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5 Centimeters Per Second

Before heading over to Tokyo last year I’d say I was moderately interested in Japanese animation and mildly obsessed with the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Since returning, I’ve been hoovering up other anime films and television series, attempting to find the gems amongst all the truly godawful rubbish. In particular, I’ve found myself looking for anime set in a realistic present day setting, whether it’s ostensibly a work of comedy (Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers), science fiction (Hosada’s The Girl who Leapt through Time) or, in this case, romance.

I stumbled across 5 Centimeters Per Second on the web at the end of 2009, and it sounded interesting – a film in three distinct parts from Makoto Shinkai, who famously created the sci-fi short Voices of a Distant Star single-handedly on his computer. Getting a copy wasn’t easy – details later – but a month or two later I finally got to watch it. As there are relatively few reviews available, I thought I’d put one online. I’ll avoid spoilers as far as is possible.

The plot

The sequence of films follows two characters, Takaki and Akari. The first film, Cherry Blossom Story, is set as Takaki makes the (complicated, lengthy) train journey north from Tokyo to see Akari; as he does so a sequence of flashbacks explain how they met and became friends in elementary school before Akari’s family moved out of the city. Since her departure a year previously the two have corresponded by post, but with his own family now moving far afield the two have one final – at least for the conceivable future – chance to meet.

The second segment, Cosmonaut, is set  years after Takaki’s move to the island of Tanegashima – home of the Japanese space agency, NASDA. This section is narrated largely by Kanae, a female classmate of Takaki who has suffered unrequited love for him since his arrival, and who goes out of her way to arrange ‘chance’ meetings. The two, soon to graduate from high school, discuss their plans for the future, but Takake is somewhat distant and is constantly seen writing emails on his mobile phone. At several points we see Takaki and Akari together, but these appear to be dream sequences.

The final segment, 5 Centimeters Per Second, is set back in Tokyo. Takaki, now 26, is a computer programmer, and significantly depressed. One day, while walking across a level crossing, he spots Akari. The finale, which makes up the majority of this segment, takes the form of a montage of rapidly cut visuals shown as a song is played.

The look

It’s worth noting immediately that 5 Centimeters Per Second looks beautiful. The animation slides between a slightly painted style and the more realistic look that you’d expect from computer animation but throughout the shots, and in particular the use of colour, are remarkable – many of the scenes are set in twilight or night, with an amazing luminous appearance and glowing pink washes that link the narrative back to the cherry blossom tree of the title.

The effect is a world that’s immediate and real – Takaki’s journey through and out of Tokyo is almost photo-realistic – and yet somewhat otherworldly, and in the second film this is taken even further as the setting introduces another glorious light source to both dream sequences and the segment’s climax.

Swirling cherry blossoms are something of a specialism of Japanese animation – there’s probably a firm somewhere in Tokyo that specialises in computer-rendering them – but here the blossom and snow swirl and dance beautifully as the camera moves through them, while light sources flare and glint off the surroundings. Even the rapid shots of the final segment, each on screen only momentarily, are beautifully put together.

The effect

Of course pretty animation is all for nothing in a drama if the viewer doesn’t feel emotionally involved. Here, though, the Japanese voice cast does a wonderful job of conveying real-sounding emotion without recourse to the squeaky, shouty clichés that plague many teenage anime characters, and the plot is paced cleverly enough to suck the viewer in enough to build a sense of unease from that most mundane occurrance: a delayed train. Although ultimately a simple tale of young love it left me with enough emotion invested as to care what happened to both parties at the end, which is surely a success on the writer’s part. And it’s always a good sign when you watch a film through to the credits, then immediately pick up the remote control to flick back into the story again. Overall it’s a simple but elegantly crafted tale that avoids saccharine sweetness in favour of the affectingly recognisable, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Where to get it

Picking up a copy of this film (legally) is a pain. There’s a Blu-ray, but you’ll need to import it from Japan, play it on a Japanese or American Blu-ray player and, not least of the obstacles, understand the Japanese-only audio. A DVD with English subtitles was available in the US, but it’s Region 1, out of print and currently selling for $150 or so. In the end I imported a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong via Ebay – this has the Japanese audio track and English subtitles.

** UPDATE: As of December 2010, the film’s being listed for a DVD release in March 2011, and at a pre-order price of just £9 (half price):

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