5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND Review
For quite some time now those in the know have been declaring Makoto Shinkai the next Hayao Miyazaki. Starting with short films animated purely by himself on his home computer Shinkai has steadily built a fiercely loyal following around the globe, his fans drawn by his clean lines, attention to detail and willingness to let his character's breathe. Shinkai, like Miyazaki, is one of those very rare film makers - even more rare in the animation world - who understands that less can often be more, that the quiet moments often tell us more than any amount of action or dialog ever could, and he has an uncanny knack for capturing the pregnant pauses that open the souls of his characters. While Shinkai's latest, a triptych of interconnected stories titled 5 Centimeters Per Second, does not quite raise him to the current level of the great master it definitely represents a huge step forward and is exactly the sort of film that you would expect to come out of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli on one of their better days. Yes, though the film has its weaknesses, Shinkai really is that good.
5 Centimeters Per Second - named for the speed at which cherry blossoms fall to the ground - is made up of three stories surrounding Takaki, a Japanese boy, at three different stages of his life. We meet him when he is young, just in junior high and coping with the departure of Akari - his closest friend, a girl for whom he has developed feelings he cannot express - the year before while also preparing for his own move away from Tokyo and to a remoter part of the country. We then move to Takaki at the final stages of high school, preparing to move on to the next stage of his life and completely, blissfully ignorant of the feelings Kanae, a girl in his class has for him. Finally, we meet Takaki again as a young adult, twenty six and giving in to disillusionment.
The first two segments of the film - titled Cherry Blossom Story and Cosmonaut, respectively, provide the real meat to the affair with the final section, 5 Centimeters Per Second, feeling sadly like a perfunctory and unfinished coda. The closing act leaves you wishing that it had been something more but for the first two acts - self contained shorts, both of them - Shinkai proves to be pure gold. His animation is stunning, beautifully detailed and impeccably framed with Shinkai showing a masterful ability to mirror the emotion of his human players in his shot selections and pacing. His characters ring startlingly true, the emotional core so strong, their relationships sketched out so simply yet effectively that it could be used as a textbook example of how to show an audience your characters while actually telling them very little. Cherry Blossom Story, in particular, also shows a remarkable grasp of the editing process, Shinkai nimbly cutting between perspectives and time periods to gracefully sketch out the relationship between Takaki and Akari.
Through the first two segments of the film Shinkai's grasp is remarkable he manages the difficult feat of capturing both the flush and excitement of young love along with the nervousness and fear that it brings all the while shooting it through with the sort of wistful melancholy that comes from knowing that you can never have what you most want. It's a complex bit of work that Shinkai makes seem simple and effortless and that, in and of itself, is the mark of a true master storyteller. The final third, however, feels only half done. Akari is engaged to marry someone else and seems a little apprehensive, Takaki is aimless and drinks too much unsure of his place in the world and purpose in life. Shinkai sets this segment up very well indeed and seems poised to go some interesting, challenging and unexpected places with his characters but then, inexplicably, he opts to instead cut it into a flashback laden romantic music video. Literally. It's a bizarre decision that really takes the heart out of this section but the first two segments are so flawlessly strong that the overall experience is still a very strong success. Keep an eye on Shinkai, he is poised to become a true giant in the animation world in the very near future.
The new DVD release from Hong Kong's AVP is very strong. Like all AVP releases the packaging is minimal - though the Special Edition version comes with some lovely postcards - and the subtitles include some minor grammatical errors but the transfer is absolutely impeccable. The more I see of their work the more I become convinced that AVP DVDs consistently feature the strongest transfers of any company currently working in Hong Kong. If they've ever botched a job I have not seen it. Check the gallery of screenshots linked below for examples. Both the single disc and double disc versions feature special features but neither version includes subtitles on anything but the primary feature.