I confess that for some reason, I occasionally forget about “the little anime that could” when I come up with my all-time favorites list, or an “Anime for Beginners” case file.I’m going to rectify that by publicly recommending the 2001 OVA that introduced director Makoto Shinkai to the world. I can’t stress this fact enough: “Voices of a Distant Star” was a one-man production done on a home Mac G4. It is a DIY project. Shinkai has gone on to bigger and longer movies, with even bigger and longer titles, but because of its brevity, his debut project is probably the best starting-off point.
Shinkai uses the same themes and motifs over and over again: the agony of lost love due to time and distance. In Voices, Shinkai uses the vastness of outer space and scientific relativity to separate the two lead characters. The premise is simple: aliens draw first blood against us, we counter-attack, and then take to fight to their turf. And in a rare twist for sci-fi, and anime, it is the female that is the pilot that goes out to fight, and the male stays home on Earth. They communicate via cell phone text messaging, but they learn that while humanity may learn how to build ships that travel faster than light (FTL), data messages still obey the speed limit of 299,792,458 meters per second. So when she is training in the inner Solar System, messages take hours to travel to and from Earth. Then, as we take the fight out of our celestial backyard, a text message takes 8 years to get to our heroine. It becomes more heartbreaking when you see that, thanks to relativity again, that the age gap also grows as only our Earth-bound male ages, and waits, and waits, …and waits for news from his girlfriend. We also notice the rest of Earth also patiently waits for news from our space fleet, since they also have no idea what happens in their battle outside of the Solar System. The other recurring motif that Shinkai loves to use over and over again is the railroads. It is a common trope for anime, but Shinkai really loves his trains, as 5 Centimeters will prove.
The biggest critique Voices received upon its debut was its similarity in plot to the 1988 Studio Gainax classic, Gunbuster. However, that argument was quite silly in retrospect when you consider that: (1) Gunbuster wasn’t readily available to anime fans outside of Japan (the official Region 1 DVD release happened years after Voices); and (2) Gunbuster, like most sci-fi, wasn’t 100% original either. Any anime and/or sci-fi fan that bitches about a title’s lack of originality is going to be a very bitter fan since the medium and genre are more dependent on characters and execution than pure uniqueness. In fact it is the when the writers and directors invent new twists to old clichés and tropes that we see the very best of each category.
Voices is only 30 minutes long, a very short time commitment for a viewer. But as a one-man side project, a 30 minute film is a time extensive feat worthy of our praise. Even at a half an hour run time, there is still a sense of padding. But because it is so short, I keep forgetting to list it in my all-time Top 10 anime titles. I see the improvements Shinkai has made in his craft as a director in his later works, but Voices still remains my favorite, and the only Shinkai title I can whole heartily recommend to casual anime fans and non-anime fans alike. (As much as I like 5 Centimeters, and Children, I have small reservations endorsing these films to anime otaku.) Voices is a visual treat. The only weakness it may have is lack of character development (hence the reason I never mention the names of the 2 characters), but what do want in a 30 minute story?! They are likeable enough. Even their average blandness adds depth to the emotional impact of the story because this story happens to two ordinary, average teenagers, as opposed to a Hollywood cast pretty boy and supermodel cover girl (*cough* Starship Troopers *cough*). It also unintentionally removes the Japanese uniqueness that makes Voices that much more relatively easy to market to overseas audiences. I don’t know how easy it is nowadays to purchase this title, but renting it shouldn’t be a problem. (If not, you could borrow my copy.) So what are you waiting for? You could’ve already seen half of Voices by the time you finished reading this.
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