by Jay Seaver
I wish I'd watched and written about this movie when I actually purchased the DVD almost two years ago, since this is a great little movie that was only available on North American DVD for a lousy four months. My recommendation probably wouldn't have done much to keep it in print - I've got no delusions about my reviews having any great influence - but at least it would have been a lot easier for those who read this to act on it.5 Centimeters per Second is the second feature-length film by Makoto Shinkai, though just barely, with a length of just over an hour. It's actually something of an anthology piece told as three connected shorter stories. In the first, "Cherry Blossoms", thirteen-year-old Takaki Tono (voice of Kenji Mizhuhashi), upon learning that his parents are moving again, makes a train trip to visit best friend Akari Shinohara (voice of Yoshimi Kondou), who herself moved away from Tokyo a year ago. The second, "Cosmonaut", is told from the perspective of Kanai Sumita (voice of Satomi Hanamura), a girl on the island of Tanegashima who has a crush on high-school senior Takaki. Then, in the final segment ("5 Centimeters per Second"), we catch up with Takaki and Akari as adults in their late twenties, with Akari engaged and Takaki finding no joy in either his work or three-year relationship.
Despite the title of the second segment and the occasional use of space-related images, this is a down-to-earth story, eschewing the science-fictional premises of Shinkai's previous films. It still covers much of the same emotional territory, though - especially early on in "Cherry Blossoms", where we only glimpse Akari through the letters she writes, it's hard not to think of Shinkai's short-film masterpiece "Voices of a Distant Star" - with a focus on trying to connect across distance, whether it be physical or emotional. Here, he uses it to tell stories of first love, and how they can be joyous and tragic, and how it can either strengthen a person or become an unapproachable ideal as he or she grows older.
The stories are rooted in things that are familiar, even mundane. Shinkai and his team did extensive location scouting for photo reference, so when his characters visit a place, the location is authentic down to small details. The opening story about Takaki traveling by train from Tokyo to Akari's home in Tochigi, only to have a snowstorm cause delays that he had not figured into his itinerary, is especially pitch-perfect; it captures the combination of frustration and absurdity in the situation exactly. "Cosmonaut" is a beautiful evocation of how overwhelming the emotions of adolescence can be, both in terms of attraction and having to make decisions about the direction of one's life. The last segment is a little weaker, story-wise, featuring a number of loose threads that don't seem to come together.
At least, not in a strict narrative sense. Indeed, for the finale, Shinkai creates a music video that is almost a tone poem. It uses a sentimental song from the 1990s as the background, cutting from scene to scene at a brisk pace, with what we see combining bits from the present day, clips from the previous segments, and new shots of both. It is almost impossible to process these scenes individually - they come and go too quickly - but Shinkai does the kind of editing that most quick-cutters can only dream of managing, so that the emotions of the film can roll over the audience like waves. The musical montage is often a trite, overused device, but Shinkai turns it into something exceptional with precise attention to every second.
That shouldn't be much of a surprise - that is what Makoto Shinkai does. As with all of his films, 5 Centimeters per Second is made by a relatively small team (especially in comparison to major-studio releases) with Shinkai wearing multiple hats (IMDB has him working ten jobs). He is thus able to exercise tight control, and he uses it to create a picture that is often understated in both visual design and score, but also to do awe-inspiring things when the movie calls for them. The closing montage is just one of the most obvious examples; there are many other moments in this film that are simply sublime, such as when he opts to reduce the detail in the animation to suggest silhouettes but retain color and light, the dazzling starscapes in Takaki's and Kanae's night sky, or the beautiful, inspiring, and revelatory scene of a rocket launch.Though not full of science fiction scenarios in the way his previous films were, there's little doubt that "5 Centimeters per Second" is fantastic. I eagerly await Shinkai's next work, and I certainly won't delay seeing it.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20176&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/02/10 17:52:28