Voices of a Distant Star Staff Review



Flash Gordon (Anime Corner Staff Writer)


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  REVIEW (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

The electronic blips from a cell phone keypad and the cold disconnect of an automated response, “you are out of your calling area,” open the film short and accurately reflects the heart of Voices Of A Distant Star. It sets a tone of separation surrounding a “love story that transcends time and space” between two lovers with one establishing shot.

Voices Of A Distant Star ushered the arrival of director Makoto Shinkai. The film was entirely conceived, produced and animated by Makoto Shinkai. In a quiet, minimalist, cerebral kind of way, the short feature film has gradually worked its way into the consciousness and hearts of the anime nation. Rarely
does a film arrive with so little fanfare and literally leave audiences stunned by what they’ve seen and deeply moved by the sheer beauty of its production. Yet this was precisely the end result of Voices Of A Distant Star. It’s like the little film that could. A virtual unknown, Shinkai’s little independent film continues to soldier on gaining the attention of the anime world. Astoundingly he has achieved no small feat outside the mainstream of animation studios via a personal computer. His non-studio supported indie budget has single-handedly driven its success all the way to the bank while garnering critical acclaim. It continues to sell and sell and sell reaching otaku shelves the world over. Shinkai gambled in creating his vision and moved 5,000 copies initially, but ADV Films picked up distribution rights and turned production into 120,000 copies. To use an expression, this is as ‘short and sweet’ a fairy tale story as they come. It is an amazing work with deep, emotional resonance thanks to the real feelings permeating its characters all in the span of 30 short minutes. Some mainstream live-action films working from inept screenplays fail to come close to what this short accomplishes in one quarter the time. It is a gentle, understated, beautiful, quiet, poetic romance and makes exceptional use of simplicity throughout its production. It is easy to see why Voices Of A Distant Star was the launch pad for one of Japan’s finest new and inspired talents.

The year is 2046. An alien race, the Tarsians, continues its invasive objective to destroy the human race and plague the solar system. But Earth’s defense goes on offense as fleets head into the void of space in the hopes of destroying the enemy. In a nice twist, Shinkai flips expectations on its head by making his mecha-piloting hero a heroine, while her male counterpart waits back on the blue planet’s home front. He has created two fully realized characterizations in which his story centers. Lead
character Mikako Nagamine dreams of working for the United Nations and enlists into service as an ace space pilot leaving behind Noboru Terao, her one true love, so she can work for the UN Forces, piloting a Tracer in the Third Platoon to resist the Tarsians. Through time, Mikako yearns for her provincial home and the arms of Noboru. Though she cannot see him Noboru nourishes her survival giving her hope for the future as she fights. Modern day love notes in the form of e-mail text messages are sent back and forth to one another via cell phones. The electronic mail incrementally takes days, weeks, months, eventually years to reach Noboru the further she reaches into the vastness of space. The endless distance is a symbol to the strength of their growing, unconditional love. Mikako’s desire to return to him drives her. He too is lost without her. Inevitably Noboru moves on with life despite the pain, as Mikako is separated by the span of eight years. She breaks down, as any soldier would, from the ache of loneliness. “I just wanna get something to eat, at the bus stop, with you…I just wanna see him again…tell him I love him,” she cries alone in the recesses of black, cavernous space. It is an intimately romantic film surrounding two people torn apart by war, space and time and has the potential to move you to tears.

The memories nurture their survival, but their yearning desire to be together juxtaposed by their physical distance begs the question to all of us: how long would you be willing to wait? The film is underlined by substantive existential and philosophical questions. Mikako asks Noburo if the mere singular thought in and of itself of one’s existence is enough to sustain love. If it were so, it would be remember, “I am here.” That sentiment is real. Isn’t that what connects us to friends and lovers past and to those we love present? To at least know they are out there. They live, they exist still and their lives, which touched our lives, endure and transcend the physical. The connection to these people is what sustains our existence emotionally. This is the affecting power and sweet truth of Voices Of A Distant Star.

