Voices of a Distant Star - Mania.com

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  • Audio Rating: A
  • Video Rating: A-
  • Packaging Rating: A
  • Menus Rating: A-
  • Extras Rating: A+
  • Age Rating: 13 & Up
  • Region: 1 - North America
  • Released By: ADV Films
  • MSRP: 19.98
  • Running time: 30
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
  • Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
  • Series: Voices of a Distant Star

Voices of a Distant Star

By danbarry     October 27, 2006
Release Date: June 10, 2003

The Review!
As if we needed any more proof that good things come in small packages, Voices of a Distant Star is a 25 minute masterwork. Despite its unusual shortness and a few minor flaws, Voices packs some serious punch. It's hard to think of 25 minutes that have more deeply affected the way I view anime.

Voices' audio options read something like a history of the film itself. In the extras menu, you can access the "Director's Cut" of the film, which actually features Shinkai and his former girlfriend as the voice actors. On the strength of this original version of Voices, Shinkai was able to get the outside funding to hire the professional voice actors who appear in the standard version of the film. Aside from those voice actors, everything about Voices was an in-house production "literally. The truth is that Shinkai made the original Voices entirely by himself in his apartment after quitting his job as a video game designer. It's no overstatement to say that this release heralds a new era of self-produced animation. Audio-wise, the music and sound effects were well-placed "especially the rain, which serves an important symbolic purpose. The English voice acting is above average, but the levity of Mikako and Noboru's romance rings truest in Japanese.

Beautiful. Shinkai takes actual photographs and renders them into backgrounds that look and feel hand-drawn. His color choices value mood over preserving a photographic feel. Compared to standard cel/CGI animation, Voices is like hearing stereo for the first time. However, occasional chunky frameshifts give the feel of a laggy computer dropping frames as it renders some of the film's more complex videography. This happens enough to be noticeable, but not enough to be a serious problem.

Voices is one of those rare cases where you can judge a book by its cover: the case's artwork evokes the exact feel of the film, and it's safe to say that if you like the former, you'll like the latter. Elegant use of transparency and a gorgeous color palette place the characters squarely in the forefront. A Tracer (the film's version of a battle mech) looms over the cover, but one gets the sense that, like in Evangelion, themes like war and technology are just means to an end, rather than the focus of the story.

I especially like the reversible cover, which displays the art for She and Her Cat, the award-winning film short also included on the disc. The gray and sepia tones make for a sobering contrast with Voices' explosive palette. The reverse cover and the disc's insert each contain notes by Makoto Shinkai, the creator of both films. In these notes, he explains something of the personal nature of each film. That personal feel is one of the reasons why people tend to become so fond of Shinkai's work, so the notes are a wonderful addition to the packaging.

The menus are crisp and simple, which is impressive considering the vast amount of bonus content on the disc. Load times are quick and snappy. My one qualm here is with the music on the main menu. It features Voices' the main theme, which, like all of the feature's music, is a solo piano piece composed by Tenmon. In the context of the film, the music is haunting and evocative, but on its own "and especially as the introductory music to the disc "it comes off as somewhat sappy and melodramatic. And while Voices essentially is a melodrama, laying it on thick from the get-go may obscure some of the film's richer themes. Happily, the soundtrack to the disc's other menus isn't as heavy-handed.

There's so much here! The crowning extra is the short film She and Her Cat, a tour de force which showcases Shinkai's knack for compressed storytelling. If you thought Voices crammed a lot into a small space, you'll be amazed at She and Her Cat, which is playable in 5-minute, 3-minute, and "digest" versions.

If ever you wanted to know what it would be like to quit your job in order to bring the story in your head to life, look no further than the disc's interview with Makoto Shinkai. He's well-spoken, enthusiastic, and offers excellent insights into his working process as well as the films themselves.

Also included are the aforementioned "Director's Cut," as well as an animatic which combines storyboards and black-and-white "rough drafts" of video sequences. In short, the extras are a pretty comprehensive picture of Shinkai's creative process from She and Her Cat all the way through to the finished Voices.

