March 06, 2006

Voices of a Distant Star

Voices of a Distant Star ("Hoshi no koe") is less a film than a narrative poem that holds up well after repeated viewings. I have spent more time with this particular DVD than any other title in recent memory, despite the fact that the running length of the feature is less than 30 minutes.

The story echoes plot elements from Ender’s Game, told in the style of the “mecha” genre. High school student Mikako has been mustered into a space armada as a battle robot pilot, charged to track down an alien invasion force that destroyed the Mars colony. As the pursuit draws the armada further away from Earth, from lights hours to light years, Mikako’s increasingly poignant email messages home take longer and longer to arrive. Because of the distortions of Einsteinian relativity, Mikako stays the same age while boyfriend Noboru, aging “normally” back on Earth, is left to pine.

It soon becomes not a story about space invaders, but about the division of two souls clinging to thinnest tendrils of hope, hope condensed into a few shared words separated by years of silence. A strange thing words are, that can communicate so much hope when there is so little to hope for. The result is a kind of cinematic haiku. The emotions it engenders could more precisely be described as a'wa're, the classical Japanese aesthetic concept of loss and transitory beauty, suggesting "an anguish that takes on beauty or a sensitivity to the finest--the saddest--beauties."

The existential nature of the story is partially explained by the fact that Makoto Shinkai created the whole thing on his (considerably enhanced) desktop computer, a mix of digitized hand-drawn cells and computer-generated animation. It's no slap-dash effort, either. The foreground animation is understandably minimalistic. The 3D animation isn’t Pixar, but it’s nothing to frown at. And Shinkai’s background mattes are gorgeous, even breathtaking at times.

He eventually partnered with a commercial studio to handle the post-production and marketing. And the American distributor (ADV Films) has taken Shinkai’s work a step farther. Thanks to the magic of DVD technology, you can choose from Japanese (with subtitles) and an English dub track. Rare for me for other than Studio Ghibli productions (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), but I recommend both versions. The English dub is above average, and it’s fascinating to compare it with the literal subtitles and the original Japanese.

(There is a second Japanese track as well, the original “scratch” track, but I think somebody messed up the indexing because tracks 2 and 3 are the same. The real scratch track can be found under the “storyboard” option in the Extras menu.)

A good dub, after all, requires a rewrite by somebody who can actually write, which is not the same as being capable of producing a competent translation. Science fiction great Neil Gaiman, for example, was hired to rewrite the Princess Mononoke dub. There’s sort of an artistic Heisenberg uncertainty effect going on here. Once you start to mess around with the source material--especially when moving between quite different cultures--the final product will inevitably change, and better to admit that going in.

The end result is that the dub and sub end up as two often quite different retellings of the same story. The full impact of the last five minutes, very much a remarkable work in free verse, demands viewing in both languages.

Also included on the DVD is a similarly moody short titled She and Her Cat, cut three different ways, and a (clumsily subtitled) interview in which Shinkai talks about making movies the same way that the novelist creates a work that is completely independent and individualized. Though that reminds me of the historian’s quip in a Benjamin Franklin documentary, to the effect that Franklin’s autobiography can be considered the first best-selling self-help book, except that many of its readers have failed to take into account that Franklin was, well, a genius.

It’s one thing to be talented at writing, or drawing, or editing; quite another to be equally and productively talented at them all at the same time. The day of the desktop auteur I don’t think has yet arrived. But Shinkai, at least, is hard at work. His new film as well, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, has that refined sense of melancholy written all over it. Shinkai has definitely found his oeuvre and is sticking to it.

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