Bundled on the DVD set with The Place Promised in Our Early Days is this, Makoto Shinkai’s earliest work of any significance. It’s a half hour short film, and it’s worth bearing in mind when watching this that he basically made it all himself on his own computer, and did that in 2002. Whatever the film’s shortcomings, that would be a remarkable achievement with today’s technology, let alone nearly 20 years ago.
The story is by necessity a simple one. Like many of Shinkai’s later works, the main characters are a teenage boy and girl who have fallen in love. The girl, Mikako Nagamine, joins the UN Space Army and goes off to fight aliens, while the boy, Noboru Terao, stays at home. The battle goes well, and she plays a key part, but ends up drifting further and further out into space, seeing some amazing things, but always moving away from the love of her life.
Mikako is able to send text messages to Noboru, but the further away she gets the longer the messages take to arrive, until eventually there are years between sending a message and Noboru receiving it. We have to take all this at face value and not worry about the logic of it too much, because it is set in 2047 (like most sci-fi, almost certainly not far enough into the future!) and yet the phones already look old-fashioned, basically modelled on the phones of the time this was made. It’s hard to believe a civilisation can create giant mecha robots to fight aliens in space, but cannot send a message home without it taking years, although I’m no expert in whether the science backs that up or not.
So the film relies on the emotional hit of seeing two people in love getting further and further apart from each other, probably never to meet again. As for how much you will appreciate that, I can say little other than… it depends. My wife didn’t enjoy it at all, baffled by why Noboru didn’t just get on with his life (remind me never to go on a long journey). On the other hand, I know that this theme really resonates strongly for some people. For me, it was a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. I think some films really do rely on viewers recognising something from their own life experiences and making that connection in order to experience the emotional hit, and if that is something outside of your own personal history then it’s not going to resonate. For others it will really strike a chord. For that reason, I can’t come to any conclusions about whether this is a great film, a terrible film or somewhere in between, but in any case I think it would be churlish to complain about a first effort like this, made in such an amateur way. In that respect, let’s face it, this is pretty amazing by any standards. The background art in particular is beautiful, giving some indication of the incredible talent for creating beauty in animation that Shinkai possesses. His character art falls short, but he had presumably not yet learnt the finer points of animating faces consistently from different angles, something that even veteran animators sometimes get wrong anyway.
What Shinaki really achieved with this was to communicate a feeling to the viewer, and that feeling is the melancholy of isolation and loneliness, which can’t quite be healed by life experiences, however amazing. Mikako becomes the greatest explorer the human race has ever known, travelling further and seeing more than anyone, and yet those stunning alien vistas can’t buy her happiness, because she’s on her own. Maybe we all need somebody to share life’s triumphs with. RP