The emotive anime serves up a deft blend of 2D and 3D animation. Shinkai’s backgrounds are spectacular mirroring some of the finest matte paintings to grace live-action cinema. Shinkai’s transition to animation was quite natural as combined
his work as a graphic designer for the video game industry with his own innate talents. His keen eye for detail is striking and the beauty unveiled in the simplest things, which surround his characters, gives his auteur-like hand a certain visual style that will be easily identifiable as trademark Shinkai. He is a master of light manipulation thanks to a love of computers. His strength in animating his vision is drawn from his knowledge of technology and how to attack and utilize these resources to great effect. The coloring is lush with greens and blues and so picturesque the viewer yearns to jump into the vast world of painted watercolor-flavored vistas. Warm, soft, lush, inviting colors are awash in the memories of a beautiful ‘once upon a time;’ of things remembered lovingly. The welcoming, nostalgic, sometimes photo-real locations complement the story as Mikako and Noboru reminisce of the special places spent together. The film is loaded with many of these stills in what the Japanese often refer to as ‘pillow’ shots. The quiet and tranquil images offer a window into their world that even words need not describe: the train tracks, the skyline, a school classroom. Each snapshot is so detailed Shinkai is able to bring their world to life without uttering a word. These affecting images drive the film along allowing Shinkai to inject further emotional strength into the story. When Noboru or Mikako recall in the Japanese version [the English dub too], “summer clouds and cold rain, quiet snow, I remember good things like these,” it may as well be Shinkai speaking those sentiments. He recollects those moments strongly from his youth in the liner notes. “The distinctly prominent outline of the scenery from those times remains strongly impressed upon me. I’ve packed in as much of my feelings from those times as possible into Voices Of A Distant Star.”

As a designer Shinkai imagined mecha with some fresh concepts. Mikako appears in space inside a transparent cockpit. Externally the Tracer units harness a unique propulsive engine system that allows for quick, aggressive movements in
zero gravity in any direction. The metal chassis is backed by an automated force-field array that is initialized instantly when engaged by enemy fire. Tracer flight and defensive abilities are only rivaled by their sheer firepower from laser-generated sword and rapid-fire machine gun cannon to six motion-seeking missiles or ‘tracers.’ Shinkai’s bullet-riddled, delayed impact, Tarsian blood-spraying destruction is splendid and again simple but decisively special. The enormous biped units depart from a cosmonaut space freighter known as the Lysithea. The starships, having applied Tarsian technology, have allowed the human race to take the offensive beyond Earth with an edge. The battle intensity is heart-pounding and captured with stunning intimacy. When Shinkai’s massive Tracer units land on foreign planetary soil they lumber slowly with the kind of weight and real hydraulic power one might expect from such colossal machines. Voices Of A Distant Star suspends disbelief by giving credence to its science fiction. It feels real. The solitude and isolation feels real. If you’re engaged by off-camera dialogue, over a single shot of cel animation, then it’s a good sign this is mesmerizing stuff.

Shinkai produced Voices Of A Distant Star with a power MacIntosh G4/400 MHZ implementing Photoshop and Lightwave 3D. A number of filtering effects were applied enhancing the gentle energy of the story with blurred or grainy imaging for poignancy. Only the music, sound [exceptional work by Pastral Sound] and voice dubbing were outsourced to complete the project. One thing Shinkai teaches the aspiring artist, regardless of the desired medium, is that the tools are out there, limited only by the power of your imagination and dreams. Shinkai believes in the pioneering, independent spirit of filmmaking in anime. He is a visionary because he is free of the ties binding artists within the studio model [Gainax, Sunrise, Gonzo, Madhouse]. His thoughts are free from the notion that the well-funded studio is the only way to make expression happen. He firmly believes the studio is not an absolute or pre-requisite to success. He defies the odds by staying focused on the art and not the economics. Talent is required and something Shinkai demands of himself often being his own harshest critic. All the dreams in the world won’t make it happen. Make no mistake, execution is imperative and Shinkai has achieved an extraordinary feat writing and directing his dream. His work ethic of putting ideas into action should not be taken lightly.

