Sometimes I feel like a psychic angel of death when it comes to anime directors. While I realize that expression makes me sound like the leader of some Southern California-based doomsday cult I ask that you reserve judgement until hearing me out. The first anime director man-crush I ever had back in the '90s was Studio Ghibli's Yoshifumi Kondo due to his stunning directorial work on Whisper of the Heart, not to mention many other titles. He died of an aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 47. Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress director Satoshi Kon then became my next favorite. He died last month of cancer at the age of 46. Pulling up a close second behind Kon, I have a great admiration for up-and-coming director Makoto Shinkai, but am reluctant to make any official statement of favoritism lest the spiteful gods grant him gangrene in all four limbs. He is, however, pretty damn awesome.
Shinkai made a huge splash in the anime world back in 2002 with the release of Voices of a Distant Star, a title that he wrote, produced and directed in seven months all on his own using readily available animation and editing software. As if creating this work solo wasn't impressive (not to mention inspirational) enough, the end product was also really, really good. He followed this up in 2004 with the feature-length sci-fi drama The Place Promised in Our Early Days and the results were again fabulous. In 2007 Shinkai moved away from sci-fi and worked with a full animation staff to produce 5 Centimeters Per Second, a pure drama in three parts that focused on love, distance and the inexorable march of time. During last week's J-Pop Week in San Francisco I was fortunate enough to attend a theatrical screening of the film sponsored by Crunchyroll at the New People theater and boy, did it ever put me in a state for the rest of the evening.
Along the way we're treated to some of the most gorgeous animation and background artwork I've ever seen. Though it employs few fast-paced scenes (people running, a little surfing, etc.) the footage was still remarkably fluid and smooth, with the scenery damn near photo-realistic in urban settings and imbued with an almost watercolor painting feel when nature is the backdrop. One scene in particular struck me as especially well done: Takaki's first act train ride to visit Akari. Stuck on a snow-delayed rural train outside Tokyo the teen's anxiety and helplessness as he plods toward his destination, hours overdue, is palpable. The desolation outside the train's window makes the journey all the more nerve-wracking. Just one example of consistently good story and art direction.
THE VERDICT: 5/55 Centimeters is a masterpiece not only of animation, but of dramatic storytelling as well. It's short, but (bitter-)sweet three-part character-driven tale has to the power to inspire as much as send you into an introspective spiral--and despite how it sounds, that's a compliment. I mean, if the hallmark of an effective movie is that it imbues an emotional response in the audience, mission accomplished and then some.
Multiple critics and commentators are calling Shinkai "the next Miyazaki" and while I agree he's extremely good, I'm going to wait for his next film--an as-yet-untitled story of a girl on a journey that sounds very Ghibli-esque--before jumping on that particular bandwagon. In the meantime, watch this movie!