One of the year’s best surprises so far was the animated Japanese romance epic Your Name., which felt like it came out of nowhere before jumping into shockingly wide American distribution. Audiences who closely follow Japanese popular media were probably a lot less surprised by the film’s stellar quality and critical word of mouth success, however. Not only was Your Name. the top-grossing film in Japan last year, anime or otherwise, but it’s director Makoto Shinkai had been praised as “the next Miyazaki” for at least a decade now, despite not having much name recognition abroad. What really should have telegraphed the arrival of Your Name., though, was Shinkai’s sophomore feature, 5 Centimeters per Second, which shared a lot of basic DNA with the director’s breakout hit despite being released a decade in the past. It’s not nearly as significant or as cohesive of a work, but it is certainly fascinating as a wind-up to the pitch.
Told in a series of three interconnected vignettes, 5 Centimeters per Second is a kind of romance anthology, adopting a format usually employed by the horror genre. A young boy named Takaki yearns for intimacy with a classmate who moves to the countryside, several gruelling trains transfers away. In the first segment Takaki journeys to meet her at the station. In the second, he’s slightly older and painfully unaware that his current highschool classmate has a crush on him. His mind is still wrapped up in his childhood crush. The third segment finds Takaki as an adult with a job as an office drone, still living in an unfulfilled life as he mentally searches for a childhood love that never saw its due. Much like Your Name., it’s a film about two romantics separated by time & distance who yearn for an impossible shared space where they can fully explore their feelings for each other. Unlike Your Name., this film feels like a series of loosely connected, lightly detailed sketches that never truly come together in a cohesive way.
The three segments that make up 5 Centimeters per Second are obviously differentiated by drastic shifts in time: Takaki’s life as a school age boy with a devastating crush, his year as a hunky but oblivious highschool senior, and his adult state as a depressed, unfulfilled office worker. What really differentiates between these periods, however, and what keeps them interesting, is their individual senses of pacing. The opening puppy love segment is shot rapid fire at the screen with the excited energy of a young child to whom everything means so much. The highschool episode slows things down significantly, making room for reflective stargazing, matching Takaki’s off-in-the-distance sense of mental wandering. The concluding segment oddly ties the whole thing together by starting with Takaki’s aimless descent into dull adulthood tedium, but then reigniting the excitement of the film’s romantic spark with a music video crescendo that incorporates imagery from Takaki’s entire life onscreen. Each individual part has a clear sense of how to match its story with a corresponding cinematic energy, even if Shinkai is much less deliberate in how he brings them all together.
You can feel so many of Shinkai’s pet obsessions just starting to take shape in 5 Centimeters per Second that it makes sense it would take a decade for them to fully form. The film not only plays with the same city boy & country girl sending messages long distance dynamic of Your Name., but anchors that romance to a lot of similar imagery: cityscapes glistening like natural formations, birds flying against outer space backdrops, travel by trains, teens staring into cellphones in anticipation, etc. However, Shinkai seems less confident in this earlier work how to incorporate supernatural sci-fi into its central romance and how to conclude a story that spans such a long distance in both space & time. 5 Centimeters Per Second does stand well enough on it own as “a chain of short stories,” but it often feels like the sketchbook plans of the much better feature to come. Fans enamored with Your Name. should be able to find a lot to connect with in that respect, even if the movie is a loosely defined experiment.