Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: Voices of a Distant Star
Looking back, it’s remarkable that Makoto Shinkai’s second short film found international success so quickly, and that this would act as the springboard to his later cinematic dominance with movies such as Your Name and Weathering with You. His first (award-winning) solo short, She and Her Cat was a 5-minute monochrome confection. His next solo work, 2002’s Voices of a Distant Star, would be in full colour, and 25 minutes in length.
Voices of a Distant Star took Shinkai 7 months of solid production work to finish, though he’d been planning it years prior to this, dating back to a single illustration he drew in 2000 when he still worked for video game company Falcom. At Falcom he produced digital animation for games like The Legend of Heroes III and Ys II. In order to produce Voices, Shinkai quit his job but used the hardware and 3D imaging software he’d used for games to make his own short film.
With Voices, Shinkai introduced the world to two of his major obsessions, both of which he would return to in later works — mesmerically beautiful cloudscapes and angst-ridden love-struck teenagers separated by time and space. Famously, Shinkai produced the entire thing almost completely by himself — he even provided the voice acting for male protagonist Noboru Teru, while his fiancee Mika Shinohara voiced female protagonist Mikako Nagamine. Shinkai’s former co-worker at Falcom, Tenmon (Atsushi Shirakawa), composed the atmospheric music.
CoMix Wave Inc. picked up Voices for DVD release in 2002, and re-dubbed it with professional voice actors. ADV Films acquired English language distribution rights and brought the (subbed and dubbed) DVD to North America and the UK in 2003, quite incredible for a stand-alone OVA by an at-the-time no-name solo animator. Since ADV’s rights expired, it’s now licensed by GKIDS in the US and Anime Limited in the UK. This article is based on ADV’s original 2003 UK DVD release, which is more or less identical to the 2016 Anime Limited disc.
Voices of a Distant Star follows Noboru and Mikako, two close fifteen-year-old friends who attend the same middle school, and hope to also attend high school together. They don’t appear to be dating, and circumstances prevent their relationship from progressing, as Mikako has been selected to pilot a UN Space Force mecha called a Tracer. It’s not explained why the military wants a pre-high-school teenage girl to pilot a Giant Metal Instrument of Death, but this is anime, where such things are presumably commonplace.
Noboru graduates and enters high school alone, while Mikako is sent to Mars to train for combat against aliens called “Tarsians” (named for the Tharsis area on Mars in which their advanced civilisation was discovered). They keep up communication via cellphone email, which becomes more and more delayed the further Mikako travels from Earth. From Mars, messages are delayed only minutes or hours, but as Mikako travels to Jupiter and on to Pluto and then to the Kuiper Belt at the very edge of the solar system, the time delay reaches a year. Finally, the UN fleet warps to the Sirius solar system in search of the enemy, and Mikako’s messages take eight years to reach Noboru.
This is a well-explored trope in more literary science fiction — the effects of relativistic speeds, time dilation and extreme distance on the contemporaneity (or otherwise) of human experience. Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero explores the disconnect between humans living on a spacecraft travelling at close-to-light-speed, while the universe ages and decays around them. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War features soldiers who return from distant conflict to find in the intervening years that the Earth has become an alien society they no longer recognise. In anime, perhaps the most famous example is Studio Gainax’s classic 6-episode OVA Gunbuster and its incredible ending.
Voices’ plot, however, is laser-focused on its two characters, and information about the wider conflict between Earth and the Tarsians is communicated mainly through context, and flashy visuals of mecha fights in pastel-cloured alien skies. Most of the dialogue, if it can even be called that, consists of either Mikako’s or Noboru’s internal monologues, or the emails sent between them. It’s sparse on detail, but heavy on feelings of longing, and regret. Mikako desperately yearns for home, while Noboru is torn between shutting off his heart to “become an adult”, or to continue pining for the eternally 15-year-old Mikako.
We feel Mikako’s fear and despair as circumstances conspire to drag her ever further away from home, though even to the end she harbours the conviction that she’ll see Noboru again. It’s hinted that Noboru intends to join the UN Space Force, presumably to go search for for Mikako. The ending is left intentionally vague. As a mood piece it’s remarkable, with imagery and concepts that linger long after its short duration. We don’t really know enough about Mikako and Noboru to empathise with them as individuals, but their heartfelt longing and painful separation feels universal.
Shinkai’s backgrounds are definitely his strongest point — he utilises a kind of nostalgic, overexposed filter in every scene that evokes a sensation of otherwordliness — not just in space, but on Noboru’s Earth as well. His skies are full of painted clouds in motion, the jet trails of aircraft flying in formation, pulling the viewer’s focus from the characters’ internal pain to the beauty of the external world.
