Although Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli has long been representative of the quality of the Japanese animation film industry, a rising star has been making waves around the world. Makoto Shinkai has been hailed as the “new Miyazaki”, with the depth of his cinematography garnering critical acclaim and millions of fans worldwide. Besides his dogged work ethic and stunning animation, Shinkai is known for his focus on the theme of love. His two films, Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days, share the theme of long-distance love in a cosmic setting.
In his first major work, the short film Voices of a Distant Star (2002), Shinkai explores love through a relationship that literally transcends space and time. The two main characters, middle-school student Nagamine Mikako and her friend Noboru, share a bond verging on romantic love in a world plagued by an intergalactic war between humanity and an alien force known as the Tarsians.
When Mikako decides to join the UN Space Army to serve as a Tracer pilot for the spaceship Lysithea, she grapples with the pain of losing Noboru in the depths of time and space. While the fleet has FTL (Faster-Than-Light) travel, its vessels lack FTL communications and so it takes an increasingly long amount of time for Mikako’s messages to reach Noboru as she travels farther from Earth. Time also moves slower the farther Mikako gets from Earth. Mikako is still physically seventeen years old by the time Noboru turns twenty-eight.
Shinkai scripted, drew, animated, and produced the entire movie by himself, and the quality of his work shows in the complex emotions that the film brings to life despite its short length. Shinkai brings viewers a thoughtfully-created and captivating universe with relatable and well-developed characters and a simple, bittersweet romance that tugs at the heartstrings. Shinkai’s use of mournful piano music in the film was a fitting addition that highlighted the complex pain and grief experienced by separated lovers.
Shinkai’s other work, his first feature-length film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), is also set in the midst of a looming war between northern Japan, occupied by the Soviet Union, and southern Japan, controlled by the United States.
The film makes use of sci-fi elements such as parallel universes and futuristic transportation and architecture (e.g., gyrocopter planes and the Hokkaido Tower). Despite these sci-fi elements, the film maintains a sense of reality through its depiction of Fujisawa Hiroki and Sawatari Sayuri’s love for each other.
Sayuri and Hiroki, middle-school students living in Aomori on the northern end of southern Japan, find themselves unwillingly entangled in the war. Sayuri is induced into a coma in order to become a human link for the Hokkaido Tower, a project created by the Soviet Union that replaces the matter around the tower within a two kilometre radius with matter from other universes.
In Sayuri’s mind, she is in an unpopulated parallel universe where she is all alone. The only thing tying her to reality is her unconditional love for Hiroki, whom she was forced to leave behind after she was hospitalized. The film defines love as a source of hope for oneself and as the hope to be reunited with one’s lover. In the case of Hiroki and Sayuri, the two are fighting to be reunited with each other—Hiroki fights to get Sayuri out of the hospital and Sayuri fights to find her way out of her parallel universe.
Although the plot of The Place Promised in Our Early Days is not as coherent or linear as the plot of Voices of a Distant Star, its characters are likeable and earnest, and their relationships with one another are well-developed and realistic. The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a touching work of art that succeeds in connecting emotionally with the audience despite its many fantastical elements.
Although the theme of distant love can be seen within all of his films, Shinkai’s use of sci-fi as a major element within these two particular works adds a refreshing vitality to his stories. They intensify the love that is lost or strained between his characters and allow viewers to immerse themselves within his created universes. He gives viewers the space to empathize with the pain of being a star-crossed lover while ultimately reminding us that the time spent with our loved ones is precious and transient.
-contributed by Diandra Ismiranti