“They say it is 5 centimetres per second”
“Huh? What is?”
“The speed of falling cherry blossom petals is 5 centimetres per second”
The world is chaotic and cruel, threatening to consume us in the unstoppable waves of time, sweeping us with reckless abandon from location to location, from job to job, from family to family. Makoto Shinkai’s film 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) explores how time and the outside pressures can alter even the purest of romances, resulting in a mature, emotional and realistic depiction of humanity and our attempts to overcome loneliness.
Shinkai develops one of the most visually stunning pieces of animation ever, using soft but vibrant colours to mesmerise the audiences. Sadly, the breath taking images has come to define this film and the other aspects of the story are often neglected or forgotten. The end result is a powerful texts with many flaws, but a text which explores the themes of isolation, communication and relationships in a sophisticated manner. Personally, as someone who believes that life is and should be completely about forging relationships, this film’s messages really resonated with me and I will acknowledge that in many sense I am predisposed to connecting with film. I would still recommend this film for all who want a text to maturely explore not only the highs but the lows and the pain which can stem as a byproduct of love, a message which is often ignored. Too often narratives opt to follow the cliche romantic formula substituting predictability for creativity, 5 Centimeters Per Seconds definitely has a sorrowful ending, yet in some aspects, the ending was surprising uplifting and… human.
“The overwhelming weight of our lives to come and the uncertainty of time hung over us, but soon, all my fears began to melt away, leaving only Akari’s soft lips on mine.”
5 Centimeters Per Second spans three different story arcs, consisting of Part One “Cherry Blossoms”, Part Two “Cosmonaut” and Part Three, each narrative details the life of Tataki Tono, his journey from an innocent child to a weary and lonely adult. This film explores how the two protagonist Tataki and Akari Shinohara attempt to maintain their relationship despite the widening physical and emotional gap between the pair. “Cherry Blossoms” shows the two school children bonded over common interests, gradually developing unspoken feelings for each other, which both of them struggled to understand. The following two chapters focuses primarily upon Tataki and the repercussions of falling in love, his inability to meaningfully communicate and reveal his feelings to Akari starts to eat away at his innocence and brightness. Whilst this is ultimately a simple narrative, Shinkai’s non-linear story telling combined with his ability to embed meaning and significance in ‘trivial’ every day moments means whilst 5 Centimeters Per Second can be rather slow, this was a calculated decision to highlight the realistic journey embarked by Tataki and Akari.*
Animation style and the accompanying soundtrack are two critical components to creating an emotional and engaging text, thus I often feel the best way to present readers with the general vibe of the film is to simply provide both. There are limits to what words from a distant stranger can convey, thankfully music and these still images have the ability to conquer such boundaries. As previously stated the animation in this film is truly stunning and breath taking, under Shinkai’s genius, all images were subtly infused with a pleasant tenderness and softness. Japanese animation is home to a few masters such as Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Hosoda and of course the great Miyazaki, but no other director can manipulate light, shadows and colours the way Shinkai can. The end product is a film where the images feel alive, where blades of grass rustle when kissed by a gentle breeze, where people and objects move independently mimicking the hurried existence of the 21st century.
Part of Shinaki’s mastery is the fact that he is willing to take artistic liberties, outlining certain characters and objects in white to give them an angelic look, something which becomes even more prominent in his latest work Garden of Words (2013). Likewise even objects in the distance are not blurry and undefined, instead they are sharp and clear creating a dreamy world, one which doesn’t completely mimic reality, but a stage so similar that it threatens to swallow the audiences, never allowing them leave this melancholy paradise.
The music composed by Tenmon (Atsushi Shirakawa) was elegant, beautiful and sincere, never dominating or imposing its will upon the film but always present to help convey the haunting emotions to the audience. As previously stated in my previous articles, music has always been a subject which I feel words can not comprehend so instead of clumsily summarising my feelings on Tenmon’s works, I will embed these pieces at the end of my article for the audience to form their own judgments.
A simple story can be engaging if the director is able to infuse meaning into the simplicity, 5 Centimeters Per Second is a work where symbolism flourishes, revealing the unspoken truths about humanity. Love is a dangerous game, it’s a journey paved with many pit falls and dead ends, but it’s the only game worth playing. Through out this film trains are featured prominently, being the bridge that both connects Takaki and Akari but also paradoxically serving as a reminder to the vast distance between them. Likewise the trains are reflections for the main protagonist, forever set upon their lonely path predetermined by the outside world, unable to change their course because their self determination had been stripped away. The train boarded by Takaki being immobilised by the cold weather represents more than just a stagnant vehicle, it foreshadows a stagnant future paralysed by the snow (snowflakes are constantly said to be the mirror of cherry blossoms).
