5 Centimeters Per Second Remains Makoto Shinkai’s Finest Film

Director Makoto Shinkai operates in creating spectacle. In his recent films, Your Name (2016) and Weathering With You (2019), the director’s vision has erred in favor of grandeur and the effect is palpable. Between the beautiful and detailed animation (countless drops of rain drawn in so many iterations) plus characters facing perilous, immeasurable odds, his films deliver on a disproportionate level of emotional magnitude. Similarly to the teenagers fronting his stories, the films ask us to feel, and to feel a lot. 

His most effective work, and greatest achievement in artistry and writing, is one of his shortest. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) remains a notable turning point in his career following The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004,) and between lesser efforts Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) and The Garden of Words (2013). The striking lack of grandeur, prominent composure, and smaller scale production result in a more lasting and impactful story. 

Shinkai’s career has been an exercise in establishing tone and finding a voice that doesn’t utilize tricks and tools of greater directors. In his early career, Hayao Miyazaki was a clear inspiration, particularly in  Children Who Chase Lost Voices. 5 Centimeters Per Second, prior to his work in Your Name and beyond, is Shinkai at his most visually defined as a singular filmmaker. 

Only an hour long, Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second is broken into three vignettes. All three follow protagonist Takaki’s life through his relationships with the women in his life. The romantic drama follows Takaki from adolescence to young adulthood, all the while honing in on the intrinsic yearning that thematically links so many of Shinkai’s films. His most consistent attribute as a storyteller, beyond the visuals, is his dedication to a story where two characters are seismically linked. This focus on impossible connections and circumstances, compounded by the inevitably of the characters’ journey, comes to life with greater gravity here. The patience of the story, the slow burn ache of adolescence, ignites.

The visuals and writing are top-tier. The facial features are flat, but the emotions connect because every other artistic choice moves to replicate what Takaki isn’t saying as he grows from a hopeful adolescent to a depressed adult. The environmental imagery, again that universal, greater-than-us sensation, isn’t used solely for the sake of the inherent beauty, but is informed by the tone. From snowflakes and cherry blossoms to starry nights and limitless oceans, Shinkai puts to film how we recollect with distinctive graininess. Memories inspire nostalgia, melancholy, regret even, and 5 Centimeters Per Second captures that. 

Shinkai loves the impossible and the inevitable, and the world gives him plenty of subject material. The world is big, bigger still when we’re young, brought to life by sunsets and fireworks, the sun breaking free after a long rainy day, and the sleepy gaze of watching the receding skyline in a rearview mirror. A rocket launch is drawn to split the world in two. Background artists Takumi Tanji and Ryoko Majima marry photo-realism with fantasy, vivid and tangible scenery given an extra spark, elevating it to something otherworldly. 

“Cherry Blossom” is the film’s most potent story. Distilling that reverence for childhood, Shinkai captures endless youth when looking ahead, and the melancholy of looking back. This is best depicted through a painful train ride Takaki takes to visit a childhood friend, Akari, a childhood friend. 

Part of the pain comes through recognizing the endurance test of public transport. Greater still though is the animation which seeks to highlight the solitary details: the slow vacancy of the train, the chill that encases the windows as the storm picks up, Takaki’s slow defeat as he stops checking his watch in fear he’ll arrive on time. This train ride to a ghost town and the travel time which continually lengthens beyond his control represents the unknown of his future. 

Once reunited, Akari and the warmth she gives Takaki is visualized in the fireplace she huddles near. The infinite possibilities laid before youthful minds is depicted through vast space in the frame. Theirs are the only two footprints in the snow, the only breaths the wind catches as they huddle in a nearby shed for warmth. At this moment, they are the only two that matter, the only living souls, and Shinkai creates echoes of nostalgia through animation. There’s something so haunting and beautiful about untouched snow, and it evokes the feelings Takaki has that their stories are the only ones who matter at the moment. 

5 Centimeters Per Second honors the weight of the future. While Your Name and Weathering With You pulsate with kinetic energy as characters race to change their fates, 5 Centimeters Per Second instead stills in expectation.

The success of Your Name, Weathering With You, and Suzume all offer undeniable depictions of great talent. 5 Centimeters Per Second is that talent allowing a level of restraint; that ability to stand back and meditate on the overwhelming visuals and sensations these characters go through is more momentous and gratifying because it allows the space and the time to sit with them, rather than charge forward. The short story structure keeps the narrative focused, and that focus allows the heart of the film to hammer stronger as we are hypnotized by the grace and possibility of the world Shinkai has designed. His recent films are stunners, but 5 Centimeters Per Second engulfs us.

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