Mikako and Noboru are high school friends in 2047. Aliens— called Tarsians—are at war with humanity and Mikako is drafted and sent into space as a Tracer (mecha) pilot while her friend Noboru stays on Earth. They keep in touch via text messages on their cell phones, but as Mikako’s assigned ship, the Lysithea, brings her further and further away from Earth—first training on Mars, then assignments near Jupiter and on the fringes of the solar system and, eventually, a different star system—the messages take longer and longer to get to their destination, until eventually the 15 year old Mikako wishes happy birthday to the 24 year old Noboru.
This could easily be yet another giant robot story, but it’s not. This is the story of two people in what can easily be called the ultimate long-distance relationship. Not only does interstellar distance separate them, but also time. At the end of the film, Mikako still a teenager while Noboru is now a young man in his mid-twenties. What they’ve lived through is very different yet they still share a bond that strengthens them.
Voices of a Distant Star (ほしのこえ) is a highly unusual film in many ways, it was entirely animated by Makoto Shinkai on his Mac computer, using Photoshop, Lightwave 3D and other off-the-shelf software. Tenmon, a composer who worked for the same game company as Shinkai, wrote the soundtrack and is one of only a handful of people to contribute to the film.
Shinkai knows his SF. The title of the film is a riff off of Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth, and there also are definite parallels between Voices and Haldeman’s Forever War. It is also one of the few movies to take relativistic time dilation effects into account—in fact, they’re crucial to the story.
In addition, he’s been hailed as the next Miyazaki (an assessment which he claims is an overestimation of his talents). But like Miyazaki, his films are definitively his and he carefully crafts them so that no detail is either missing or superfluous. It makes for some great worldbuilding: all sorts of things large and small point to a society being set in the future: calendars and newspapers are made of e-paper, are browsable and include video, Mars is being terraformed, the telecom networks spanning the solar system and more. Yet a bus stop is decades old and transit trains are still in use. This gives the world depth in time, something often lacking in movies where entire cities look brand new and everyone uses the same kind of computer or cell phone.
The same care is given to developing the characters. We are never told what they feel, but Mikako’s need to send Noboru messages and let him know he’s still important to her, and Noboru’s quiet determination to wait for her messages no matter what, are palpable. The most amazing thing is that this is often expressed in brief scenes where very little seems to happen, but where you just know what the charcaters feelings and hopes are.
That’s Shinkai’s greatest strength: allowing us to explore the inner universe of his characters. This is a very personal work by a director who you should keep an eye out for. He’s worked on a few shorts in addition to two features: The Place Promised in Our Early Days (雲のむこう、約束の場所) and 5 Centimeters Per Second (秒速５センチメートル： アチェインオブショートストリーズアバウトゼアディスタンス) and rumour has it he’s currently working on another feature.
René Walling is a fan of SF, animation and comics, this has led him to co-chair Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, be involved with fps magazine for more than a decade, and start Nanopress, a Canadian small press. He looks forward to living on Mars where he would benefit from having more than 24 hours in a day.