“ Genre: Animation & Manga / Theatrical Release: 2002 / Parental Guidance / Director: Makoto Shinkai, Steven Foster / Actors: Mika Shinohara, Cynthia Martinez, Makoto Shinkai, Sumi Mutoh, Adam Conlon ... / DVD released 2003-11-17 at Adv Films / Features of the DVD: Animated, Colour, Dubbed, DVD-Video, PAL „
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A former graphic designer, Makoto Shinkai is used to putting in long shifts on the computer. However, for one man to write, animate and produce an anime OVA on his Apple Mac is a staggering achievement. The result of his labour, Voices of a Distant Star, is an incredibly focused, heartfelt tale of two lovers separated by time and space. Over 25 minutes, these character's relationships are explored and stretched to breaking point, with no time for filler material. The futuristic world is shown from the insular couple's point of view; an eerily lonely setting that appears to reflect each other's world view. That world is never satisfactorily developed, and the rather dull characters serve more as thematic vehicles, but despite narrative shortcomings it's still an impressive technical achievement.
The sci-fi story that forces the separation of the pair comes second to the emotional core of the OVA, and rightfully so. It was never going to be well realised in the time available, and while Shinkai packed a lot in, it's still a very incomplete vision of the future. In 2046, an alien race known as the Tarsians has attacked the human Mars colony. The U.N Space Army pursued them into space, utilising Tarsian technology to go further than previously possible. The military then draft thousands to pilot mechas almost immediately, including at least one 15yr old girl, Nagimime. Despite having earlier expressed a wish to join the military, she is distraught at having to be separated from her boyfriend, Noburo, who she was about to go into middle school with. She's smart, getting a perfect result in an exam before she leaves, and a good sportsperson*, but it's quite possible others among her peers could have been called up too. No justification for the involvement of teenage soldiers is provided; but the simple war scenario merely sets up the emotional drama that serves as the centrepiece of the OVA.
As her fleet ventures further into space, the time messages take to reach earth increases proportionately. While the commander urges officers to get in contact with their family via text messages with strangely primitive mobile phones, the viewer only ever sees her send messages to Noburo. Perspective switches to him when he receives the messages, showing a snapshot of his life and the impact these messages have on it. Profoundly affected by the intermittent messages, he determines to become an adult, even if it means doing it alone. A touching sentiment, but the teenage melodrama is built on emotions evoked just as easily by moving schools as well as epic space quests.
The art and animation provoked a less mixed reaction from me. The backgrounds are lush and dynamic, if a bit heavy on bloom effects. There are plenty of spectacular views. However, the character's faces seem strangely bulbous and angular, the overall lack of character animation beyond small movements suggesting a general lack of confidence in that department. Everything else, while quite uninspired, is still animated smoothly but lacks the outlandishness that is a big part of anime's appeal to me. Generic sci-fi elements such as ancient ruins and spaceship battles are all well implemented, but rarely impress beyond their technical proficiency.
While originally voice-acted by Shinkai and his fiance, a professional recording was produced for the DVD release. I can't comment reliably on the Japanese dub, but the sombre, emotional delivery seemed well suited to the material; never imposing or detracting from the experience. The very small cast was chosen well, both the main characters are portrayed convincingly. The music adds to the sombre mood, a restrained piano melody plays in the background for most of the film, morphing into an emotional J-Pop ballad towards the end.
My main problem with Voices of a Distant Star is that it flatters to deceive. While it avoids many of the superficial tropes of anime, it never transcends them, and revolves around naive concepts of love and loyalty that don't seem suitable to the bland characters who are both un- and under-developed. My personal belief that such meaningful relationships can't develop until a few years later could well be influencing this view, but I don't think this scenario compares with the image of a dutiful soldier's wife that this anime reverses. There are many laudable aspects to this OVA: The characters act believably, never exaggerating the intense emotions they feel or resorting to abstract expressions of their feelings. It's very tightly plotted and well directed, and it has to be given the amount of storytelling that has to be done in a small amount of time. But behind the tragedy it all seems rather insubstantial, despite how initially moving it is. It cannot stand up to any serious thought on the themes it introduces. Despite the well executed narrative, stunning visuals and moving score, it just all seems a bit hollow. Perhaps I'm expecting too much, or judging it too harshly by my western sensibilities - but from a man with a degree in literature, I expected a bit more than a half-baked story of intergalactic warfare combined with idealised high school notions. If you take it at face value, it's fine, but just don't dig too deep.