Traditionally, the primary effect science fiction as a literary genre has sought to create in the reader or viewer is a "sense of wonder." Not merely a suspension of disbelief (which is the case with almost all fiction) but an actual moment of "wondering awe." I choose this religious phrase quite deliberately, because it is an almost religious experience the author of a given work is trying to stimulate. One might describe this as the emotional response that occurs when one recognizes that a concept that was heretofore utterly alien is also brilliant and mind-blowing -- and the reader or viewer will never be completely the same having encountered it.
The very epitome of this sort of moment is when astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey looks into the monolith and exclaims, "Oh my God! It's full of stars!" I won't give away any spoilers, but one of the strongest personal encounters I ever had with this effect was while reading the book Eon by Greg Bear. When I arrived at the central concept of the book, I felt like my brain had literally expanded.
Which is the very antithesis of Friedrich Nietzsche's concept that "the abyss gazes also into you." We are not diminished by such encounters; rather we are elevated by them, taken mind and soul someplace new and profound and wondrous.
HAL 9000: "What is going to happen, Dave?"
Dave Bowman: "Something ... Wonderful."
This attempt at achieving "sense of wonder" was very much a driving purpose during the "golden age" of science fiction, when authors frantically sought to create stories around new concepts -- sometimes merely a gadget or new sort of life form, but at other times utilizing entire philosophies and sciences. Careers were made by the ability to do this: A.E. Van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, etc.
In some sense we live in a post "wondering awe" world. I wouldn't go so far as to say there is "nothing new under the sun" (also a religious phrase), but gadgets and aliens and new worlds seldom surprise us, let alone result in mind altering experiences.
Which leads me to say this of Voices of a Distant Star: there is nothing new here. A young girl named Mikako is drafted as a pilot to fight faceless aliens at the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, and she and her friend Noboru keep in touch via text messages. As she travels farther and farther from Earth, the communication takes longer and longer to travel back and forth. At the level of science fiction, Makoto Shinkai simply borrows concepts from a wide variety of sources, both in anime and western SF. Voices has mechs and starships and war in space. Even the concept of messages taking longer and longer to arrive due to time dilation is not original.
So it might surprise you when I say this is an absolutely brilliant short film.
In some ways, the reason that sense of wonder in the traditional sense has lost a bit of its luster is that the desire for divertissement can take us only so far before we become jaded. Just as any facile pleasure is transient by its very nature, so the constant pursuit of new and surprising experiences within stories eventually takes us to a place where we can no longer experience the truly unexpected -- like the horror movie fan who no longer has the capacity to experience jolts of fear.
So it is to the deeper joys and pleasures that we must turn to find our wonder. And these joys, in order to be lasting, must connect with the deepest parts of what it means to be human. With this as our pursuit, the ability to achieve a sense of wonder is restored to the realm of science fiction. It's not about hardware and ideas. It's about people.
And this is where Shinkai succeeds masterfully. From the opening moments to the touch of hope with which it ends, this is a film full of humanity, pathos, devotion and love. The story of Mikako and Noboro is a bittersweet story about all of us. And that is a wonder in itself.
It should be noted (for those who don't know) this film was written, animated and produced by one man. That's not a hobby -- that's genius.
The animation in Voices is excellent. The artwork is always exceptional -- the backgrounds are particularly stunning -- and at times utterly breathtaking. There is so much attention to detail here, so many layers of motion that this never feels like a two dimensional world on a television screen. When the guard poles at a train crossing vibrate as a train passes, when grass responds to a ephemeral breeze at sunset, when tears float in the cockpit around our heroine, I am enchanted by and immersed in this world. To think one man created this film from the ground up is nothing short of amazing.
The color palette is vibrant and the images are filled with light. There is a lucidity to the images that is a pleasure to behold.
The shot selection and "camera work" (composition, movement) are also excellent. In an interview in the DVD special features Makoto Shinkai talks about his inability to achieve all he wanted with this film, how he had to cut corners in his filmmaking -- which leaves me to wonder at his actual vision for this film, as the current work is superb.
My only quibble -- and it is relatively minor -- is with the character designs. I found them rough, and somewhat distracting at moments, especially as faces sometimes took on strange shapes.
The sound design is solid. The sound effects don't stand out, but then again they don't distract either. They simply fill in the world in such a way that verisimilitude is achieved.
The music is always serviceable, and at times wonderfully full of pathos and longing. The love theme is excellent -- subtle and yet moving. The solo piano tracks are particularly compelling. I also very much enjoyed the title track, "Through the Years and Far Away." It really captures the emotional essence of this film (more on that under Characters).
During the action and battle scenes the music sinks back to the realm of merely serviceable, as the synth elements don't really allow the music to rise above the utilitarian. But they do the job.
Upon reflection, we don't ever know very much about these characters. Which comes as something of a surprise, since Makoto Shinkai manages to achieve so much empathetic response in the viewer -- at least in this viewer. Rather than give us backgrounds, interests, traits, personalities, and development, Shinkai eschews all of these in favor of cutting to the very core of human experience. We identify with these characters not because they are fully realized human beings, but simply because we all know what it means to be lonely and long for someone we love. This is the central theme of the film, and is the very core of the characters themselves.
Which is not to say these are somehow stick figures or cardboard cut-outs. Though we know little about who these characters are, in order to believe the connection Mikako and Noboru share with each other their actions and dialogue must in some ways be even more compelling and honest than a character drawn in more detail. And they are. The dialogue never says too much, never assumes the viewer somehow won't "get it." It is merely the natural expression of human thought and emotion.
These characters also do what every great character needs to do -- they grow over the course of the story.
Like an ink painting, Shinkai use a minimum of strokes to bring his characters to life, to show them change, to fill out this world, and by so doing has created a masterpiece. Indeed, this short film achieves more in twenty-five minutes than many anime titles manage over the course of an entire series.
The term genius can be -- and often is -- misapplied and overused. I think it safe to say, however, that when one man creates a work of art that moves us deeply, that elevates the senses, that connects to fundamental truth about human nature, he is nothing if not a genius.
In this story of literally star-crossed lovers Makoto Shinkai achieves a sense of wonder in the viewer not through original and surprising ideas, but by utilizing his amazing talents to tap into the deepest core of human experience and make us truly feel.
I stand in wondering awe.
Nagamine is a young high school student who lives a fairly typical teenage life: hanging out with friends, attending class, and falling in love with a wonderful boy. But when she enlists in the galactic army, who is desperate for candidates to fight an alien war, she finds herself drifting farther away from her first love, Noboru. In the depths of space, where a simple email takes eight years to be delivered, will their love truly flourish, or simply fade away?