Makoto Shinkai only has three proper titles (or four, if you count 1999's She And Her Cat) under his belt, and only one of those is a true full-length film, but he's already been announced as the new Hayao Miyazaki. I'll admit, I've done my fair share of stoking that particular fire, due my effusive praise for Voices From A Distant Star (2000) and The Place Promised In Our Early Days (2004). But when you consider Shinkai's work, with its lush and evocative animation and artwork, and its equally emotional storylines, the only name that readily comes to mind is that of anime's grand master.
That being said, I get the sense after watching 5 Centimeters Per Second that Shinkai is at something of a crossroads. Though barely an hour in length, 5 Centimeters Per Second is such a perfect encapsulation of the themes that Shinkai has been exploring in his work to date that one can't help but wonder what's left there for him to explore, and wonder where he'll go from here.
5 Centimeters Per Second consists of three interconnected segments, all focusing on the relationships of a young man named Takaki. In the first segment, "Cherry Blossom Extract", Takaki is absolutely smitten with his young classmate Akari. However, before their relationship can truly become something more than youthful longing, Akari moves far away from Tokyo. The two write, but they slowly drift apart.
In a desperate attempt to finally express his feelings to Akari, Takaki sets out on a late night trainride to her new hometown. However, the winter weather turns nasty and delays the train, and as he broods on their past, he finds himself fearing that they might never be truly together.
The second segment, "Cosmonaut", is told from the perspective of Kanae, one of Takaki's high school classmates. We learn that Takaki has moved since the first story's events, and is now even further away from Akari. However, Akari continues to haunt him, something that Kanae — who has a huge crush on Takaki — begins to suspect when it becomes apparent that he doesn't share her romantic feelings.
In the third and eponymous segment, Takaki is now living back in Tokyo and he has recently learned that Akari is engaged. Despite it being years since the two had any significant contact, Takaki is unable to let go of his youthful feelings. He lives in a near-constant state of nostalgia, which has left him becoming increasingly bitter, lonely, and empty. As he's walking home one day, he crosses paths with a familiar looking woman, which brings all of his emotions to a head.
Shinkai's films have all dealt with the separation, alienation, and inevitable longing that is inherent in relationships. In Voices From A Distant Star, his two lovers were separated by light years and time dilation. In The Place Promised In Our Early Days, government experiments and parallel universes conspire to keep the lovers apart. However, in 5 Centimeters Per Second, which eschews any and all sci-fi trappings, that which endangers our protagonists is entirely pedestrian in nature: the slow changes and commonplace events of mundane every day life.
The lack of a fanciful setting, combined with the fact that 5 Centimeters Per Second ends on a much more bittersweet note than his other titles, means that Shinkai's latest hits a little harder. With 5 Centimeters Per Second, Shinkai explores the dark side of nostalgia and longing, with the constant desire for that which you cannot have — or which you might've had at one point, but have lost due to the simple processes of growing older.
This especially comes to head in the third story, in which the poignancy and longing explored in the first two implodes, revealing a black hole that gnaws away at the heart and soul of the adult Takaki.
Visually, 5 Centimeters Per Second is as pretty as anything done by Shinkai. Mixing together traditional cel animation with incredibly detailed CGI and Photoshopped backdrops (many of which are based on actual locations throughout Japan, thus adding to the film's verisimilitude), Shinkai's visuals are awash with beauty — especially the many ways in which he conveys light, be it lamps glinting off of a metal train seat or a gorgeous ocean sunset. That, when combined with the melancholy and surprising amount of bitterness in the story, makes for a nice study in contrasts, and further adds to the wistful tone of the film's stories.
So far, Shinkai has resisted the Miyazaki comparisons, which is probably for the best. That being said, there is one thing that being "the next Miyazaki" would imply for Shinkai: greater creative flexibility.
What makes Miyazaki such a wonderful filmmaker, technical abilities aside, is that each of his works are so unique from one another. True, there are common threads that run through many of his films (e.g., the environmental undercurrents of Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away) as well as similar visuals (many of his characters bear very similar designs) but you could never, in a million years, mistake one of his films for another. Although he hasn't reached the sort of generification yet, I fear that Shinkai might end up making the same film over and over again if he's not careful.
Here's hoping that 5 Centimeters Per Second represents something of a clearinghouse for Shinkai, one last hurrah before moving on to new, and equally fertile territory. Put simply, Shinkai just has too much talent to rest on his laurels. To date, his work has revealed a singular voice in anime, one that is quite committed to a very specific and unique vision — which is to be applauded. But he's played it safe long enough, and it's time to head out into some uncharted waters to truly test his artistic mettle.