Review: 5 Centimetres per Second (2009)

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Yep, trying to write a synopsis for a new Makoto Shinkai anime is a thankless task. It comes off sounding like a TAFE writing course exercise veering off into high school therapy territory. But in the hands of Makoto Shinkai, a master of creating emotional landscapes, the result is entirely the opposite. There aren’t too many creators like Makoto Shinkai. He is a true iconoclast in the world of anime. He writes, storyboards and directs his projects. The content of his work also follows a very particular muse with the themes of separation, time, longing and loss continually recurring in Shinkai’s work.

These themes are at the heart of the two stories that make up 5 Centimetres per Second. Akari Shinohara and Takaki Toono are primary school classmates. Both outsiders, a tight bond develops between them and they become inserperable. Akari moves to Tokyo and the two begin exchanging letters. Akari’s letters detail the minutae of her life while Takaki’s are fewer and less detailed. Takaki organises a trip to visit Akari but a snowstorm threatens to derail their reunion. The second story takes place a few years later. Student Kanae Sumita has developed a crush on Takaki but no matter how hard she tries, she is unable to gain his attention.

5 Centimetres per Second sees Shinkai gaining in confidence in presenting his themes. Gone are the sci-fi trappings of Voices of a Distant Star and Places Promised in Our Early Days. Stripped back to their naturalistic essence increases their emotional power. In much the same way that short stories of Raymond Carver focus on the actions, inactions and contradictory behaviours of the everyday to reveal human complexity, Shinkai achieves the same finding startling beauty in the quiet contemplation of powerlines silhouetted against a sunset or snow falling a train signal. Something as simple as the constant delays to Akari’s train journey takes on huge emotional and dramatic power under Shinakai’s watch.

With the first part focussing on longing and physical distance, part two explores the emotional separation between the shy Kanae who has developed a crush on the oblivious Takaki, who has seemingly displaced his longing for Akari with an equally futile desire to travel into outer space. Kanae’s tentative attempts at courtship are ignored by Takaki. Shinkai presents this second piece soley from Kanae’s point of view. While heightening Kanae’s isolation, in denying us Takaki’s perspective, Shinkai leaves the viewer out in the cold. Even knowing Takaki’s history with Akari and his new obsession with space, his unwillingness or inability to see Kanae’s advances comes across at the very least inconsiderate and at the worst downright rude. Having Takiki express himself would have helped create the necessary emotional empathy. Instead we are left with an overwhelming desire to grab Takaki and give a good, stop moping and get over it shake.

The conclusion to 5 Centimetres per Second beautifully completes the circle returning us to the Takaki and Akari. A chance encounter that may be reverie, maybe real, gives a simple but a natural and human closure to Takaki’s longing. Shinkai’s blend of the stillness, stunning imagery and narration combines to create stories of tremendous emotional power. With this his third take on loss and separation and the themes this time so stripped back, one does start to wonder how many times Shinkai can dip into this particular well. Like the work of Hiyayo Miyazaki, Shinkai’s work presents a singular vision with storytellingh techniques uniquely his own. On these grounds alone, a new anime from Makoto Shinkai is an event not to be missed.

9 cherry blossoms out of 10.
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