Originally I planned to do complete reviews for each of his four movies, but I soon realized it was futile. Makoto Shinkai’s works are rather hard to properly write about and my reviews were far too similar to each other. This is why I decided to instead sum up my thoughts in a shorter format (call them “half-reviews” if you want).
What I can say is that after having seen everything Shinkai has created, there is nothing but a bitter taste of disappointment left in my mouth. All those praises about Shinkai being the next Hayao Miyazaki cannot be further from my own experiences, especially as I feel that he is regressing as a director as time passes. Instead of evolving, he keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Voices of a Distant Star – 6/10
1 OVA | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2002
Yes, I know that this is technically an OVA, but personally I put it in the “movie” category when it comes to Shinkai.
The first time I saw Voices of a Distant Star was in the middle of the night back in 2007 when I was merely 14 years old. One of the biggest television channels in Sweden was holding an anime marathon from 12:00A.M. to 06:00A.M. and naturally, since I was an anime fan and this was a rare occurrence, I simply had to stay up and watch it all.
Out of every short, OVA and movie that aired, the single piece that stood out was Voices of a Distant Star. This is not surprising, considering how unique Shinkai’s works really are. The often substantial and realistically portrayed stories (either in the real world or the fictitious one) accompanied by wonderful music and visuals are honestly one-of-a-kind in the anime industry as far as I can tell. There is a clear vision of what Shinkai wants to tell and he does so without compromising his own goal, or at least that is how it comes across.
But Shinkai has always had trouble with making me feel connected to any of the characters, which is extremely notable due to all his works focusing on the characters rather than the stories themselves.
Voices of a Distant Star tells a story about two lovers literally being separated by space and time, as one of them is stuck on Earth while the other is travelling through space. Their only mean of communication is sending mail messages via cellphones, but as their distance grows, so does their lack of contact. It is a simple and perfect idea for a story, yet Shinkai misses the chance to make a heart-wrenching tale.
The problem mainly lies in the aforementioned lack of connection to the characters. We are never really shown how much they mean to each other and have to solely rely on the emails if we want to understand them. But because the emails are rather sparse and nonsensical, this does not work. In theory it should, particularly since we viewers are experiencing the same thing as the characters, but in practice is comes off as slightly hollow. I see that the characters care for each other, I understand the message, but why… why should I care, unless I have been through the same?
Another thing hampering Voices of a Distant Star is the overall production, which, especially today, is very simple and on the verge of outdated. While it is possible to ignore ugly heads and static images, it is harder to accept the poorly made CGI-scenes in space and a directing lacking a finishing touch (scenes dragging, odd scene expositions etc.). All of this is understandable since Shinkai essentially did everything by himself, but it does take away a little from the experience.
While not perfect in any way, Voices of a Distant Star manages to tell a fascinating tale in only thirty minutes. But sadly it never manages to reach any of the heights it could have had. This, however, does not mean it is bad. It is merely a missed opportunity.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days – 8/10
Movie | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2004
What marks Shinkai’s first full-length movie also remains as his best work to this date. Unlike Voices of a Distant Star’s rather simplistic production, The Place Promised in Our Early Days instead features gorgeous visuals, a breathtaking soundtrack and a much stronger directing overall. Personally, this is the movie by Makoto Shinkai.
What makes The Place Promised in Our Early Days such a success is how it is built up; divided into four distinct parts, yet flowing into each other naturally. This way of telling the story strengthens it, since we see the main characters interact with each other and grow up; making us feel the strong bond they all share.
But much to my disappointment none of the three characters grow to anything much more than the blank slates they started as. On one hand, this lowers the emotional investment. On the other hand, this increases the chance for speculation.
You see, compared to Shinkai’s other works, this one stands out in how it tells an ambitious sci-fi story about three young children and their promise to travel to a seemingly endless tower reaching for the stars. As the movie goes on, so does the characters’ lives. We see them grow up and change, while we are also sparsely given details about how the world they live in functions.
This is an interesting approach, as when I finished the movie, I still had not fully grasped the story. There were still dots to connect, details to figure out and so on. With The Place Promised in Our Early Days Shinkai managed to tell a story that is as much as an exciting journey as it is an engrossing puzzle.
