Shinkai Makoto’s 5 Centimetres per Second (or Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru) deals with themes of love, isolation and separation. With 3 episodes spanning over 20 years from the late 90s, and at just over one hour running time, he tells the story of the love of a lifetime in a spare, elegant, and quite melancholy manner.
The film is stylised and has a strong manga influence in its construction and framing. Longer passages of action are interspersed with single frame shots that speak for the characters inner thoughts, or condense a series of events. The kids are largely alone and set against a larger world, small figures running through their school and town that seems frozen – there are trains and things but little sign of human activity. Takaki says when he dreams of Akari he always sees her alone. The story is mostly told from his perspective, although he is the least emotionally articulate, and Akari is elusive although more expressive.
Cherry Blossom (episode 1) introduces Takaki and Akari. They have been close friends for years, both transferred to their current school when their parents relocated to town for work. A few years later Akari’s parents moved away and the pair have communicated by letter since. Yes, this is a pre email and social media long distance love.
His family are planning to move again, this time to the other side of the country, and Takaki wants to see Akari one last time. He plans a train trip but is delayed by blizzards, and in all the waiting around he can’t avoid confronting his fears that Akari won’t be there but he can’t even contemplate not continuing with the journey.
Of course Akari did wait. They see each other for what may be the last time. They talk, they share their first kiss, and it is sweet and sad.
Cosmonaut (episode 2) is set a few years later when Takaki is settled in his new school. There is another girl, Kanae Sumida, who likes him. He seems oblivious though, and treats her as a friend. Sumida falls for him at first sight but also seems genuinely interested in understanding him, and Takaki is honest with her about his fears and doubts which just makes him all the more appealing and different from other boys. Kanae realises that while she loves him he doesn’t really see her, he’s always looking for something in the distance. If only she knew his dreams were full of Akari, even if he didn’t always recognise her. She resigns herself to a one sided love, and decides not to tell him.
In the final, and titular, episode Akari and Takaki have long since lost track of each other. It’s 2008 and he is living alone, working hard, not doing much else. She is planning her wedding for the coming New Year. He realises that he has lost his enthusiasm for life and had forgotten his fascination with its possibilities and mystery. His girlfriend Risa broke up with him because she knew there was something else he was yearning for, and she wasn’t part of it. So he quits his job and emerges from his tiny drab apartment in time to see the cherry blossoms again. He walks by the spot he and Akari had wanted to visit to see the sakura all those years ago, and passes by a woman who looks very familiar.
I know people who hated the open ending but I think it suits the melancholy tone. This story isn’t really boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy finds girls again. It’s about how time, distance, the minutiae of life can take us down a different path. Kids who couldn’t overrule their parents moving towns, growing up to realise that if you love someone they are under no obligation to feel the same, deciding what matters to you. We drift, maybe a little faster than 5 centimetres per second, and get caught up in currents and cross winds. I think Takaki just accepted that he needed to stop obsessing over what he had lost and what he had never found, and went out to see what was in store for him. I’m not convinced about the singalong ballad at the end… And what do I think the ending means? Does it mean he finds Akari and they get back together? No idea. Sometimes I think maybe they have and sometimes I think he has just come to terms with where he is in life and so can walk forward with a smile.
At just over one hour, there is a lot going on in this deceptively simple film. While the characters are presented without much detail or background, they reveal more about themselves through their interactions, in Akari’s letters, in Kanae’s inner monologues. I felt connected to them and could relate to some of their dilemmas. I like how this story leaves some things up to interpretation and doesn’t tie everything up too neatly. And I also liked that it is OK for Takaki or Kanae or Risa to be sad because of one another but that it doesn’t necessarily follow that any of them are bad people. Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you dreamed.
Shinkai is a great story teller who can illuminate complex emotions or philosophy with a handful of frames. His “Voices of a Distant Star” is one of my favourite films ever, and I liked that this story picked up some of the same themes and developed them. The visual style is strong and with the minimal dialogues it works beautifully to create the mood and show another layer to the story.
See if it you like a bittersweet and oh so chaste love story, or just want to immerse yourself in a beautiful piece of art. 4 ½ stars! (Yes, I did take off a half for the ballad)