The title refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall to the earth. It is practically the first line of dialogue, spoken by the girl Akari to her male friend Takaki. “They’re like snowflakes.”
Snow plays an important part in 5 Centimeters Per Second, as do speeds of all kinds. Trains, motor scooters, space shuttles launching, paper carried on the wind too fast to catch up. And most of all, the speed that emotional distance grows between people as their physical distances become insurmountable.
Told as a trio of short stories, anime film 5 Centimeters Per Second is all about these distances, how they are overcome. And how they are not.
The first story is about the pair meeting. Takaki and Akari become friends in elementary school and hope to go to junior high with each other. Then Akari has to move away. That seems to be that, but six months later she sends Takaki a letter, and their emotional ties seems to be as strong as ever. Akari lives just far enough away to be inconvenient, but there is always the possibility of seeing her again. That is, until Tataki’s dad needs to move for his job, far away from Tokyo. The two finally agree to meet, but a snowstorm slows and eventually stops the train Tataki is taking. As the journey gets harder and harder, Tataki becomes increasingly convinced there’s really nothing for him to be traveling for.
5 Centimeters Per Seconds is Makoto Shinkai’s second feature-length film (though it’s a short feature at 63 minutes.) It is also the first story he made without any overt sci-fi elements, even if he can’t resist from including a space launch as part of the background of one story. It is, like most of his work, about the difficulties of communication across time and space.
The second story is from the perspective of another girl, Kanae. She goes to high school with Takaki and develops a deep crush on him. He’s friendly, but oblivious, even when she obviously waits every night to go home from school at the same time as him. She wants to reach him, but whenever he’s alone he always seems to be emailing someone on his phone. The third, and briefest story is about an adult Tataki. He finds his work unsatisfying, and has a chance encounter with Araki is interrupted by a speeding train.
These are not deeply eventful, or melodramatic stories. Nobody dies (spoiler?), there’s no real action, and the conflicts are all internal. Still, Makoto Shinkai by this time had found his feet as a storyteller. He is able to wring out emotions from his rather simple scenarios, and can play with character sympathies effectively.
His aesthetic, in place since his first solo production, Voices of a Distant Star (included on this disc for the first time in Blu-ray in North America) is here refined. It’s clean, contrasting Japanese urban features with natural landscapes. Lighting is an important aspect of his visual storytelling, in particular streetlights, billboards, the internal light from a vending machine. The light from a cell phone. His characters are caught everywhere by the lights of their environs. With 5 Centimeters Per Second his character design and animation has become more specific and a little less lumpy and ill-defined as is seen The Place Promised in our Early Days.
5 Centimeters is largely about tone. There’s a bittersweet feeling to the stories. Everything is about missed connections and mislaid plans. That lays in a bit of a trap for the story. A movie about people not quite connecting will have a difficult time resolving in a way that pleases or edifies the audience. Shinkai’s skates over this difficulty by basically finishing with a music video montage that highlights the moments where the characters tried to, and occasionally succeeded in finding connections.
And it works. At least, pretty well. It’s pretty moving for a film with very little plot, and very little resolution. The overall story is difficult to describe because there’s not a lot to it. The individual moments, however, have emotional impact. Takaki caught on the snowbound train, unsure of why he’s seeking Araki but unable to turn back. Kanae, working up the courage the express her feelings to Takaki, and his complete obliviousness. His mind, and heart, are somewhere else. These are the little treasures found in this attractive, small, film.
5 Centimeters Per Second has been released on Blu-ray by Gkids. Extras for the film include a feature length storyboard; a video interview with the director Makoto Shinkai (37 min); an interview with the Japanese voice cast (38 mins); a music video for the film’s closing song “One More Time, One More Chances (6 mins); and a set of trailers for the film (3 min). The disc also contains Makoto Shinkai’s earlier short film “Voices of a Distant Star” (25 min) for the first time on Blu-ray in the U.S. This short was written, directed and animated almost single-handedly by Makoto Shinkai. Extras for this include a video interview with Makoto Shinkai (9 min); a feature-length storyboard; a trailer, and another Makoto Shinai short film, “She and Her Cat” (5 min).