Five Centimetres Per Second
On first watching Five Centimetres Per Second, the overbearing sadness of Takaki's journey from lovestruck adolescent to downtrodden adult is depressing; the piano music that follows him through the three stories of the film is a heartbeat of yearning for times gone by. Subsequent viewings but build upon this and more than before, the wistful smile in closing moments means more than the emotionally infused montage that preceded it. Makoto Shinkai manages to evoke emotions that are difficult to grasp but more than being a straightforward story, the feeling one leaves the film with is a reflection of themselves more than what the movie has shown.
Split over three sequential stories, they follow Takaki Tohno from his time in elementary school through to adulthood and his relationship with the reticent Akari Shinohara which forms the core narrative of the film. The first story, The Chosen Cherry Blossoms, describes their lives: both constantly moving schools due to their parents, weak bodied but strong minded and inexorably smitten with each other. When Akari moves away, Takaki plans a journey to see her after a series of letters; unfortunately, due in part to the inclement weather, the trip is beset with problems. The second story, Cosmonaut, takes place when Takaki is a teenager and he has once again moved school. The focus is on an otherwise unrelated girl, Kanae Sumida who is infatuated with Takaki but is unable to express her own feelings, not helped by his introverted and sullen nature. The third story, Five Centimetres Per Second, follows Takaki as a young man, now working but unhappy with his situation, not helped by his standoffish relationship with a young woman from his workplace; that is until a fleeting encounter during cherry blossom season with a woman who bears a stark resemblance to Akari.
Understating the film's aesthetics would be to call it visually arresting, it is sublimely realised and gifts otherwise mundane scenes with a divine beauty and a potent visualisation of the character's thoughts. The detail that has been lavished on every shot is staggering - even when only shown for the briefest of moments, one can't help but be awed by the care and attention afforded to them. The most prevalent of elements however are the skies, always heavenly rendered and unique. From the orange blue twilight over a beach to the crystal cyan of an early morning freeze, even supposedly alien skies are awash with artistic flair that only a perspicacious eye could produce. Every scene is more vivid than real life could hope to muster, only imagination and an appreciation for the beauty inherent to all things could have devised such a consistent vision of the world. Almost inevitable then that the characters are less illustratively accomplished, favouring more traditional proportions they have a pleasing depth but lack the visual detail required for them to sit flush.
This is made irrelevant though by the rapport built with the characters throughout the film. Kanae, who is only present for the second story, manages to show an empathetic side despite her template being lifted from myriad other anime school females. Takaki's inner monologues which could slide into overwrought and flowery prose are instead are astute and most importantly, allow a far greater insight into his thoughts than would otherwise be possible. On first blush his malaise in the third story is a longing for the time he never had with Akari. Subsequent viewings however peel back layers and infer that it is not a yearning for a particular person but an ache for a clear, unspoken understanding with someone that is muddied by adulthood. His reclusive relationship with Kanae and his contempt for his co-worker in the final story despite both of their obvious overtures towards him, implies he is unwilling to try and build an affinity with other people, feeling he somehow lost that with Akari.
His story, from fraught journey in the first story to melancholy listlessness in the last has a human quality to it that reverberates with anyone who has ever questioned their decisions or felt a momentary nostalgia for simpler, more picturesque times. Akari meanwhile is left as an enigma, a human touchstone for his feelings long ago before they were muddled by existence and the final story, the titular Five Centimetres Per Second, is a collage of moments sparked by his passing the supposedly adult Akari at a familiar train crossing. The backing song, One More Time, One More Chance, is brilliantly pitched in both vocal and piano form and the melody permeates the most poignant moments to create an evocative and impassioned film that is difficult not to be affected by.
The question of what happened between the two to make them lose contact is left unanswered, either through distance or the detritus of life accumulating, fundamentally it is irrelevant. Takaki's story is open ended and is crafted as a medium for conveying the delicate and ephemeral notion of longing. For love, for understanding, for simplicity, is up to interpretation. Makoto Shinkai, ever the auteur, paints the backgrounds as brilliantly as he does emotion; with a deft hand he has composed an unspeakably gorgeous creation. A strong artistic vision and boundless skill has resulted in yet another near perfect showpiece, all the more impressive for the limited means he used to produce it. Mournful and moving, this is a breathtaking achievement and the most emotive film of the past ten years.