Voices of a Distant Star tells the tale of Noboru and Mikako, two students on the cusp of entering high school. They have an easy rapport with one another (at a time when their peers are awkward and self-conscious, no less!), and they are clearly primed to fall in love. But Mikako's exceptional strength and intellect lead her to be selected by the UN Space Forces as a pilot; she will fly a Gundam-like Tracer against the aliens known as Tarsians. Before any real planning or romance can develop, Noboru and Mikako are torn apart "first by distance, and then by time as Mikako's light-speed travel causes her to age differently than Noboru.

In different times, these lovers would have written tender letters to one another. In the film, they send each other text messages over their cell phones. On Earth, they reach Noboru like relics from a time capsule: Mikako describes sights that, to Noboru's mind, she witnessed years ago. With the common ground of school taken away from them, they have painfully little to talk about. And yet it's the act of communication, of remembering one another that keeps their romance alive, rather than the content of their messages.

Voices takes the age-old trope of divided lovers and updates it by emphasizing the shortcomings of modern technology. Shinkai skillfully points out how mankind's passion for exploration and development "the passion that creates cell phones, war machines, and light-speed travel "also creates a mythology of "advancement" that is directly at odds with the myth of romantic love. The cell phones aren't just a gimmick; their promises of instant communication and meaningful contact fall flat on their face as time dilation renders them interstellar carrier pigeons.

Shinkai gracefully sidesteps spiritual questions in favor of keeping the dialogue focused on technology's role in social systems. God, fate, or destiny are never invoked; instead, it is sheer circumstance that cancels Noboru and Mikako's contact. The adults have called Mikako away to battle; she grudgingly obliges, proving that for all the film's advanced transportation, Noboru and Mikako (like today's teens) have precious little control over their own mobility. In a similar malfunction, Mikako's eventual confession of love to Noboru gets garbled in its transmission, and never reaches its mark. Meanwhile, Noboru, now 24, finds that the roles of hopeless lover, realist, and pedophile have been foisted upon him all at once. It's an awful mix of circumstances "one that no film, no matter how long or complex, is equipped to resolve.

It all sounds very emotional, but Shinkai intercuts excellent battle scenes with the romantic drama, allowing him to mold and shape a romantic tension that would otherwise lose its elasticity. The only two problems I can find with Voices are still relatively minor ones. First, the rendition of the characters is a bit inconsistent from scene to scene. For example, in once shot Mikako has a broad, round forehead, and in a following scene the entire top of her head appears flat. The other problem is that the ending feels a bit hurried. In the final minutes of the film, viewers must simultaneously process a climactic battle scene, the introduction of a vocal theme song, and a parallel introspective dialogue which braids both characters' thoughts and voices together. Add in the visual confusion of fast cutting amidst real and imagined spaces, and a series of brief subtitles, and by the time the film arrives at its unresolved ending, it feels a bit like you've sped straight into a red light.

While the ending may not suit every viewer's fancy, it does a good job of maintaining the central concerns of the film right up through the final line. Voices of a Distant Star may not be perfect, but there's no doubt that it is absolutely groundbreaking. Not only does it add insightful commentary to anime's ongoing dialogue about technology; it is itself a triumph of the very technology it discusses. And all of this came from one man! If The Blair Witch Project heralded a resurgence in independent filmmaking, Voices of a Distant Star takes the proposition a step further by suggesting that films can be made with small budgets and alternative production techniques without looking lo-fi. When one considers the recent trend of Japan's outsourcing traditional cel work to Korea and China, Voices is a reminder that do-it-yourselfers aren't mere pretenders to a "correct" way of animating "they may have invented animation's next paradigm altogether.

She and Her Cat also bears mentioning, not only because it was the testing ground for techniques Shinkai would later employ in Voices, but because it's breathtaking in its own right. The film, narrated by a cat, paints a portrait of the young woman who has adopted him. The "digest" version of the film is especially notable for its brilliant montage. Not since the opening of Jules et Jim have I seen such skillful use of images in rapid-fire.

Review Equipment
Toshiba 34HF81C (16:9, 32", HD-ready), Sony DAV-C700 5 DVD Changer (5.1 DTS) w/ Sony speakers


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