April Fools!! I'm going to review anime and you all have to suffer!

5 Centimeters Per Second

Oh god, it's a new Makoto Shinkai project. This is gonna feel like kicking a puppy.

(just pretend there's words on this, and you've got the R1 dvd cover)

Let me mention one thing right away, if only for context: Shinkai is one of the most admirable anime directors I can think of.

He first came to some public attention in 1999, when his five-minute animated short She and Her Cat won an award for digital animation. He spent his days back then working on graphic design with the Nihon Falcom Corporation, they of the Ys series of video games, but he wasn't content. So, instead of sitting around and dreaming, he secured a grant, quit his job, and spent months in his home animating a 25-minute OVA entirely by himself on home software. He and his girlfriend played the two main characters. One of his Falcom friends composed a musical score.

Voices of a Distant Star was completed in 2002. It's a deeply earnest sci-fi thing about a teenage mecha pilot texting her boyfriend across the expanses of space and time, he growing old while she zips across the light years. It's also sort of a riff on the famed 1988-89 OVA series Gunbuster, with most of the action, context, setting and humor ripped out, and the remainder consolidated into a melancholic junior high love note, filled with all the naked emotion and self-importance you'd expect from kids that age. It feels like it's two hours long from sheer portentousness.

But even under that weight, you're always aware that Shinkai did it pretty much alone, and that the result wasn't tremendously removed in visual quality from some of the 'pro' anime of that time. It probably captured the imagination of many, demonstrating how close to individual expression commercial anime could get. It sure got to me.

Then again, my imagination gets captured by stuff like, say, clips from School Days, which was this low-interaction Degrassi High-as-hardcore-porno computer game from 2005 that became famous for the mayhem of its gory bad endings; it actually looks a lot like a low-level television anime (compare with the finale to its actual 2007 television anime adaptation), which surely says as much about anime as it does computer games, but it still tickles me how such production power can manifest in newer, smaller areas. Shinkai has also done some animation work for smut computer games, demonstrating how the seemingly divergent paths of such ground-level animation pursuits can cross.

God, I wouldn't mind smallish quasi-gaming anime transforming into the new exploitation movies, running rampant through visions stranger and more complex than teenage soap opera/loli jerkoff fuel for otaku. But I digress.

Shinkai impressively parlayed his early success into feature film work, doing things his way, with his stories. He debuted with 2004's The Place Promised in Our Early Days. This new picture, his second, began production in 2005, with small teams of up to 13 people crowding into the director's apartment with their computers. Work continued for a year and a half, the result clocking in at one hour and five minutes; that's the labor of small-scale anime.

It looks nice. If there is any major triumph to 5 Centimeters Per Second, it's that it holds its ground visually against theatrical anime of far greater means. It's a 'realistic' drama, and I can't think of a recent animated project of the type that's made Japan look so impossibly lovely; Shinkai and company may not be using animation toward fantastical ends here, but they carefully exploit the total control they're afforded over light and color to transform real places (photo ref selections are included on the R1 dvd) into the glowing stuff of aching recollection.

Those visuals flow smoothly too, although if you look at it closely, it's not so much a matter of pure animation chops on the part of producer/director/writer/'original' character designer/storyboardist Shinkai or key animation director/character designer Takayo Nishimura as a keen awareness of their team's limitations. This is a marvelously edited project, knowing exactly how long to hold on a mostly immobile scene before the viewer's eye becomes stuck, or just how rapidly to pan over a detailed landscape while the music of 'Tenmon' -- that same Falcom friend from back in the day! -- carries the mind along.

Unfortunately, the film's storytelling is easily outmatched by its technical aptitude. This is the sort of thing that not only kicks off with the high cliché of falling cherry blossoms, but also devotes its very first lines of dialogue to explaining what the title means. It's the speed at which said cherry blossoms fall, in case you were wondering, and if you can't smell the mono no aware from here, I'd suggest you blow your nose.

The story is presented in three segments, each one collecting a few key events in the life of young Takaki. As a 13-year old, he enjoys a wonderful romantic experience with Akari, the frail, faithful first love who writes to him despite living way down the line; sheer youthful perseverance sets their affections blooming. Life can't stand still, and the cold of the city gives way to the sunny, breezy shores of high school far away, yet Takaki keeps clinging to that idealized young love -- he dreams of reunion on a beautiful alien planet -- leaving him ill-prepared to connect with Kanae, a sweet, aimless girl who pines for him. Soon he's born into adulthood as a disaffected office drone back in the clanking city, unable to connect with adult relationships and incapable of understanding how wide the gap has gotten between him and his childhood friend.

It's not a plot-heavy work; most of the film sees characters drifting across a series of obvious visual metaphors (a train that can't get you where you're going! the wave you just can't catch! a rocket blasting into the lonely void!), narrating their feelings and encountering small epiphanies that come to define their emotional states. And since Shinkai's core theme as an auteur is the pain of physical distance and divergent experience, you bet your ass that even the little victories eventually serve as great frustrations to those who long to connect. If you're a fan of cartoon teenagers choking back tears, this is the movie you've been dreaming of.

I found it to be fleetingly effective in its small moments, those most closely tied to visual and aural craft: the mundane details of waiting for a train, the serene menace of falling snow. But its parade of blunt 'distance' cues borders on silliness -- I really didn't need to see a crucial conversation broken up by A Very Meaningful Space Launch -- and ultimately fails to gel as anything more than repetitious emotional flagellation. A stronger narrative arrangement could have helped, but the third story only sputters around, coughing on Takaki's misplaced idealism until it's time to paste in the ending to Mind Game and call it a day.

That wasn't a joke. From the latecoming titles to the extended song number to the whiplash-edited chain of events connecting the lives of the characters, Shinkai's finale is distractingly similar to that of Masaaki Yuasa's (superb) 2004 feature, although it's also fascinating to see how the two directors handle it. The Yuasa montage followed a separate eruption of possible futures for its characters, spinning out of the belly of a whale into a brighter psychological state; as such, the final, chronological promenade of images, mixing bits from earlier in the movie with new material, added depth and poignancy by showing the crisscrossing experiences of the characters (and indeed, a whole nation) on their march toward the present. They were a united people, whether they cared to acknowledge it or not, and maybe they'll do better with it this time.

Shinkai's take, in contrast, is non-chronological and built mainly (maybe entirely) from bits of earlier scenes. It is striking but numbing, illustrating the fragmented nature of recollection -- memories like cherry blossoms fluttering to the ground -- and hammering home again and again the distance between the characters, as if it hasn't done quite enough of that already and needs to make sure everyone in the back had gotten the message. It adds nothing to what has gone before, though at least it's superficially enough of a crescendo to lead into the closing credits.

But there are virtues to this film, make no mistake - the beauty of its setting, the attention paid to craft, and the developing worldview of its creator. There's some really affecting work in Shinkai's future, I really do think so. I hope he keeps at it.

And I hope others follow his example, taking control of the medium and holding it close to the chest. It can be done.