Whilst the two protagonist have many similarities, their approach to their past romances highlights the fickle nature of love, Akari was able to forge new connections, replace her lost love with the presence of others. Takaki; whose past defines him, scars him and leaves him unable and unwilling to create new relationships due to a nostalgic desire to preserve the past, is currently sitting in a hole of self regret. I believe that’s one of the themes of 5 Centimeters Per Second, people change, relationships change, best friends and lovers become strangers, it’s a cycle which constantly repeats, but it’s important to rebuild new connections to stop one from sinking into a pit of despair.
Time has a strange habit of dulling passions which once burnt bright and despite the fact that relationships like cherry blossoms will slowly drift apart (at a rate of 5 centimeters per second), it is important to acknowledge the influences that people have had on your life. We’re like a blank piece of canvas with every friend, event and lover lending their own brush upon the white fabric, our life story will be an accumulation of not only our personal decisions but the decisions of our friends and family.
5 Centimeters Per Second‘s mature approach to such melancholy (but strangely endearing) themes meant I really connected with this film, even more than some Ghibli films. Topics of family, relationships and love have always spoken to me deeply, echoing the life which I strive towards. But besides the film’s thematic elements, there was a lot of substance to the story with some haunting images and scenes which have left an imprint on me. As Takaki finally arrived at his destination, hours later due to the dangerous weather conditions, he sees Akari slumped against a seat, visibly shaken by sorrow and weariness. Takaki approaches slowly and anxiously, upon seeing him, Akari reaches out and grabs his hand, the pair emotionally break down, their sobs echoing in the air as words are just inadequate to express their emotions.
Akari had waited at the station for an extra four hours, hoping desperately that Takaki would show up, that their friendship couldn’t be halted by trivial matters like weather, time or distance. Akari’s relief floods over her, she’s so happy that she can’t even make eye contact with him. Takaki tries to desperately compose himself, but his feelings of inadequacy rise to the top, he is unable to protect the person he loves the most, he silently cries, reunited with Akari at long last. It’s a haunting scene, a display of pure humanity, the need to love and be loved.
“I became unbearable sad, sad because I didn’t know what to do with her warmth against me, or what to do with that soul, or how long I should hold onto them. I also came to the realisation, we would not be able to stay together.”
Communication is the heart beat of relationships. Friendship and love are fragile bonds and they nurtured with shared experiences and moments. That’s another theme which gets addressed in 5 Centimeters Per Second, how vital expressing one’s emotion is, if we are to maintain healthy connections. The two protagonist were always physically and emotionally isolated, their inability to converse with others meant the audience never really saw Takaki or Akari bond with others. Takaki’s letter which he originally wanted to give to Akari is swept away by a sudden breeze, foreshadowing their decaying relationship and reinforcing how outside events and situations had and will and had always impede upon their relationship. Likewise when Akari fails to give her letter to Takaki, the couple’s fate is sealed, as much as they wanted to remain by each other’s side, the cruel hand of fate had coldly predetermined their future already.
Takaki’s inability to express his emotions drives away Kanae, another classmate and a potential girlfriend as he is too absorbed in the past to live in the present. Unable to form meaningful friendships in Kagoshima, Takaki develops the telling habit of writing text messages, recounting his feelings and then deleting them, too afraid to send them to Akari, in case she reacts negatively or worse, aloof. In the third chapter, Takaki and Akari have both moved back to Tokyo, physically they are as close as ever, but the emotional silence has crippled the once passionate relationship, the lack of communication has sadly stifled their chances of love. Takaki and Akari’s bonds can symbolise two completely different things depending upon one’s attitude and situation. Either Shinkai is emphasising the fragility of love or this is a harsh reminder that long distance relationships will not survive, as letters, emails and text messages will never be sufficient substitutes for physical touch and smiles. ** 5 Centimeters Per Second was an enjoyable film, filled with sophisticated commentary about love and the repercussions for such passionate emotions, it still had flaws which prevents it from reaching the level of a Princess Mononoke (1997) or Cowboy Bepop (1998). The characters failed to develop beyond their initial concepts as the film was not able to expand on their defining characteristics, instead Takaki and Akari felt rather bland and forgettable. Honestly there is not a single trait that either Takaki or Akari had which I could elaborate upon, the episodic nature of the film also didn’t help in this regard as after every time skip I felt like I was dealing with an entirely different character.
