attempting to hide it. The 3D CG is one of the most infamous aspects at not aging well and it hasn't here, but I'm willing to cut one guy doing everything outside of audio a little slack.

The characters' looks and animation are a bit of a different issue. Just pay attention to Mikako's eyes. In a five-minute period, they're huge, they're average-sized, they're off-centered, they're fine. It's all over the place as far as consistency. Expressive and elastic faces are a trademark to anime, but the style here is more realistic so the change in proportions is distracting and odd. Noboru has his moments as well, as some of his dialogue gets a severe case of sidemouth disease. Animating the human body is one of the most difficult things an artist can do and it's a thankless task. If you make it look good, the audience either doesn't notice or accuses the makers of some kind of shortcut cheat like it's the worst thing in the world. If it doesn't, it is NOTICEABLE. Probably the reason why Shinkai keeps the editing moving with plenty of shots of scenery.

Eh, I can certainly forgive one guy having some animation troubles on what is otherwise a very visually complex 25 minutes. What causes the short to stumble is the story, mainly the second half. Voices of a Distant Star is sold as and I imagine would generally be taken as a literal star-crossed lovers yrn where characters take the weakness of being so far apart from the person most precious to them and turn it into strength and motivation. It deviates somewhat from Shinkai's intentions of making a feature about taking the emotional problems of an adolescent and blowing it up into the scope of how intense their emotions actually feel. Either way, when the story evolves into actually involving the aliens, the pure emotions it's trying to convey gets muddled with plot that brings far too many questions than the short can handle.

In shorts, the most successful ones that come to mind are titles like Pixar's "Paperman." They generally have a universal point and most of it is directed at delivering an emotional payload related to it. What early Shinkai has a problem with is his details tend to get in the way of his emotions. In the case of Voices of a Distant Star,  I'm plagued with all sorts of questions that distract from the characters and their plights. Most prominent of all is why is one of the U.N.'s first moves in investigating the aliens drafting 15-year-old girls into a dangerous expedition? I realize teenagers fighting intergalactic wars is a common thing for anime, but the stories themselves generally give decent reasoning for it. Here, they just toss a girl with good test results into space as one of the essential defenders of their starship. I look forward to all of your reasons and why I am stupid for thinking a civilized organization would do everything possible before sending children (legally, children) into deep space with the specific task of manning the vehicles that fight the aliens should they show up. Make her help out with the scientists and have her get involved with battle because they have no other choice or something.

I get it. It's a metaphor. Mikako tested better than Noboru, so she's going to a better school with larger challenges, and this is the representation of how huge her issues feel to her while Noboru's challenges are feeling left behind and feeling like his life is taking a slow descent into rock bottom. But these metaphors aren't clean, and worst of all, distracting. The antagonists are the usual early 2000's aliens/inter-dimensional creatures/whatever where the creator feels non-committed to their actual nature but still wants them to have a vital role. I get the feeling the aliens here represent the struggles that cause isolation in teenage life. The two times they interact with Mikako, the first tries to restrain her in a cage and the second causes her to revert into her mind and talk with a figure of herself. I could also be way off. I'm used to ambiguous Japanese writing and I like quite a bit of it as it gives the viewer a chance to put their own stamp on the story, but this feels like there's something unfinished in the middle of the work that prevents it from fully connecting. The ending of Voices of a Distant Star certainly has a clear message it communicates before the end, but the journey to it gets crossed up and I don't feel the the stir of emotions that maybe I should because of these sidetracks.

Of course, quite a few disagree with me and I do hear about it when the subject gets brought up. I think most of us can agree the dub was completely mangled, though. Steven Foster is a dub director who constantly puts his ego ahead of the project and while there are projects he has done that have been successful (Le Chevalier D'Eon manages the feat of having people use all American accents in a time and place where it wasn't common and not having it feel out of place, which some of my favorite shows like Maria the Virgin Witch struggle with), the more solemn and earnest the project, the more likely he will ruin it. Boy, is Voices of a Distant Star earnest and solemn.

He starts by completely changing the opening monologue from the meaning of the word "world" to working a really dumb phone metaphor into the dialogue. The script makes Mikako working on a different emotional level in certain scenes. She's passive in the Japanese version for one scene because she has just learned she's been selected for the mission and has to figure out how to tell Noboru. In the Foster dub, it makes it seem like she's lost family in the attack or something. There are attitudes in certain scenes that just strike the wrong note, like Mikako going into badass mode whenever she's fighting the aliens. Even Shinkai's temporary track where he is talking way too fast for the proper delivery is better than that because at least he knows what ballpark he's in. This is an extremely visual work with plenty going on within the frames and very quick editing, so having a dub that clears up the screen to soak them all in would be extremely helpful. This is not helpful.

Regardless of whether or not it totally works, this is more than a simple demo reel of what's to come. It's a genuine attempt at expression that is at least skillfully executed on a visual level despite some character animation hiccups. Just as a movie about young love being separated by distance, Shinkai's later 5 Centimeters per Second completely overshadows this on the subject, and the second half doesn't quite clear the way for a successful ending for everything else. I harbor no dislike for Voices of a Distant Star. However, as a person who's now watched this five times (three times alone just for this review), my reaction hasn't changed even when having a better grasp on the project. It's something I respect far more than I actually enjoy. Next we'll see how Shinkai's work expands when he gets the money and resources for his first feature-length project, The Place Promised in Our Early Days!


Popular Posts