Fans of mature love stories rarely venture into the anime section of their local video store for their latest fix. Most anime is shallow, violent and immature. It cares more about big breasted women fighting ninja robot vampire aliens than about deep character development and involving dialogue. An exception to this norm are the works of Makoto Shinkai. His beautiful love stories are immaculately developed, although his first full length film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, is at times very disappointing. As part of the Shinkai Collection, though, it has many merits. The Collection also includes Shinkai's first short She and Her Cat, the 20 minute short Voices of a Distant Star, and the Voices of a Distant Star soundtrack. I will review each of these four components separately and then rate the package as a whole.
She and Her Cat
This short is available in three versions, as a one, three, or five minute piece. The full film is five minutes, although I find the three minute version to be more rewarding. The simple story tells about the love a cat has for his owner, She. It manages to convey a series of situations and emotions through simple black and white stills (With some minor animation) and a voiceover provided by Shinkai himself. Those interested in studying Shinkai should take note of three distinct aspects of She and Her Cat that continue throughout the rest of his work. First, note that even in black and white Shinkai uses very realistic lighting usually not found in anime. His later works use this lighting in conjunction with highly saturated lighting for a very realistic and beautiful effect. Secondly, even at this young age, Shinkai's monologues are excellent. Finally, take a special note of the final line. This small, seemingly irrelevant, quip becomes deeply meaningful on repeat viewings, and the final line is always the most important in a Shinkai film. Don't shrug off this short as an extra, as it is actually a much better piece than the full length The Place Promised In Our Early Days.
Voices of a Distant Star
This has to be the single most heart wrenching cartoon I have ever seen. In a mere 23 minutes Makoto Shinkai delivers a story that will pull at your deepest heartstrings and honestly brought this reviewer to tears several times. Voices is about two middle school sweethearts who dream of being together forever. Due to an alien attack on humanity's Mars colony, though, the girl is drafted into the military and eventually sent lightyears away to the alien's home planet. Though space travel is common in this future, sending messages across space is not. In fact, the only form of communication the girl has with the boy is text messaging. As the girl gets farther and farther away the messages take longer and longer to reach earth, moving from a month, to a year, to eight and a half. Meanwhile, on Earth, the boy grows older, and patiently awaits the texts from the girl.
Anyone who has waited for news of a loved one who is off fighting a war knows the feeling of longing, or worry, or sometimes futile hope as you wait for that loved one to send word that he or she is still alive. In this way, and especially at this time, Voices rings as true as any story can. This is really an emotional journey that will tear into your soul and leave you pondering just how far love can travel, and just how long.
As before, watch for Shinkai's beautiful use of color and lighting. While the shoestring budget (He did this whole thing himself) kept him from using complex animation, the still images here are simply some of the best around, and those scenes that do feature a lot of animation are simply stunning to behold. As others have stated, Shinkai's weakness is his character designs, but even these outstrip many of the cheap anime junk that is released these days.
As always, the monologues that each character gives are simply beautiful. Make sure to listen to both the English and Japanese audio tracks as both provide a very different translation. The voice actors though do a great job, and the people at ADV were kind enough to include the original voicetrack done by Shinkai and his wife. As far as the writing and performances go, my only complaint lies in the translation of the written material onscreen, or lack thereof. When watching the English dub, the Japanese writing does not have a translation onscreen. This is a terrible oversight as at one point several newspaper clippings deliver some major plotpoints that will be missed by those not watching the subtitled version. Finally, pay careful attention to the final lines of this piece, as like She and Her Cat, they are truly deep and moving.
Voices OST By Tenmon
In most situations I would not recommend buying this soundtrack but since it is included here for free then be sure to give it a listen. Voices truly has some of the best music I have ever heard in an Anime. Obviously the length of the film keeps the number of tracks, and their length from going on to long, but the theme song, and the second, third and fourth tracks are all great listens. All the other songs are essentially remixes of these four, but they all are beautiful and relaxing.
As a side note, the music in She and Her Cat is also very good and it is upsetting to see that one of the songs here is not from that. Also there is no soundtrack for The Place Promised in Our Early Days, which has a couple very good numbers, and features another heartbreaking theme song with lyrics written by Shinkai himself. I guess we can't ask for everything, and the Voices soundtrack is by far the best of the bunch but it would have been nice if the music from all three films were included.
