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Noboru and Mikako are ordinary Japanese teenagers in love: they walk each other home from high school, hang out at the convenience store, and dream of a future together. When mysterious aliens attack a human colony on Mars, Mikako is accepted for a United Nations military program. She becomes a Tracer, piloting a giant robotic combat suit on a series of training missions, before circumstances force her mothership to take successively greater warp jumps away from home. Her would-be boyfriend waits back in Japan, hoping for his mobile phone to ring with a text message from his 15-year-old girlfriend. Every now and then, it does … but Mikako's texts can only travel at the speed of light. Her now becomes his then, separated by days, then weeks, then months….
Such tales of robots and romance initially seem little removed from a hundred other anime since the groundbreaking Zambot 3, but Voices remains a touchstone of 21st-century anime not for its story, but for the means of its execution. This is a work so saturated with its creator's sensibility and personality that watching it is like reading a private diary-its strongest literary influences are the phantom girlfriends in the works of novelist Haruki Murakami, separated from a narrator by obstacles both physical and metaphysical. Its brevity is a great virtue, forcing Shinkai to enhance the emotional charge. This is useful, too, since unforgiving critics might otherwise focus on its minor flaws, such as the "future" technology that simply slaps spaceships and robots onto the present day (the phones already look dated), or a closing song that often sounds like a cat in pain. However, Voices is truly one of the most beautiful and powerful anime of recent years and its creator has become a poster boy for the new generation of have-a-go amateur animators. Shinkai assembled much of it solo, using software packages liberated from his day job at a computer games company, and originally played the lead himself while conscripting his fiancée to play Mikako. In pushing for the fan-friendly audience, in his designs and plotting, in incidents, in scenes, and even in some shots, Shinkai's debt to Gunbuster is so great that it verges on the actionable. But Shinkai's constant reference to the 1988 classic is only one of several homages-look out, too, for passing train cars destined for the "U.N. Spacy" of the Macross saga.
As multimedia corporations fight over increasingly smaller TV ratings shares and pump out endless dross based on bad computer games, Voices shows what one man can achieve in his living room. Of course, Shinkai had a little help from the Mangazoo corporation, which eventually provided financial and logistic support (including revoicing the cast for the mass-market release), but Voices is essentially put together with a high-end personal computer and commercially available software. In that regard, it brings the medium full circle, to the homemade concoctions of Early Anime.
The DVD release includes both Japanese voice tracks, as well as Shinkai's earlier short film She and Her Cat. Compare also to the same year's Saikano, with which it shares several story elements and attitudes. Voices also enjoyed an extensive run at a small western Tokyo cinema, so is filed in some sources as a "movie." Shinkai followed Voices with the feature-length The Place Promised in Our Early Days, which revisits many of the same themes.