Makoto Shinkai's masterpiece is truly a one-man show
By Jonathan Mays
In a world of large studios and massive production teams, Makoto Shinkai stands alone. Voices of a Distant Star (available now from ADV Films) is a work of love, created, produced, and animated all by a single man. The 25-minute sci-fi drama, an astonishingly beautiful and emotional piece of work, marks a significant achievement in modern animation. Shinkai bravely defies the commercial current of anime, offering a personal story with exceptional clarity and honesty.
Noboru Terao and Mikako Nagamine were once inseparable. Throughout middle school the young couple had enjoyed each other's company, sharing their lives at school, eating ice cream at the convenience store, walking each other home, and dreaming of a fulfilling life together. Their future seemed perfect. But they could never have imagined the planetary disaster that would steal one of them away.
Now, they are friends separated by war. In the year 2046, the United Nations has assembled a force to hunt down the mysterious alien race that ambushed a Mars expeditionary team. Among those recruited to defend humanity is Mikako herself, selected for her intelligence and physical prowess to pilot the Tracer assault machine. With only cell phone text messages to keep in touch, the weeks, months, and years of distance begin to take their toll on the star-crossed lovers. As Mikako struggles to reconcile her responsibility to mankind with her longing for Noboru, her companion fights to live through each day's loneliness, waiting faithfully--perhaps futilely--for the day that they may embrace each other again.
Origin aside, Voices of a Distant Star is a stunningly magnificent film, weaving artful storytellin g into a fabric of elegant animation; it is a tear-jerking featurette laced with love. A thrilling yet sobering piece, it is among the very best half-hours anime has to offer. That it was created, directed, and animated by a single man on a Macintosh G4/400 computer only adds to the magnitude of this achievement. Even the voice acting in the original cut (included on the DVD) was performed by Shinkai and his fiancée. It's difficult to qualify Shinkai's masterpiece because, simply put, it has no equal.
It takes a gifted individual to be an industry pioneer, and Makoto Shinkai fits the bill perfectly. A graduate of Chu University, Shinkai studied Japanese literature before taking a job at a local video game company. For five years he created short animation clips for a wide range of games, but he felt the brevity of in-game animation was stifling. Seeking an outlet for his creativity, Shinkai privately began making short anime films on his computer.
From as early as his first work, 1997's Other Worlds, it was clear that Makoto Shinkai possessed a gift he was destined to share with a wide audience. Shinkai expressed his fascination with subway trains, telephone lines, and other images of everyday life in Japan, an interest that would earn him comparisons to accomplished anime directors Yoshitoshi Abe and Hideki Anno.
By May 2000, Shinkai's stature was rising quickly. She and Her Cat, which featured sound effects and dialogue recorded from his very own living room, won two Grand-Prix awards in Japan, earning Shinkai widespread recognition among the animation community. Following its success, he boldly resigned from his position at the video game company, devoting himself exclusively to his blossoming animation career. Numerous studio job offers accompanied his transition, but Shinkai refused them all, each time citing his desire to animate with as small as staff as possible.
Despite constant pressure to accept a studio position, Shinkai would not abandon his dream. "It's often said that animation is an operation with hard labor as its main characteristic," he commented in a 2001 interview, clearly stating his distaste for modern anime production. Shinkai aimed more for the type of personal influence of music, manga, or a novel, mediums in which "the individual's taste comes out more." Free of the constraints of the anime and video game industries, Makoto Shinkai embarked on his most ambitious project of his career. Hoshi no Koe would feature a real story with character development, a tale told in color with a length of almost half an hour. Seven months later, Shinkai's visionary production--known here as Voices of a Distant Star--was complete.
Here's a list of the equipment Makoto Shinkai used to create "Voices of a Distant Star:"
Apple® Power Macintosh® G4
--400MHz, 1 GB RAM, 300GB Hard Drive
WACOM® pen tablet
Olympus® digital camera
Trace stand and paper
Adobe® Photoshop® 5.0
Adobe® AfterEffects® 4.1
Newtek LightWave 3D® 6.5
Pinnacle® Commotion 3.1
Makoto Shinkai is credited for original concept, production, and animation in Voices of a Distant Star, but even an independent project requires a modicum of collaboration to reach its final presentation form. Shinkai's inner circle of friends and colleagues is extremely small, but each made significant contributions to his works.
