Through the years and far away...
Most anime are created by teams of specialists; typically they are the result of collaboration between what can frequently be large numbers of different companies. Not so the 25 minutes of Hoshi no Koe1 ('Voices of a Distant Star'), written, animated and directed by an individual, Shinkai Makoto2 using a Macintosh G4/400. After its premiere on 2 February, 2002 in the short film cinema, Tollywood, in western Tokyo, it went on to win six awards, including the prestigious 'Most Valuable Newcomer' award at the 2002 Tokyo International Anime Fair, and has been released on DVD both in Japan (by CoMix Wave) and outside (the version available in the UK and US being the English translation by ADV Films3).
'A Love Story That Transcends Time and Space...'
There is a word, 'world'...
Voices of a Distant Star begins in 2046, seven years after the discovery of alien technology on Mars. This discovery enabled Earth to bypass decades of technological research, but also alerted the technology's creators, the Tarsians, who destroyed the Mars expedition force, leading the United Nations to decide to pursue the Tarsians to their homeland. This sounds like the plot of a science fiction anime and on the surface that is what Voices is, complete with giant anthropomorphic robots. The core of the story, however, is pure human emotion.
There are only two characters: Nagamine Mikako and Terao Noboru, both seen at the beginning of the anime on the point of leaving their middle school, apparently for the same high school. However, it soon turns out that their lives will be painfully divergent; Mikako, having achieved a quite literally stellar score in her exams, has become part of the mission to hunt down the Tarsians. She will travel great distances through space, while Noboru will remain on Earth; and, thanks to the time required to send messages over such long distances, even at the speed of light, simple text messages4 will become their only means of retaining contact.
I'm not in that world anymore.
The four-ship UN fleet heads out into the solar system, and Mikako is seen sending Noboru accounts of training on Mars and gazing at the clouds of Jupiter. For a long time there is no sign of the Tarsians and Mikako and Noboru are left to reflect, apart, on the distance between them and on their memories of each other. Then, in the region of Pluto, the Tarsians appear. A battle ensues, during which Mikako has a close encounter with a Tarsian and learns what it is to kill. The battle ends when the UN fleet's commanders deem it necessary to escape through a one-way long-distance warp, taking the fleet to a distance of over a light year from the Earth, then through another such warp to Sirius, over eight light years away. Mikako has time to send one message to Noboru, to reach him a year later, before the warp to Sirius; any further messages will take over eight years to arrive.
Say, we are separated by space and Earth, like lovers, aren't we?
Mikako finds herself on Agharta, a planet with landscapes in many respects like those of Earth. Her long separation from Earth, and from Noboru, is taking its toll and for the first time, reminded by rainfall of the sensations of Earth, she breaks down. However, she realises that 'to become an adult, pain is necessary too'; that she 'will probably be able to go much, much farther'; that she will see Noboru again. So she regains her confidence, just as the Tarsians appear en masse.
Hello, Noboru, who's become 24 years old! I am the 15-year-old Mikako.
When he learned how long her messages would take to reach him, Noboru decided that, instead of enduring years of fruitless anticipation, he would give up waiting to hear from Mikako. He appears gazing at the sky, now 24, the product of his resolution, on hearing that news, to 'make [his] heart harder, colder and stronger' and 'become an adult, even alone'. Then, as the snow begins to fall, he receives Mikako's message, sent over eight years previously...
What follows, though not exactly a conclusion to the story, will nonetheless be left for the viewer to discover. A novelisation of the story, featuring an extended ending, was published in Japan in July 2002; an unofficial translation of the extended ending may be found by following a link on the page accessible via this link.
A manga version of the story, drawn by Sahara Mizu, began to be serialised in Kodansha's monthly manga magazine Afternoon in February 2004. Images of it can be found by following links from Item 81 in the Makoto Shinkai Fan Web's News section; click on 'more news', under the headlines, and scroll down. There were also side stories, not written by Shinkai Makoto, and featuring Mikako and Noboru only in supporting roles, broadcast on Japanese radio; these were released in Japan on CD, in 2002, as Hoshi no Koe: Radio Edition.
The artwork is a mixture of obviously computer-generated three-dimensional images (chiefly the Tarsians, spacecraft and robots) and images that to varying degrees have a traditionally two-dimensional appearance. Mikako and Noboru are drawn in a style that eschews realism without leaning towards the 'super-deformed' end of the anime spectrum, and have the large, expressive eyes and clean, simple features common in anime. Opinions differ as to whether the mixture works entirely seamlessly, but it is widely held to be an effective one.
The background music was written by Tenmon5. Mostly it consists of simple instrumental pieces, but the climactic moments of the film are accompanied by the plaintive song 'Through the Years and Far Away' with full English lyrics.
In the original version Shinkai Makoto himself provided the voice of Noboru, and his then-fiancée (now his wife) that of Mikako. For the DVD version an alternative vocal track was created using professional voice actors. Both versions are available on both the CoMix Japanese DVD and ADV's translated DVD, the later of which also includes an English redubbed soundtrack, as translated anime DVDs tend to.
What Went Before: She and Her Cat
I think my motive was to create a story that acknowledged my real life and to come to terms with it by doing so.
