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TZ Reviews: "Voices of a Distant Star"

With the ever-increasing availability of easy-to-use software, the independent animation industry is experiencing a renaissance, and, naturally, that renaissance is growing most quickly in Japan, the quantitative powerhouse of world animation. Along with the new technology comes the ability for literally one person to create high-quality animation out of his or her home. One of these new amateur auteurs is Makoto Shinkai, whose half-hour film, here , has just been released on DVD in the U.S. by here .

It is a straightforward romance with only two characters: Makoko, a fifteen-year-old girl who is drafted into a survey to hunt down space-dwelling aliens called the Tarsians, and Noboru, her boyfriend, whom she must leave behind on Earth. As Makoko’s fleet moves further and further from Earth, the e-mail messages from her cell phone take longer and longer to reach Noboru, until they begin to take years. The cell phone motif hearkens back to countless other historical works involving letters written “from the front” to lovers back home. Makoko falls into despair and loneliness while Noboru grows older, having “made his heart harder.” Of course the two are faithful to each other to the end.

Making up for the skimpy plot are the real strengths of the film, Shinkai’s pacing and use of backgrounds. Shinkai is not afraid to let emotional moments hang in the air, and the landscapes and clouds on Earth and the otherworldly vistas that Makoko encounters grip the viewer’s attention as they float by. A shot of the Sirian sun breaking through the clouds of an alien planet is particularly memorable.

The only visual point that reminded me I was watching an amateur film was the character animation. The designs are clunky and the shading distorts facial features, making the characters seem flat. Though there are no problems with other animated elements, the frame rate used to animate Makoko and Noboru themselves leaves much to be desired. The mouth movements are also problematic, even for anime.

The disc contains three language tracks: the original Japanese voices, the English dub, and a “Director’s Cut” version voiced by Shinkai and his fiancée. Viewers may have their individual preference between the two Japanese versions, but neither is noticeably better than the other. The dub, while it makes many unnecessary changes to the lines themselves, is faithful overall. I would recommend viewers watch the subtitled version once to understand the story completely and then watch the dub, which allowed me to succumb fully to Shinkai’s atmosphere without needing to dart my eyes to the bottom of the screen.

A brief interview with Shinkai himself, in the extras section, allows him to present some of his ideas for the future of the indie anime industry. However, don’t expect a making-of feature on the scale of American indie Proteus3 releases. This is a director interview, not an instructional video by any means.

Disc extras also include the five-minute short “She and Her Cat” (3- and 1 ½-minute versions are also included). This is the real treasure on this release. The short is told from the perspective of a young woman’s cat and depicts their daily life. The narration is delightfully written and acted by Shinkai himself, gently depicting the quietly loving relationship between She and her cat. The short is monochrome, made up of slide show of images, thus guarding against the animation inconsistency that plagues Voices. The only problem with the short is that there is no dub, requiring the viewer to read some of the fastest subtitles I have ever seen when they could be watching Shinkai’s beautiful visuals.

In the end, Voices is a competent melodrama that proves what just one man can do with a computer and some time and backing. ADV has given it the loving release it deserves, and “She and Her Cat” alone is worth giving it a rental. Despite its predictable story and clumsy character animation, Shinkai has made something emotional and special. If you want a glimpse at the Japanese independent anime industry today, Voices is the cream of the crop.

3 out of 5 stars

Recommended to: Patient animation enthusiasts with soft hearts.

Discuss the film and review here at Toon Zone’s Anime Forum.

UPDATE: Forum member Proteus3 points out that, due to a glitch on the disk, the “Director’s Cut” audio track and the regular audio track are, in fact, exactly the same, which explains why I could find no real difference between them. According to the Anime on DVD Forums, someone from ADV is looking into the problem, but whether the disks will be replaced is unknown.

UPDATE: ADV is issuing a recall of all Voices disks and is replacing them with corrected copies.

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