At nearly two years after 5 Centimeters Per Second’s theatrical release in Japan, it would be fair to say that this is a pretty late review. Usually I would shift the blame for that on to how the whole localisation and distribution process leaves us Europeans often years behind Asia – and I wouldn’t be being utterly dishonest – but I have to admit that there has been other factors at play causing this delay. First I had to find the right time to watch it, which meant a time when both myself and my partner could sit down together – while much of my anime watching is done on my own, watching a Makoto Shinkai film for the first time without her would be unthinkable. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, ever since the end credits rolled, I’ve been dreading writing this review. Never before has an anime film left me feeling so conflicted.
Don’t get wrong – if one thing is clear, it is that 5 Centimeters Per Second is a masterpiece. I’m just not sure that it is yet truly Shinkai’s masterpiece. Or at least, not the masterpiece I so firmly believe he is capable of making.
Taking it’s name from the speed that cherry blossom falls, the film is split into three segments, with a combined running time of just over an hour. Based in Japan beginning from the 1990s and ending in modern day, with each segment centered on a boy named Takaki Tōno, the film focuses on Shinkai’s usual themes of teenage crushes, unrequited love and long distance relationships. In the first episode we see Takaki struggling to come to grips with the fact that his childhood crush, Akari Shinohara, is moving away with her family. They keep in touch via letter after she has left, but in true Shinkai style they seem to struggle to express their true feelings to each other. When Takaki learns that his family is to move away also, making the distance between them even greater, he plans to visit Akari. After a hellish train journey delayed by snow, they finally are reunited and spend their first truly romantic moments together, before realising that they will never be together again in the way they both desire.
We skip forward a few years for the second episode, and see Takaki now at high school, where he has attracted the affections of another classmate Kanae Sumida. Takaki doesn’t seem too interested though – at least not beyond simple friendship – and Kanae realises he’s always staring off into the distance, but it’s unsure whether it’s the nearby Tanegashima Space Center launch facility or a distant love that holds his attention.
The final episode brings us to modern day, 2008, Tokyo. Takaki is now working as a computer programmer, while Akari, still living far away, is preparing to marry. Takari still longs after her, to the detriment of both his work and personal lives. One day they seem to pass each other at a level crossing, but when they both stop and look back their views are blocked by a passing train. When the train is gone, Akari has disappeared.
To anyone that has seen Shinkai’s previous works, and especially Voices of a Distant Star, these themes of melancholy and separation will seem instantly familiar. Similarly, he employs many of the visual devices and imagery that are rapidly becoming his trademark; bicycles, mobile phones, trains, silhouettes against sunsets, overhead cables and of course cherry blossom filled air. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, especially when it’s so elegantly and beautifully rendered, which it is throughout. As always his choice of pallet is immaculate, and his attention to detail breathtaking. The sequences in Shinjuku JR station, as a young Takaki is trying to make his connections, immediately connected with me on a personal level – not just because their accuracy makes them instantly recognizable, but their use and editing together portrays the initial, baffling confusion that the maze-like terminus must invoke in every out-of-towner. Or at least, it did in me.
However, what did concern me slightly, is the aforementioned retreading of familiar themes. The plot pacing is immaculate, and the script subtle, especially when lesser anime or Hollywood writers could have resorted to obvious melodrama and sentimentality when dealing with this subject matter. There’s no doubting Shinkai’s skill as a writer matches his skill as a director, but it is hard to avoid a creeping feeling of deja vu. We’ve been here before in his previous works, and as immaculately as it is presented, I couldn’t seem to fend off a slight tinge of disappointment.
These themes – unrequited love, the forced separation of childhood friends through distance – are obviously ones very close to Shinkai’s heart. When they first emerged in Voices of a Distant Star it felt more like they where a clever way of putting a different spin on the mecha genre, but by 5cm it feels more like therapy. It’s almost as though the whole film – and by association his preceding two films – are one long love letter to a lost childhood sweetheart, someone that Shinkai feels he still can’t let slip away, of whom he regrets not revealing his true feelings to before it was too late. If true there’s no denying it makes for some powerful, personal film-making, but it’s hard to shake the feeling it might be time to let go.
And maybe 5cm is Shinkai doing exactly that. Maybe he’s getting these emotions out of his system, and preparing to move on with his art. I hope so, as retreading these old, painful memories can only create great work for so long, before he becomes a victim of his own cliches. Voices of a Distant Star and the slightly disappointing The Place Promised in Our Early Days showed an ability to draw on these emotions to produce sci-fi and fantasy tinged films with a uniquely personal touch, and it’s this direction I’d like to see him move again. But of course, especially with someone as fiercely independent as Shinkai, that’s not my decision to make.
As I said near the beginning of this review, there’s no denying 5cm is a masterpiece – both in terms of animation and writing – but it still feels like Shinkai has so much more to give. And that’s by no means a criticism – with less than half a dozen productions under his belt it is still early days for any artist – and he has a long way left to go before the claims from others that he is the ‘new Miyazaki‘ can be proved or dismissed. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending 5cm to anyone – especially if you are new to his work or anime in general – as a lot of the thematic concerns I hold simply disappear when you separate the film from the rest of it’s creator’s work. Either way it is an unmissable movie, and one that hopefully can only point towards an even brighter future for this astounding talent.