— Shinkai Makoto
Lasting five minutes in its longest version, Kanojo to Kanojo no Neko: Their Standing Points ('She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points') offers a glimpse into the lives of a cat and his owner, a young, professional woman. The film is drawn entirely in black-and-white and the style of the art leans towards the semi-realistic with the interesting exception of the representation of the cats, which are essentially rough outlines with simple facial expressions. In spite of the subtitle, the perspective is of the male cat Chobi, whose voiceover (provided by Mr Shinkai) makes up virtually all of the vocal element of the soundtrack; his owner remains a rather mysterious figure whose face is never fully visible, although her voice is heard briefly on a few occasions. The other character is the young female cat Mimi, whose speech is represented by text on the screen.
Unsurprisingly, given its length, She and Her Cat is taken up more by subtle imagery and poignant suggestion than by its narrative. What story there is concerns the male cat's feelings towards his owner as she lives through one bleak moment in her life.
The idea for the story of She and Her Cat was first conceived in 1997 and the work itself was animated during 1999. The film has received two awards, and consequently it came to be shown during television programmes and in short film cinemas. It is included on ADV Films' Voices of a Distant Star DVD.
A 15-minute theatrical adaptation of She and Her Cat was performed by a theatrical club at Kobe Gakuin University in April 2004.
Afterwards: Beyond the Clouds
Still in production at the time of writing, Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho: The Place Promised In Our Early Days ('Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place: The Place Promised In Our Early Days') moves further away from one-man production, but is still the work of a small team. Mr Tenmon is once again responsible for the music. The story is set in an alternative history in which post-war Japan was divided into separate northern and southern states and centres on three inhabitants of the southern state who, as teenagers, dream of reassembling an aircraft out of discarded military parts and flying to a huge tower in the north. A few years later, one of the three is in a coma and the other two, in seeking to save her, come to discover the secret of the tower. CoMix is to release the film in Japan in Autumn 2004.
Other Works by Shinkai Makoto
Tooi Sekai: Other Worlds ('Distant World: Other Worlds') is the first Shinkai Makoto animation; originally produced in 1997, the brief (one minute, 28 seconds) two-dimensional black-and-white clip underwent numerous changes until 1999 and has stylistic similarities to She and Her Cat. The background music is Eric Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1.
Featuring two wholly unrealistic, spherical characters in a realistic landscape, Kakomareta Sekai ('Enclosed World') is a 30-second 3D computer-generated animation created in 1998 using Lightwave 3D, with music by Tenmon.
Egao ('Smile'), lasting two minutes and 20 seconds, is a short animated music video featuring a girl and a hamster, produced for the NHK6 children's programme Minna no Uta ('Everyone's Song') to accompany a song of the same title. It was broadcast on 1 April, 2003 and has been released in Japan on DVD. The animation was the product of a collaboration between Shinkai Makoto and Tazawa Ushio, an animator and character artist.
Mr Shinkai used to work primarily as a producer of animated sequences for video games, and his new career path has not led to a complete break with the industry. He has produced the opening sequences for three PC games created by the software company Minori7. Bittersweet Fools is an interactive novel set in Italy; initially released for the PC in August 2001, it was later ported to the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. Mr Shinkai produced a promotional video as well as the opening. Wind - A Breath of Heart, released on PC in April 2002 and later ported to the Dreamcast, is a romantic adventure game for which Mr Shinkai worked on some animated sequences, as well as the promotional videos. However, he did not draw the character artwork for these sequences. Most recently, he made the introductory sequence of the PC game Haru no Ashioto ('Steps of Spring'), billed as 'Minori's third story about 'love'' - although, again, the character artwork is not his. The background music is again provided by Tenmon. This introduction, one minute and 51 seconds long, was premiered in May 2004 at a PC game event called Dream Party, and is to be released in Japan in July 2004.
Related Web Pages
The page 'About Other Works of Makoto Shinkai' of the fan website includes links to Japanese sites from which you can download trailers. Unfortunately, h2g2 doesn't link to sites in languages other than English, but following these steps should take you to the downloads (none of which has subtitles). To download the introductory sequence from Wind - A Breath of Heart, click on the link in 'You can download it from GAMESPOT'; you'll get what looks like an error page (in Japanese) containing two links. Click on either of these to get to a page from which you can download the clip; you can do this by scrolling down to a set of links to the right of a brown image. You should be able to see the file type and size of each in Roman characters and Arabic numerals, even if your browser isn't configured to display the Japanese text.
Clicking on the 'Mangazoo' link in the Bittersweet Fools section will take you to a site offering: trailers for Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho and Voices of a Distant Star, the introduction to 'Bitter Sweet Fooles' (as the site identifies it) and a short (one minute and 36 seconds) version of She and Her Cat. Again, it should be possible to see the available file types and - where listed - the file sizes.
Tooi Sekai is supposed to be available for download from Mr Shinkai's site, to which there is a link, but the download appears not to work.
Item 98 in the Fan Web's News section (click on 'more news' under the headlines and scroll down) links to a short (31 seconds) trailer of Haru no Ashioto, although the link has been known not to work.