The Place Promised In Our Early Days
I really wanted to like this film. And in many ways it is the best film out of the three, but in many ways it falters. First off, the setting of this film, an alternate reality Japan split into two countries, one free one controlled by the US, is more unique than an alien infested future or modern day Tokyo, but it feels very underdeveloped. I understand Shinkai's desire to keep the focus on the characters, its just hard to justify their actions when the politics of their surrounding world is so muddled. The story, another love story, tells the tale of three middle school kids who form a great friendship over one summer before they are torn apart by the disappearance of the girl of the group. The two boys are broken hearted and split ways, one becoming a genius studying alternate universes and the other, and the romantic interest of the girl,travels to Tokyo where he hopes to leave behind his misery. Three years later unexplained politics bring the boys together again. It is here the story starts to crumble. Supposedly the tower that looms in the background of almost every shot is some sort of experimental complex where the enemy is trying to open the door to alternate dimensions. The science behind this doesn't sound plausible, and when the girl becomes somehow connected, the entire explanation just dies. I wont ruin anything more, but be sure to ask yourself at the end why anyone would have kept the tower running, what its purpose was, and so forth, as none of this is explained and due to circumstances I wont reveal, it seems that anyone involved would want to dismantle the tower as soon as possible.
However, like in his previous works, Shinkai's characters are well developed. Still, it seems that he is recycling the characters from Voices for the two leads here. They both have their own quirks, and the relationship with the third boy adds a wrinkle (although his motives are not clearly defined) but all in all the gist of this story is the same as Voices. As I said before, some aspects of this film are great. First off are those monologues that Shinkai writes so well. They return here and are delivered with an equal amount of force and beauty. As always they drive the story forward when the dialogue starts to sound awkward. Of course, the ending here is satisfying, and while it doesn't pack the same punch as Voices or Cat, it's still moving and uplifting.
The best part of this film though is not the story but the artwork. Finally having a large budget and a full crew to work with, Shinkai takes his scenic work to the next level. Really, at times these vistas are even greater than those of a Miyazaki film. The character designs were handled by a specialist and the improved modeling is evident throughout. In fact the artwork in this film really is peerless. Shinkai has been called the next Miyazaki, and while I wholeheartedly disagree with that in general, I can say that the scenery in Shinkai's work at least equals that of a Studio Ghibli piece, and at times even surpasses it. Moreover, with a full team animating, there are few if any still shots here, and literally dozens of pieces are animating in any one shot. If you are a fan of art than this piece will astound and amaze you.
Overall Place is a disappointment. It doesn't deliver the depth or emotional oomph of Shinkai's previous work, and the confusing setting disrupts the beauty of the characters living in it. Maybe if the piece had been a little longer, and greater care had been put into explaining the science and politics behind its world, Place would have been a success. As it stands, it is still better than the majority of anime out there, but as far as the comparison to Miyazaki goes, well this is not even on the same planet as the master's worst work.
The Shinkai Collection comes in a flimsy plastic box that doesn't even have a back on it. Though two books of interviews and artwork are included, good luck in keeping them from falling onto the floor. This really isn't much of a Collection as much as two DVD's wrapped into one case. If you are expecting some sort of collector's keepsake item or nice commemorative box then you will be disappointed. The two DVD cases themselves are nicely built. Both DVD's contain both American and Japanese Soundtrack, as well as interviews with the cast and Shinkai and previews for ADV's upcoming films and series. The only reason I suggest getting this collection is because I don't believe the soundtrack comes with Voices when you buy it alone, but I could be wrong. Since both She and Her Cat and Voices are contained on the same DVD, It wouldn't be a huge loss just purchasing that alone. If you want to get Place with them though then this is a great value for your money, as they will cost you a good ten dollars more when bought by themselves. So my overall comment on the package would be F for the box and collectables, D for the disc extras but B for the value.
I can't give a half star on Amazon officially but if you've read this far than you'll know how mixed I am on the content of this Collection. She and Her Cat is great in all three versions, and Voices is a short that will stay with you for the rest of your life, but the feature length film of this collection is only average at best. The packaging is poorly done, and the lame artbooks don't really make up for it. I would give this three stars if Voices didn't deserve six. As it is, with that included, you really can consider everything else just padding, and you do get the full Shinkai experience up to that point in time. (He has since made 2 cm Per Sec) If you are fan of beautiful artwork though, then Place really delivers, and even if you just want to watch it as an aside it is worth spending the extra ten bucks to see Places. Just remember, if you are spending conscious that the main attractions of this Collection are available together without Place. If you are a collector though, then be sure to get this due to the excellent value. Enjoy!