Ms. Mika Shinohara, Shinkai's fiancée and a graduate of the same junior high school he attended, appeared as the voice of Mikako Nagamine in the original version of Voices. A junior high nurse and health education teacher, she had never performed as an amateur or professional actress; Mikako is her first and, thus far, only acting experience. It was not, however, her first involvement with Shinkai's animation. A year before, Shinohara and her room had served as models for She and Her Cat--but ironically, she never owned a cat!
Tenmon (an alias that means "Heaven's Gate") provided music for Voices of a Distant Star. One of Shinkai's former co-workers, he has a long relationship with the creator, but Voices was their first collaboration. The unmistakable beauty of Tenmon's piano compositions is one of the film's most alluring elements. In addition to background music, Tenmon composed Voices' theme song, "Hello, Tiny Star," which was sung by Ms. Low, yet another employee of the same game company. Tenmon's understated score adds a mesmerizing quality to Voices, a sense that he and Shinkai hope to extend in their future works.
On the business side, Shinkai is indebted to Yoshihiro Hagiwara, a producer at CoMix Wave who first convinced the company to arrange financial support for Shinkai's project. As a result of Hagiwara's persuation, CoMix Wave offered unprecedented support to the independent Voices film. Shinkai also owes Noritaka Kawaguchi, Production Manager at CoMix Wave, for taking the risk to secure the resources the creator needed to work on Voices.
Like his previous productions, Voices of a Distant Star brought Makoto Shinkai much critical praise, but unlike prior works, he also enjoyed financial success from the animation. Shinkai's newfound profit has allowed him to follow-up Voices with another independent animation only a year later.
Beyond the Clouds: The place promised in our early days is, according to Shinkai, "A tale of saving a sleeping beauty." At fifty minutes, Shinkai's latest film is twice the length of its predecessor, allowing for more character development, more deliberate plot movement, and of course, a plethora of beautiful scenes. The film also marks character designer Ushio Tazawa and 3D modeler Kazunari Takada's debuts as members of Shinkai's staff. Here's a preview:
Following World War II, Japan was split into northern and southern regions, each occupied by another country. In 1996, Hiroki Fujiwara and Takuya Shirakawa, two boys who live in Aomori Prefecture (the northern tip of southern Japan), become fascinated by a magnificent tower on the other side of the strait. Though they are forbidden to cross into northern Japan, the boys aspire to build a plane to reach the other side and satisfy their curiosity. Joined by their friend, the beautiful Sayuri Sawatari, the three promise to reach the tower someday.
Using discarded army materials, the boys assemble a plane, naming it the "Velaciela," but before they can fly north, amnesia strikes Sayuri, who leaves for Tokyo without explanation. Stunned by her departure, the boys are suddenly bereft of passion, and they abandon their dream. Five years later the boys meet again by chance, each still concerned about Sayuri's illness. Determined to save her, they embark on a new journey to find a cure, a path that will lead them to uncover the secret of the mysterious tower. Again they dream to stand together in the place once promised
Beyond the Clouds is scheduled to premiere in Japan by the end of 2003; expect a North American release to follow quickly.
As Voices of a Distant Star prepares for its North American release, fans should be pleased by ADV Films' treatment of the work. The distributor went to great lengths to assemble a superior DVD, and it's obvious that the company recognized the value of Makoto Shinkai's work. Under the guidance of director Steven Foster, the English dub is an able substitute for those who suffer from microxanthologophobia (read: fear of small yellow words.) Despite some script alterations and different interpretations of emotion, the English soundtrack retains Shinkai's circular literary pattern. As a splendid bonus, ADV's Voices release also includes all three versions of She and Her Cat, complete with English subtitles.
In a way, thirty-year-old Makoto Shinkai offers his audience a glimpse of the past. His individual effort is reminiscent of Winsor McCay and Max Fleischer's early steps as animators, their pioneering achievements opening many doors to the world of animation. Yet at the same time, Shinkai's films demonstrate the developing power of technology, his "one-man show" suggesting a possible future for animation. Is he aiming for the past or the future? Shinkai won't say. So perhaps it's best to settle in the present and savor the works of one of the greatest animators of any time.