Jun 28 2010 6:13pm

Long distance calls: Voices of a Distant Star

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.

JS Bangs
1. jaspax
This sounds very interesting, and the first thing that I thought of when I saw the art was, "that looks a lot like The Place Promised in Our Early Days". Finding that it's actually the same artist makes me very interested indeed.

My impression of Early Days was that it was an adaptation of a much longer manga that really ought to have been a series and not a single 2-hour feature. I have no idea whether that's the case and am too lazy to Google right now, but the reason I felt that way was that the character arcs felt rushed and half-finished in the current lengths. I hope that Voices doesn't suffer from the safe deficit.
2. wandering-dreamer
Watched all three of these on Shinkai day on this year because all three of his films are out of print and I was glad I got the chance. I thought that Voices had the biggest emotional punch to it and I am in awe of what that one man can do with a Mac. It felt like just the right length to tell the story yet end ambigously (and given the theme of long distance communication that seemed perfect). I recommend it to others but fair warning, all three of his films are fairly similar so watching them all in one day is not the brightest of ideas.
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
This made me cry on and off for a week after I finished it the first time. It has quite a punch.
Tudza White
4. tudzax1
If you want more time dilation effects that make a big difference to the story, I suggest you watch the original Gunbuster.
5. Nojay
Shinkai-san's work for the games company Minori mostly involved creating short advertising animations -- I recommend catching the short piece he created for the harem eroge "Haru no Ashioto". It's on Youtube:

There was an OVA with the same title made later based on some of the characters from the game but it was not done by Shinkai. For one thing there were no trains involved (a trademark of his work).
Matt Gantner
6. gantner
I have to chime in that this is a fantastic film. As visually compelling as any larger production. Very well though-out and evenly paced, the movie is certainly worth seeing if you have the opportunity.

Funny, that I read this post - it is the second reference to time dilation today. I also heard the escape pod podcast / light speed story, "I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno" which is also a story about time separated lovers. Very good by the way.
peter kumar
7. peter415
wow it is looking quite a good movie, i love watching animated movies so will be waiting for it.
René Walling
8. cybernetic_nomad
@Peter415: The movie came out several years ago, unfortunately, it was licensed by ADV which is now defunct. North American DVDs (region 1) are out of print and so may be hard to find.
9. hapax
It might be worth pointing out that this was also adapted for manga (published in English by Tokyopop), with a (slightly) more upbeat ending.

Very affecting in its own way.
Ilya Veselov
10. l3xforever
5 Centimeters per Second is actually the part before colons (byousoku go Centimeter), the other half is literally transliteration of "A chain of short stories about the distance".

PS: it seems your comments are not Unicode-friendly :(
PPS: I'm still waiting for Blu-ray releases of his earlier works (hoshi no koe and older, like kanojo to kanojo no neko).
Lon Bailey
11. lgwbailey
Certainly very poignant and the situation is so very hopeless for both main characters. It is a very strong counterpoint to Heinlein's Starship Trooper where the woman (Carmen) goes off on a star ship. No time effects there and no sadness or loneliness either. Very well done anime - Rene, thanks for introducing this to us
Eugene Myers
12. ecmyers
This is a beautiful and moving film, even more stunning considering its origin as "garage anime." I can't find the coda online anymore, but I saved the text, and in the alternate ending Noboro heads into space on a faster ship and eventually reunites with a recovered Nagamine, with only a 4-year difference between them.

I hadn't heard of 5 Centimeters Per Second (probably because it wasn't released here) but I'll look for it. And I second the recommendation for the original Gunbuster OVA series.

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