The crux of great filmmaking is writing. It’s essential and must be fostered. Shinkai, Satoshi Kon, Hayao Miyazaki all deliver, not just delicious trademark animation, but strong writing. Shinkai opened with a longer feature film styled production in 2005 called The Place Promised In Our Early Days hailing additional praise. But, he won the award for Most Valuable Newcomer at the Tokyo Anime Fair. So, will Shinkai be the next Kon or Miyazaki? Time will tell, but judging by the fruits of his distinctly stylized labors, he’ll be putting his money where his dreams are for years to come.

Voices Of A Distant Star is supported by a spare, tender, ambient score by musical composer Tenmon, a friend formerly working within the gaming industry himself. Shinkai and Tenmon worked closely during storyboarding to synchronize the animation and music. “Sometimes I had to change the animation
between these lovers. The music substantially heightens the emotional impact. Tenmon’s opening ballad, “Through The Years And Far Away (Hello, Little Star)”, is eloquently vocalized by Low and is simply brilliant in its ability to capture and deliver the emotional anguish and longing tone the film has set. Rarely has a theme song been more perfect for an anime. How often have you heard a J-Pop theme track open for an anime and thought what are they saying here? Come on! Be honest, some of these songs translate into poetic gibberish. Tenmon intentionally kept things simple with a heavy emphasis on piano. He veered clear of synthesizers at Shinkai’s request due to the director’s inherent aversion to their overuse in film often leaving a dated or hollow sound in their wake. The score is one of anime’s most complementary entirely in keeping with the film’s atmosphere and thematic elements. It is one of the best anime soundtracks on the market and ideal listening beyond the anime.

The DVD offers a nice selection of extras including Shinkai’s first excursion into indie filmmaking. She And Her Cat: Their Standing Points [1999] is also a film short. It is presented in black and white and is equally attractive in its simplicity. It, too, is loaded with “pillow” stills referencing the feline’s world and the love for his owner. A shot of a cell phone must have been foreshadowing things to come. It is narrated from the cat point-of-view, which laughably looks like an exaggerated reject [along with its girlfriend] from Hello Kitty next to all of the picturesque beauty throughout the five-minute short. Like the feature presentation the short is a feast for the eyes. Just listen to the tinkle of Tenmon’s piano and gaze into the animated details. You’ll be as fat and happy as a cat. Shinkai was honored with two esteemed Japanese Grand Prix Awards for it. The short is semi-autobiographical of his own life at the time and composed on a shoestring budget
via hand-drawn illustrations, photographs and some 3D CG. Furthermore, there are three versions of Voices From A Distant Star presented here: the English dub, the Japanese dub [with professional voice actors] and the original rough, Director’s cut [alternate vocals with Japanese voice dubbing provided by Shinkai himself and his then fiancé]. An interview with the aspiring auteur lends insight into the man’s artistic philosophy, personal vision and his thriving independent spirit versus the studio system.

Voices Of A Distant Star may be an ephemeral work, but it is also an essential viewing experience. You’ve heard the cliché ‘big things come in small packages.’ This film exemplifies such an expression, but it does so with understated, refreshing technique. The animation is stimulating and the story simple yet a delight. Judging by the production here Shinkai may be destined to be a master of his craft. He articulates emotion by weaving his personal experiences and feelings into his characters’ actions and dialogue giving his anime a heightened realism. Anime writers are often accused of or branded for scripting stilted or wooden dialogue. The animation may be out of this world, while writing seemingly never gets off the ground. It is also true that productions often evolve from a groupthink model, which is common in Japan, rather than an emphasis on individual creativity, which Shinkai apparently embraces like the independently-minded, anime-crazed American. Based on evidence here, he is an exceptional storyteller, even with something as spare as the meticulous Voices Of A Distant Star. Shinkai is clearly gifted with talents in both critical arenas of writing and animating concurrently. It’s an uncommon gift to possess all these ingredients. When the Voices Of A Distant Star ride is over, you’ll want more, but it is a selfish otaku desire and such instincts must be suppressed for this film short is perfect as it exists. Sometimes ‘less is more’ [another one of those expressions], and Shinkai has unveiled this in a breathtaking anime classic. With Voices Of A Distant Star another remarkable talent is born and finds his distinctive directing voice and shines.

Mikako, can you hear me now?

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