The pastoral landscapes of the Sirius system’s planet Agartha do look like something out of a Miyazaki Ghibli movie, and the action scenes featuring (slightly clunky to modern eyes) CG mecha launching missile barrages look like something out of 80’s space opera Macross. The only place that Shinkai’s aesthetics fall short are in the rather clumsy-looking character designs, but they’re easy to overlook. It’s an odd mish-mash of influences that almost shouldn’t work together, but in something as short and sweet as a 25-minute OVA, it does, especially when tied together by the beautiful, evocative and understated score.
Much like the previous She and Her Cat, Voices does not exist alone as merely a short OVA. Its 2002 Japanese DVD release was accompanied by a light novel written by Waku Oba, and illustrated by Shinkai himself, along with Twin Spica’s Kou Yaginuma. This version of the story has never been translated into English, and I can’t find much information about it online.
In 2004, a manga adaptation began appearing in Kodansha’s Monthly Afternoon magazine, with story by Shinkai and art by Mizu Sahara. This was published in English by Tokyopop in 2006, and again more recently in 2018 by Vertical. It’s easily available, and worth a read if you feel the anime story too sparse, or abrupt in ending. The manga covers the same story beats, but gives extra context — especially in regards to showing the main characters interacting with other people, something the OVA is unable to do. The art is pretty serviceable, but mostly consists of talking heads with little in the way of prominent background detail. Certainly it doubles down on the concept of girls inexplicably still in their school uniform piloting Giant Metal Instruments of Death. With some extra subplots about Mikako’s fellow pilots, and Noboru’s abortive relationship with another girl, it has a very different vibe to the OVA, and its expanded ending does rob the story of some of its nuance and openendedness, essentially codifying what the anime only barely hints at.
Finally, 2006 brought a second novel adaptation, Voices of a Distant Star: Words of Love/Across the Stars, written by Arata Kanoh, original story credited to Makoto Shinkai, and published in English by Vertical in 2019. It’s unclear how involved Shinkai was with this, but it’s very different to the manga. Again, the main story beats are still there, but the manga’s widened scope is jettisoned and replaced instead with endless screeds of inner monologue that’s frankly dull to read. It’s like a terminally self-obsessed teenager’s diary but with anything remotely interesting or embarrassing surgically removed. This article would have been published a month ago if I hadn’t found the novel so excruciatingly boring. It’s not even that long, but I found it so unengaging that I made excuses not to read it.
Split into two parts, the first deals with Mikako’s point of view, and then halfway through it switches to Noboru’s. We get more background on Noboru’s attempt to move on and date other girls, but for Mikako she lives entirely in her head and there’s none of the interaction with other pilots that enlivened the manga. Perhaps I’m too old for this stuff now, but almost two hundred pages of self-absorbed teenage whining left me utterly cold. Voices of a Distant Star in OVA form is a bittersweet and mercifully short experience. Whoever thought expanding it out to novel-length was a good idea is clearly some kind of sadist.
As a primer for the appreciation of Shinkai’s later works, Voices of a Distant Star is essential. Here is the real beginning of his career following pining teenagers beneath iridescent skies. His next work was the full-length anime movie The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and I hope to write about that soon. See you then!
Voices of a Distant Star
Directed, produced and written by: Makoto Shinkai
Music by: Tenmon
Studio: CoMix Wave Inc
Japanese DVD release: 2nd Feb 2002
UK DVD release: 17th Nov 2003 (ADV), 21st Nov 2016 (Anime Limited)
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English dub
Runtime: 25 minutes
BBFC rating: PG
Voices of a Distant Star/Hoshi no Koe (novel)
Written by: Waku Oba
Illustrated by: Makoto Shinkai and Kou Yaginuma
Japanese publication: 25th July 2002 (Media Factory/MF Bunko J)
No English translation available
ISBN : 978–4–840106–00–9
Voices of a Distant Star (manga)
Story by: Makoto Shinkai
Art by: Mizu Sahara
Japanese Publication: 23rd Feb 2005 (Kodansha)
US publication: 8th Aug 2006 (Tokyopop), 22nd Feb 2018 (Vertical)
Translation by: Melissa Tanaka
Voices of a Distant Star: Words of Love/Across the Stars (novel)
Story by: Makoto Shinkai
Adapted by: Arata Kanoh
Japanese publication: 2006 (Kadokawa Corporation Enterbrain)
US publication: 30th July, 2019 (Vertical)
Translated by: Michelle Lin and Yota Okutani
Makoto Shinkai Retrospective: She and Her Cat
Often incorrectly identified as “the next Hayao Miyazaki”, Japanese filmaker Makoto Shinkai certainly found…
Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume Is a Spectacular but Limited Look at Our Relationship with Natural…
Makoto Shinkai’s latest film takes a very intimate look at humanity’s struggle with natural disasters, but is something…