Anime Retrospective – 5 Centimeters Per Second

So, I’m doing something a little different today. While I usually review anime based on their own merits and usually after watching them for the first time, I decided this time to look back at an older anime I haven’t seen in years and see how that anime holds up now. I’m a relatively recent anime fan, as I only got into the medium roughly six years ago, so I don’t have a huge backlog of anime to look through, but one of the earliest anime I remember watching was Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007). At the time, I didn’t think much of the film, ultimately dismissing it as boring and slow. However, since that initial viewing, I’ve watched and loved a lot of Makoto Shinkai’s other films, so I decided to return to his first hit and see how it stacks up to his recent successes. Having watched the film a second time, I can safely conclude that this film is much better than I initially thought but ultimately is most interesting when read within the larger Makoto Shinkai canon.

Like almost every Makoto Shinkai movie, 5 Centimeters Per Second focuses on a pair of star-crossed lovers struggling with the difficulties of young love and long distance relationships. Divided into three sections, the film presents protagonist Takaki during three distinct snapshots of his life, beginning as a hopeful middle-schooler and ending as a depressed and unfulfilled adult. In each section, Shinkai perfectly evokes a sense of longing for past loves and missed opportunities and explores the nature of nostalgia and déjà vu, subject matter that he would return to in films like Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) and Your Name (2016). But with all these similarities to later films, how does 5 Centimeters Per Second fare in comparison?

The animation and art-style are perhaps the most obvious differences between this and Shinkai’s subsequent movies, looking far more like his earlier The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) than his recent work. The art-style here is spartan and functional; missing are the lush and vibrant colours of films like Garden of Words (2013), Children Who Chase Lost Voices, or most recently Your Name. Although the characters share certain physical features with Shinkai’s later protagonists, the character models in this film are noticeably much simpler and flatter in design, with most of the female characters sharing a similarly generic design. For a film where so much of the emotions are deliberately left unsaid, the character expressions need to carry the weight of communicating those complicated feelings. However, the facial expressions, particularly Takaki’s are mostly indistinguishable and fall flat. While I no longer find the film boring, I still found myself feeling indifferent to some of Takaki’s struggles, because he is so inexpressive and one-dimensional. Furthermore, while the animation is consistently realistic, it is not nearly as lively or captivating as the animation of Shinkai’s later films. It’s unfortunate, but the art-style and animation often hold the story back from what it could have been.

That said, Shinkai’s ability to burn a vivid image into my brain is still there. Although I’d forgotten a good deal of the movie’s plot over the years, there are certain scenes that remain imbedded in my subconscious. Takaki and Kanae biking home in the fading light of evening, lights flickering in a wintery Shinjuku station, and the iconic final shot of the film at the railroad crossing — there are a variety of moments that feel bigger than the movie. I still remember these scenes because they’re somehow able to convey a realistic sense of mundane life but also the larger machinations of fate. Simple acts like Kanae deciding to finally change her usual drink order or her motorbike’s engine plug failing are seemingly everyday occurrences, but as the tension builds, each action slides into place and creates an ambiguous sense of finality and utmost importance. These simple moments are particularly effective at generating sympathy, as the audience grows to understand these characters by inhabiting their everyday world. The precise rendering of these ordinary settings and the milieux of each character allows us to put ourselves in their shoes and to recall our own adolescence and the feelings of first love or the stress to get into a good college.

But if there’s one scene in this film that has impressed itself upon the minds of anime fans the world over, it’s of course the fateful “reunion” of Takaki and Akari at the railroad crossing near the cherry blossom tree. As almost everyone has noted since Your Name first aired, Your Name’s ending notably parallels and plays with the ending of this film. In both movies, star-crossed lovers briefly and unexpectedly pass each other in a Tokyo street and feel a sense of unease that prompts them to turn around and search for the other, as cherry blossom petals float lazily around them both. 5 Centimeters Per Second of course ends on a much more melancholy note than Your Name, and that difference in ending illuminates perhaps the biggest reason for my personal preference of Your Name.

After she gives up on confessing her feelings to Takaki, Kanae acknowledges that she will still be “helplessly” in love with him every day thereafter. Love lies at the heart of both 5 Centimeters Per Second and Your Name, but in 5 Centimeters Per Second, love is paradoxically powerless and powerful. It’s fragile and easily thwarted by the forces of time and space and human weakness but strong enough to completely overpower the human will and render human lovers helpless. In Your Name however, love is primarily an empowering force, with its main lovers fighting against fate and saving a town from destruction purely through their emotional bond that transcends time itself. While I’m by no means an optimist or someone who always needs to have a happy ending, Your Name’s almost antagonistic relationship between love and fate is ultimately far more engaging to me than 5 Centimeters Per Second’s passive and depressing acceptance of doomed love.

Although it’s the inability to forget and move on from love that enables Taki to save Mitsuha in Your Name, it’s that same inability to move on from love that stunts Takaki’s growth as a person and deprives his life of purpose. While Takaki’s childhood sweetheart Akari finds a fiancé and moves on with her life, represented by her choice to leave before the train passes, Takaki is unable to move on, resorting to cigarettes, beer, and television-binging to dull the pain of failed relationships. Unlike Akari, he’s frozen at the railroad crossing, waiting for the train to pass and hoping for a glimpse of his past lost. Whether Takaki ever finds contentment and moves on is left unclear, as the last we see of him is a small, ambiguous smile as he finally walks away from the central image of the cherry tree and railroad crossing. Regardless, when placed in conversation with each other, 5 Centimeters Per Second and Your Name represent two sides of the same issue. A single-minded devotion to love can be the most empowering and beneficial thing a person is capable of, but that devotion can also be personally destructive and torturous if taken too far. These two films, along with the similarly tragic love stories represented in Garden of Words or Children Who Chase Lost Voices, portray the pain inherent in loving someone else but also demonstrate the beauty and power of the kind of love that finds a way, regardless of time and space.

Ultimately, 5 Centimeters Per Second will never be one of my personal favourites, but re-watching it after all these years and inevitably comparing it to later Shinkai films that are personal favourites gave me a deeper appreciation of the film. If for some reason you haven’t seen this movie yet, I definitely recommend giving it a chance, and even if you have seen it before, I still recommend watching it again and reevaluating the film as I did. It’s a film that definitely gets better in retrospect.

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