It’s possible that everything you’ve heard about this anime is true. For a virtually solo effort, produced on a personal computer in the director/animator/writer’s home, it is more than merely good — it’s amazing. And while it might not have all the polish of a studio production it has something else. Heart. Watching it, you want to judge it by the standards you are used to, but five minutes into it such desires are forgotten and you find yourself taken in. It plays more like a Wong Kar Wai film than any anime series you are ever likely to have seen — dominated by monologues highlighting the distance between the young lovers Mikako and Noburu, making use of portioned frame composition where large parts of the screen are just space, using long silences to give weight to the isolation the characters feel, not just from each other but within themselves.
And for such a short film, there’s a lot of weight. The main drive of the narrative — the choices we make and the ways they affect our lives — is something that is universally common, and the choices made by these people are particularly affecting. Perhaps it’s been done in other forms (and films) before, but what is refreshing about the choices here is the gentle reversal of more traditionally portrayed roles. In Voices, it is Mikako that longs for the stars and the future, her ambitions uncoloured by aggression or dysfunctionality. Noburu is the more passive of the two, letting Mikako’s choices dictate his own, until a growing sense of self-preservation forces him to make different ones.
But this is not a film that works only on this level. Noburu’s struggle with being left behind and Mikako’s isolation in going ahead also addresses human relationships in less tangible terms. The ever-present mobile phone becomes a symbol for the distance growing between the lovers and as the inevitable continues inevitably, the real issues become more and more apparent. How is it we define and value our connections with others? Does distance and time really matter and are our feelings truly dependent on them after all? It is yet another age-old and long explored question, but whereas other such explorations sometimes seem contrived in much less futuristic settings, Voices of a Distant Star is subtle and honest with a mastery not often seen.
Such mastery becomes even more visible when considering the history of this film. Even if it doesn’t come as news that the creator/director, Makoto Shinkai, produced this work on a Macintosh G4 (for the geeks out there, more specifically a 400MHz, 1GB Ram, 300GB HD using Photoshop, After Effects, Lightwave 3D and Commotion) over a period of seven months, it’s still hard to not be impressed. Coming from a background developing anime clips for games titles, Shinkai started producing independent anime in 1997 and coincidentally (or perhaps more accurately appropriately) also started winning awards, two Grand Prix awards for the title She and Her Cat that accompanies Voicesbeing among the most prestigious.
This is a director who is able to say a lot with relatively little, and in an industry saturated with titles vying for attention, he’s still able to be heard. 25 minutes counts for more than you’d think and the quality of Voices falters in not a single one. The narrative is beautifully paced and both the Japanese and English tracks border on perfect, with understated English performances lending the dub a distinctly melancholy tone. The musical score behind (by Tenmon) is at turns sweet and evocative and image integrity on the print is as professional as you’d expect from any of ADV/Madman’s releases.
An impressive achievement worthy of the praise it has received? Well, I’m not hesitant to say certainly, despite the fact that it’s hardly news that such achievements are possible (in any media industry). What makes this particular effort worthy of note is the fact that finding itself in the company of the numerous other bright lights in the anime industry, Voices of a Distant Star not only holds its own, it shines.