Words seem almost inadequate when trying to convey the wistful nostalgia evoked by 5 centimeters per second. Every scene in the petite one hour movie is visually arresting, the sparse dialogue secondary to the unspoken emotion loaded into each moment; it is beautiful, moving and amazingly personal film. Separated into three chronologically sequential stories, the film follows Takaki Tohno and his relationship with childhood friend Akari Shinohara.
The first story, Oukashou, comprises Takaki's fraught train journey to see Akari after they were separated due to parental employment. Occupying the bulk of the movie's timeline, the subtext of distance and solitude will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Makoto Shinkai's previous works: Voice of a Distant Start (Hoshi no Koe) and The Place Promised in our Early Days (Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho). Even in such a short time-frame, Takaki's journey is sentimental and emotive, cutting straight to his fears and expectations unconcerned with exterior bravado. Scene by scene, poise and grace is established by valuing silence as much as dialogue and the ever present melody of the piano. The first story culminates in a serene landscape of snow and darkness before Takaki heads home in the fresh morning sunlight, starting the narrative cycle once more with the second and then third stories.
Now unfettered by the trappings of backstory, the second arc, Cosmonaut, is more whimsical and slower paced, meandering around Takaki rather than giving prominence to the familiar drawl of his inner monologues. The third story, the titular Byousoku 5 Centimeter, has no proclivities about concluding the ongoing narrative and is mostly a montage of melancholy snapshots and reminiscences of the times not covered explicitly, all set to the film's signature vocal song: One more time, one more chance by Masayoshi Yamazaki. The first story is definitely the strongest of the three, adroitly conjuring a longing for a confidante as well as that nagging ache for things left behind. The second story is better viewed as an aside rather than a continuation of Takaki's anxiety with life and it is only with the abstract third story that a semblance of finality can be applied to the characters.
While the supplementary stories do nothing to detract from the core narrative, conversely they do little to enhance it. Kanae Sumita, the protagonist of the second story isn't as instantly appealing as Takaki or Akari and suffers from beginning as a cliché; not wholly shedding that feeling throughout the central story of her infatuation with Takaki. Indeed the second tale does little above establish him as a now criminally uninteresting teenager who graduates into a dreary adult. This is unfortunate but necessary for the message the film communicates: nostalgia, that ephemeral yearning for times passed and moments lost. While an impeccably illustrated idea, it relies on an innate empathy from the viewer; without that the film is just an aesthetically gorgeous but ultimately listless examination of growing-up. It lacks an overarching story to drive the characters to do anything but stagnate in their own emotions.
Artistically, the movie is a mixed-bag. The indelibly captivating backgrounds move beyond simply capturing their subject, they accentuate and amplify until each sky, each train car, each snow swept vista is beauteous and beyond the capabilities of real life to produce. It is jarring then to see the character designs as such typical anime fare, showing none of the talent splashed across the sets. Perhaps because of this a lot of the emotion is drawn from the surroundings rather than the characters, coupled with the omnipresent narration, it gives the storytelling a distant, melancholy feel.
The result of all this is that 5 centimeters per second is a very personal movie: to those who can relate and immerse themselves in Makoto Shinkai's reverie it will speak volumes and perhaps evoke long forgotten feelings; while those who are more pragmatic will find little past the backgrounds to enjoy and plenty to label as trite. Any experience with Makoto Shinkai's previous works will prepare you for what 5 centimeters a second has to offer, as an introduction to his work there are better starting points but as a continuation of the themes he has explored before, this represents another breathtaking refinement.