“Voices of a Distant Star” is a movie unique in a number of ways, starting with its creation. You don’t think of animation as a one-man operation, but writer/director Makoto Shinkai created his short film almost exclusively on a Mac G4 computer using mostly off-the-shelf software. As a result, “Voices of a Distant Star” impresses immediately just on the basis that it was ever made in the first place, and like Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi,” “Star” is a testament to talent and determination over money. However, those elements, while a welcome change in today’s cinema, isn’t a guarantee of good entertainment, but in the case of “Star”, Shinkai has pulled it off, effectively marrying entertainment with nobility.
It’s 2039, and enigmatic aliens called Tarsians have attacked and utterly decimated human settlements on Mars. By 2046, the U.N. Space Army has built up a sizable force of spaceships and robot fighters utilizing knowledge gleaned from captured Tarsian technology and are ready to take the fight to the aliens. Against this backdrop of warfare we’re introduced to Noburu and Misako, lifelong friends about to graduate from the ninth grade. Noburu is hopeful that Misako will join him in the same high school, as their relationship tentatively moves from simple friendship to maybe something more.
However, complications ensue, as Misako has already joined the U.N. Space Army and will soon be shipping off to Mars for training as a robot fighter pilot, before inevitably heading off into deep space to fight the Tarsians. The two are able to keep in touch via cell phone text message, but as Misako’s fleet moves farther and farther away from Earth, the messages first take hours, then months, and finally years to reach Noburu. In addition, time relativity means that just a few months into Misako’s mission, Noburu has already aged into a twenty-something, one haunted by the uncertainty of Misako’s fate.
Using an epic interstellar war as its background, “Voices of a Distant Star” chooses to focus solely on the two leads over the course of its sparse 25-minute running time. It’s a credit to Makoto Shinkai that he was able to deliver such a careful balance of touching drama and slick action despite his limited resources and a huge gaping plot hole that hangs over the whole affair (it’s doubtful cell phones, even in the future, could ever send/receive messages across such great distances).
Befitting a video created entirely on a computer, “Voices of a Distant Star” features some stunning and beautiful imagery. Although the animation in “Star” is static even by Japanese standards, all the elements have an extremely clean and lush look. Nearly every frame demonstrates an eye for skillful shot composition and features a tremendous amount of detail. For the handful of space bound action scenes, cel-shaded CG imagery delivers sequences that are impressive and kinetic, but never so frenzied that they overwhelm or confuse the viewer.
“Voices of a Distant Star” willfully cribs elements (specifically space war and time dilation) from the 1989 mini-series “Gunbuster: Aim For The Top!”, which itself was a subtle parody of science fiction and anime conventions. The difference between the two animated works is that the tone in “Star” is much more serious and sober. The film does a remarkable job dramatizing the anxious uncertainty faced by those on the frontlines and the loved ones waiting for them back home. Almost nothing is revealed about the enemy or the human offensive due to time and budget constraints, but that forced economy in the narrative actually benefits the film, as the viewer’s attention ends up focused solely on the plight of the leads. Also, the absence of information only adds to the ambiguity of Misako’s fate.
Ultimately, it’s that question of how the story ends that provides the only real negative with “Voices of a Distant Star”. By the time the credits roll, the nature of Misako and Noburu’s relationship has matured beyond the youthful infatuation at the story’s start, but there’s no indicator of what will happen next. You could argue that the love story is the focus, with the war providing the backdrop, and truth be told, the war-in-space angle has been done to death. However, Misako and Noburu’s fates are inextricably tied to the war and I found myself wanting a conclusive ending to the story.
Makoto Shinkai (director) / Makoto Shinkai (screenplay)
CAST: Mika Shinohara …. Mikako Nagamine
Makoto Shinkai …. Noboru Terao