If I had to summarize this movie with one word, it would probably be: an experience. From start to finish I was completely absorbed into it and the ending left me with a feeling of admiration. It is the kind of empty feeling you have after finishing something really good. The fantastic music definitely played a big part in this.
In the end, I will most likely remember The Place Promised in Our Early Days for a long time. With the exception of a few dumb irks, such as a certain character doing a complete 180 to create drama and a scene bit too magical for my taste, this is a nearly perfect movie.
If only Shinkai could make me truly care about his characters.
5 Centimeters Per Second – 5/10
Movie | Drama, Romance | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2007
As with Shinkai’s other creations, 5 Centimeters Per Second deals with human relationships, in this case two lovers being separated by distance much like his previous Voices of a Distant Star. This time, however, the story is realistic and down-to-earth. Life happens, it cannot be helped.
While this should be a splendid and tightly written story about love and growing up, it fails in the same regard the earlier mentioned Voices of a Distant Star did. Namely: the lack of connection to any of the characters.
Despite telling its story through three different parts of Takaki Tohno’s life, we never venture into his head. We do not understand his thoughts, his motivations of anything. Instead, the viewer is but an observer of what he goes through. This is where 5 Centimeters Per Second fails. I should not feel detached and apathetic. I should be one with Takaki.
Not even the most beautiful visuals and music can make up for a shallow core. It does also does not help that each of the parts feel detached, as if they were three different stories clumsily put together. Had the emotional investment been greater, or if at least some reason to care existed, this may have worked better.
When I do not even understand the characters, even though I am painfully aware of the message 5 Centimeters Per Second is trying to convey, everything goes to waste. It is a real shame.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices – 2/10
Movie | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2011
Imagine someone looking at Studio Ghibli in hope of creating something similar, but end up completely missing the point and delivering a train wreck of a movie. This is how I would describe Children Who Chase Lost Voices.
Although, to be perfectly honest, I do not entirely agree with the Ghibli comparison many have done. The similarities stop after a magical land, equally magical creatures and character designs that, with some small adjustments, could have come from any of Hayao Miyazaki’s flicks. The rest is characteristic Shinkai flair, albeit this time muddled with a severe identity crisis.
On a first glance Children Who Chase Lost Voices does not sound too bad. A girl named Asuna is about to be killed by a magical beast when a mysterious boy pops up and saves her. One thing leads to another and soon she is thrown into Agartha; a land unknown to mankind.
This is a good set-up and it also tries to tackle subjects such as death and bonding. But the lacklustre execution leaves extremely much to be desired. It is hard to understand how Shinkai, who at least were somewhat coherent in the past, could end up doing this mess.
The story never really makes any sense and Asuna’s drive, a character she had known for ten minutes disappearing for reasons unbeknownst me, is a really bad excuse for starting it. Every ten minutes, sometimes even less, we have drama cranked up to eleven even by Shinkai standard. In most cases these moments are variations of Asuna needing to be saved which does not help making the drama less tiresome after the tenth overblown scene.
There is no room to for Children Who Chase Lost Voices to actually breathe and explore its own setting. Agartha itself is never properly established and neither are the people nor the creatures that inhabit it. There is some conflict, a large kingdom and so on… but these do not matter at all. This becomes almost pathetic when none of the main characters even question or act surprised at what they are witnessing. This is because they are only there to move the already non-existent story forward.
As if to rub salt in the already fatal wound, Children Who Chase Lost Voices also suffers from a directing that I never would have guessed would come from Shinkai who is an experienced person. The movie has a lot of scene transitions and cuts which results in a very fragmented story. In one second there is a chase scene, another second it has ended and then all of a sudden we are in a town. This hurts the already unexplored setting even more! Add in the tedious drama I spoke of earlier and it simply does not mesh that well.
And this leads me to the movie suffering from an identity crisis. It does not know what it wants to focus on. The setting is not important, the story is poor and the characters are shallow. Yet Children Who Chase Lost Voices incorporates them all in a hope of achieving something. But that something never shows itself throughout the movie. Even the themes, death and bonding, are thrown out of the window towards the end as a way to squeeze out a tiny bit more drama instead of something believable.
Whether or not Children Who Chase Lost Voices was an experiment by Shinkai to try out something new or an attempt to emulate someone else’s success does not change the fact that this is a disaster. An utter disaster that makes me skeptical of his future works.