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‘Byosoku 5 Centimeters’

A budding talent's delicate vision

by Mark Schilling

As the boundaries between animated and live-action films blur and finally become meaningless (see the graphic-novel look of “300″ for a recent example), perhaps a new category is needed — call it live-mation. In any case, animators in Japan are breaking free of whatever limits on theme and treatment were once imposed on them by the industry, public or technology.

A pioneer in this regard was Hayao Miyazaki, who proved, with films like his 2001 masterpiece “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away),” that he could animate a world as rich as any in a live-action film. Combining CG-assisted realism and Impressionistic backdrops, Miyazaki created spaces that less mimicked nature than improved on it. What art director of a live-action movie, minus a massive CG assist, could duplicate the famous scene in “Spirited Away” of a train gliding across an expanse of calm, glittering water, a vision exhilarating, but somehow familiar, as though glimpsed in another, better universe.

In his new animation, “Byosoku 5 Centimeters (Speed of 5 Centimeters per Second),” Makoto Shinkai makes his own vision of an animated paradise entirely from the materials of the every day: trains, birds, snowflakes, sky — and three teenagers with no magical powers whatsoever, only the common experiences of longing, love and loss.

If this were a run-of-the-mill, if cartoony, seishun eiga (“youth movie”) there wouldn’t be much reason to celebrate — just to wonder why Shinkai didn’t hire a camera and actors and save himself the labor of animating the ordinary.

But Shinkai, who has been hailed as the “next Miyazaki” since the 2002 release of “Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star)” — an awarding-winning, best-selling sci-fi short he created entirely himself on a Mac — is an extraordinary talent.

In “Byosoku,” his imagination may not leap to Miyazaki’s strange and wonderful heights, but he is better (blasphemy!) at piercing the veil of the everyday to reveal a poignant, evanescent beauty most of us notice only in rare moments. Or maybe not so rare if you are, like Shinkai’s three heroes, a sensitive adolescent in love.

Byosoku 5 Centimeters
Rating
Director Makoto Shinkai
Run Time 63 minutes
Language Japanese

Many of these images may derive from photographs — Shinkai and his staff diligently scouted real-life locations, principally in Kagoshima, Tokyo and Tochigi — but in his hands they become impressions of life lived at its most perceptive, intense — and heartbreaking. They capture the meaning of the title: Five centimeters per second is the speed at which cherry blossoms — those ancient Japanese symbols of youth’s brief flowering — are said to flutter and fall.

The story, divided into three episodes, is a seishun-eiga standard. A boy named Takaki (voiced by Kenji Mizuhashi) meets a girl named Akari (Yoshimi Kondo) in a fourth-grade class in a Tokyo suburb in the early 1990s. They are not only both new to the school, but have the same tastes in books, the same aversion to sports. They become inseparable friends, to the derision of their classmates.

Shift to 1995. Soon after graduating from elementary school, Akari moved to a town in Tochigi Prefecture. Takaki has been exchanging letters with her for months but, just before cherry-blossom season, he learns that his family is going to move to far-away Kagoshima Prefecture. He arranges to meet Akari in Tochigi, after an absence of nearly a year, knowing that this may be the last time he sees her. Then, on the way, the snow starts to fall and the train is delayed. Will she still be there when he arrives?

Shift to Tanegashima, the island used by the National Space Development Agency of Japan for rocket launches. Kanae (Satomi Hanamura), a shy third-year high-school student, finds herself peeking around corners at Takaki, now an accomplished surfer, who came to the island from Tokyo when he was a second year-student in junior high. She eventually becomes friends with him — and wants to become something more, but senses that he has someone else on his mind.

Shift to a time near the present. Takaki is now an adult who has recently quit his job, left his girlfriend — and is remembering a past that now seems incredibly distant, as the cherry blossoms fall. Meanwhile, Akari (Ayaka Onoue) is still in Tochigi, alone with her own memories.

There is little in the way of conventional drama in any of this — no dramatic runs after a departing train, no lonely walks in the rain as car headlights blink like fireflies. There is much, though, that will be familiar, especially if you were ever the new kid in school or had a hopeless teenage crushes that turned you into a gibbering idiot in the presence of The One.

The usual Hollywood response to these adolescent rites of passage is comedy of the grosser sort. In treating them seriously, even tenderly, Shinkai runs the risk of sentimentalism, a risk he doesn’t entirely escape. Though the lengthy voice-overs by the main characters have a poignant lyricism (“How fast do I have to live until I can see you again?”), they are a bit much.

Not that real-life teens (and preteens) are incapable of the film’s finer feelings, but they are also capable of changing moods as quickly as they change hairstyles.

Miyazaki, in creating the temperamental Chihiro in “Spirited Away,” knew that quite well. Shinkai may know it, but he doesn’t yet show it.

Is he really the “new Miyazaki?” He won’t become one by imitating the master — geniuses are by definition sui generis — but at 34 he is the anime world’s bright new hope. That and a brilliant minor gem like “Byosoku 5 Centimeters” are enough, for now.