When most people think of anime they think of giant robots and cat girls; and there's a place for that. But anime is not a genre, anime is a medium for storytelling. One of the greatest anime films ever produced, 5 Centimeters Per Second has no fantasy elements whatsoever. It is a realistic story, realistically told. Through three interconnected vignettes, it tells about three chapters in the life of a guy named Tono.
In the first chapter, Tono becomes close friends with a girl named Akari in middle school. But as is often the case with young love, their lives are at the mercy of forces greater than their ability to control their own destiny. As they both switch schools multiple times, they are taken further and further away from each other. Tono summarizes it by saying, 'It was as if the weight of our lives to come and the uncertainty of time hung over us."
In the second chapter, Tono is in junior high, getting ready to graduate and change schools again. This story is told from the point of view of Kanae, a painfully shy girl who only wants two things - to catch the perfect wave, and to catch the perfect boy - Tono. As the months pass, she spends more and more time with Tono, but cannot find the courage to tell him how she feels. It seems as if he is distant, trying to reach for the stars like the Japanese rocket that has been launched on a journey of years, maybe to never find anything. Kanae will never give up, but should she?
In the third chapter Tono is an adult. He feels lost in a job that has no meaning for him. He has a girlfriend now, and she too feels the strange distance in Tono. Tono cannot stop thinking about Akari. And even though many years have separated them, Akari still thinks of Tono. One day they pass on the street - or at least they believe they see each other, but when they turn to look back at each other, their view is blocked by a passing train. Ultimately, Tono quits his job. Both have a dream that one day they will watch the cherry blossoms fall again. The film leaves it open ended - are they moving together or apart?
This film is magnificent in it's examination of love gone astray whether it be the unfulfilled love of Tono and Akari, or the unrequited love Kanae has for Tono. The film is nothing if not realistic. The animation also reflects this realism. The details in the background of many anime are incredible, but this one is meticulous. From the embossing of letters on a set of keys to the reflections of light off of school desks. The audio too is incredibly realistic, from the sound of a vibrating cell phone to the background noises in a train station. This reality makes the experience of these simple stories incredibly engrossing.
I normally prefer the subtitled versions of anime, but this is one where if you do not speak Japanese, you may want to listen to the English dub. Both the translation and the voice acting of the dubbed version is so good that it is pretty much the equal of the subtitled version, and not having to concentrate on reading subtitles frees you up to take in more of the incredible details of the artwork. However, if you do not read Japanese, you may wish to have the English subtitles or you will miss a lot of written things like magazine headlines and phone text messages that appear in the film and add to the story. My recommendation is that if you neither speak nor read Japanese that you watch this film with both the English dubbing and the English subtitles for maximum enjoyment.
5 Centimeters Per Second is more than just good anime, it is near perfect film making, and one of the great artistic masterpieces in any medium of the early 21st century.