In 2002, Shinkai Makoto quit the game design company that he worked for in order to tell a personal story. That story became the independent 25 minute anime project, Voices of a Distant Star. An intensely personal film, Voices of a Distant Star compensates for its lack of technical polish through sheer emotional power.
Voices of a Distant Star is about two teenagers, Nagamine Mikako and Terao Noboru. Just as they are at the point of their relationship where they want to be open about their feelings, Mikako is called up to fight a war against the unknown Tarsians. They promise to keep in touch, but hyperspace relativity means that while little time passes for Mikako, years go by for Noboru. Still, they resolve to be loyal to one another.
The thing about Voices of a Distant Star is that the story is not important; it’s just a frame for Mikako and Noboru. The use of hyperspace and war to illustrate human loneliness is nothing new; in anime it was used to perfect effect in Gunbuster. Hyperspace and war tear the two apart, and their pain is palpable. While Mikako never changes, staying in her school uniform for the duration of the war, more than eight years pass for Noboru. Their dedication to each other as the gap between them grows ever wider is something incredibly sad. Mikako is really just a teenaged girl, not ready to face the reality of war. Noboru himself says that 'it’s a pretty stupid story if you think about it.'
Circumstances beyond the control of people are a strong cause of pain, and Shinkai has allowed this pain to be realised perfectly through the situation of Mikako and Noboru. The love and dedication of these two characters who knew each other for only a short time is tangible, and this is truly a testament to Shinkai’s ability.
The most surprising aspect of the project is the ending, an ambiguous conclusion that stuns with its incredibly abrupt nature while still managing to be wholly satisfying.
The most impact that Voices of a Distant Star boasts as an individual piece is its mentality. Without the contribution of a committee at any level, it doesn’t have an "anime mentality". This shows in that it can’t be classified in the traditional ways: Voices of a Distant Star is neither TV series, film or OVA. The closest that it comes to a definition is that of a short film, but the personal nature lends itself to the idea of a "project".
Shinkai himself calls it a "short story" - something that can be picked up and appreciated at any time, like manga or a novel. Shinkai had very strong ideas about his project and he has allowed them to dominate.
Shinkai Makoto is an excellent director, but his work is not without its shortcomings. As a solo production, the animation and character designs look somewhat amateurish. Mikako and Noboru have simple, sometimes misshapen, faces. Their eyes are pale, and seem almost lifeless. The space battles are roughly animated, with jerky movements and odd CG aliens dampening the mood of the piece.
Paradoxically, Shinkai’s direction is flawless. He has a perfect sense of scene composition, that he taught himself while trying to discover "the skills to cheat his way to making things look right with the least amount of effort". His eye for framing and lighting is what makes Voices of a Distant Star so impressive; despite the substandard character design and animation, he has manipulated them in such a way that the project can stand as a work of art.
The music by Tenmon almost never stops. The opening ten minutes consist largely of light hearted and repetitive music that is almost suffocating. The continuous piano work is an overly optimistic tune that effectively suggest early days and a quick return for Mikako. But as the story progresses, the music is used more sparingly to emphasise the uncertainty that descends upon the characters.
The score culminates in the beautiful song Through the Years and Far Away, performed in English by Low. This concluding sequence is the one point of Voices of a Distant Star where the project transcends the boundaries of the screen and becomes something almost magical.
The DVD comes with three audio tracks: The original Japanese demo cut featuring Shinkai and his fiancée in the lead roles, the professional Japanese recording, and the English dub.
The best of the three is the professional version; Mutoh Sumi and Suzuki Chihiro are right on as Mikako and Noboru, hitting the emotional range perfectly. Shinkai and Shinohara are, unsurprisingly, raw in their demo performances. A drawback to watching this version is not only that they don't have the range, but also that the subtitles aren't quite timed to the dialogue.
The English dub is a disappointing effort from Stephen Foster, who has seen to it that the work has been almost completely rewritten. To further complicate the matter, Cynthia Martinez has been completely miscast as Mikako, with a voice far too deep. This is especially confusing as Martinez has used a higher pitch in the past. Adam Conlon simply sounds bored as Noboru.
Sadly, Voices of a Distant Star can not be recommended for those who can not watch subtitles.
As a whole, Voices of a Distant Star leaves a strong lasting impression. Despite its amateurish production values, Shinkai's abilities as a director allow it to become something special. While it's difficult to call Voices of a Distant Star anime, it's definitely a worthwhile departure.
She and Her CatThe real highlight of the Voices of a Distant Star DVD is Shinkai Makoto's 1999 animated short, She and Her Cat, winner of two Grand Prix awards.
Perhaps even more personal than Voices of a Distant Star, as it came forth from a difficult time in his life, She and Her Cat is a simple story told from the perspective from a cat about his feelings for his owner.
She and Her Cat does not feature any colour, and animation is almost non existent. Shinkai wholly relies on his abilities of composition and lighting to create the atmosphere. This was his training ground as a director, where he taught himself how to make maximum output with minimum effort. The minimalist direction of the piece combine with the attention to detail to make an interestingly contradictory experience.
The monochromatic world of She and Her Cat is incredibly realistic, as is She Herself. But Her Cat is just a cute and simple cat. Her Cat is a pure character, with somewhat complex emotions. He refuses to marry his cat girlfriend because he "prefers the love of an older woman". Her Cat's emotions seem entirely realistic, but at the same time impossible.
Of course, it sounds freakish that a cat would love a human so deeply; but it's the purest form of love, one without sex. Still, the idea of such a multi-layered cat is intriguing and makes She and Her Cat well worth watching.
Her Cat is voiced by Shinkai himself, and he does it perfectly. Her Cat is a character that is in total control of his emotions, and the delivery of his thoughts is with total and matter of fact conviction. Shinkai makes everything so believable in She and Her Cat that it is real.
Three versions of the short are present; a digest, a three minute cut and the complete five minute version. It is interesting to watch each of them one after another to witness Shinkai's editing skills; he can tell the same story just as effectively with his careful works. The five minute version is, of course, the definitive, and completely immersive. The other two are nice counterpoints.
She and Her Cat may only be a five minute short with almost no discernible animation, but it is something that should stay with you forever. She and Her Cat by itself would be worth buying; in fact, it's almost as if the DVD were She and Her Cat with special bonus feature Voices of a Distant Star.