It is important to note the emotional heart beat of Shinkai’s work stems from the fact that the situations that Takaki and Akari find themselves in is inherently sad and not because they were memorable or relatable characters. This is especially true for Kanae, a supporting character who features in part two “Cosmonaut”, with her only defining trait being her feelings for Takaki. She barely changes throughout her screen time and her inability to break out of her character archetype combined with the fact the audience fully knew that a relationship with Takaki would be impossible meant Cosmonaut was rather stagnant and dull.
Whilst weak characters are a sign of poor writing and possibly a director who believed the visuals took priority, the undefined personality of Takaki and Akari means the audience can easily substitute themselves in place of the two protagonists. One could argue that the lack of strong and memorable characters was a calculated decision, further allowing the audience to implant their memories and experiences into the film. Whilst I personally see credit behind this argument, I still believe that the film would of been much more enjoyable if characters showed genuine signs of evolution or maturity, and overall I still consider the characters the weakest aspect of 5 Centimeters Per Second. Takaki’s love for Akari starts to numb him, unable to cope with these emotions, he chooses to distance himself from society, creating a cycle of misery which seeps into his personal life, his home and his body language. He enters a local shop, flips through a few magazines and then suddenly it begins to snow, not only for him but also for Akari who is silently waiting at a train station miles away. The two protagonists were not able to conquer the physical and emotional distance which separated them, they were not able to enjoy cherry blossoms together, but even now their lives are still connected as their memories with each other transcends the physical world. At that exact moment, it starts snowing for the two protagonists, not cherry blossoms but snow flakes, a reminder of the night they spent together as youth, a night where the pair realised their love for each other but simultaneously that their eventual separation was inevitable.
Near the conclusion of the film, an adult Takaki walks down through the familiar streets, reliving the distant memories of his time with Akari, it seems that after a decade, he is finally willing to confront the past that had temporarily withered away his dreams and his chance at a future… The cherry blossoms begin to fall. Slowly, Takaki approaches the train tracks from his youth and unknowingly Akari crosses from the other side and in a split second, both the protagonists subconsciously recognise each other. Both begin to turn around, just as their view is blocked off by two incoming trains, our hearts soar for a few moments at the prospect of the pair uniting… But when the trains have sped away, Akari has walked off.
As dearly as I wanted Takaki and Akari to rekindle their past love, Shinkai’s decision to keep their separate means the film was not only more emotional but more plausible. We all walk down a lonely road and our paths will occasionally intersect with others, but for our protagonist, life had stubbornly separated their journeys, only embers of their passion remained.*** Takaki turns around, a sad, nostaglic smile fixed on his face, he marches forward, signalling his decision to embrace a future not tainted by self regret and not defined by a love that never came to fruition.
Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second, stands as a reminder, a reminder to the tenderness of human passion, a reminder of this chaotic and unexpected road we all walk called life and the importance of constant communication; the life blood of relationships. This film’s connections to Romeo and Juliet (1597) are numerous, from two star crossed lovers born into difficult situations to a text which explores the negative consequences sparked by uncontrolled love. The combination of spectacular animation combined with a gentle soundtrack creates a rich world for the audience to dive into. 5 Centimeters Per Second stands as one of my favourite pieces of animation, with themes and messages that resonate with me so much, I quite literally feel like Shinkai’s work was produced specifically with myself in mind.
What we are left with is a film, a film which bravely attempts to tackle the unspoken negative consequences of love without the glamour and glitz of portrayed in popular media. Is love worth so much suffering? Is love synonymous with suffering? Despite the many flaws in Shinkai’s work, it still stands as one of my favourite animated works, the pains of unrequited love is one of the hardest emotions to deal and 5 Centimeters Per Second hauntingly shows how a romance so pure can be withered away by reality.The film reflects Shinkai’s mature story telling and his dedication to crafting a realistic environment which mirrored our own.
Whoever you are, where ever you, I wish you all the best and that love never, ever falters you.
Genre: Anime, Romance Film, Animation, Japanese Movies, Drama
USA Release Date: 3rd March 2007
Runtime: 63 minutes
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Writer: Makoto Shinkai
Starring: Johnny Yong Bosh, David Matranga, Hiliary Haag, Erika Lenhart, Tara Platt, Kira Buckland, Julie Ann Taylor Synopsis: Takaki and Akari fall in love at a young age, the pair try to understand and maintain their feeling despite the widening physical and emotional distance.
* It is the small decisions that lead to the significant and important events, the moments where Takaki and Akari would spend time at the library, running around the playground or patting a stray cat could be considered slow and uneventful… But personally, it reflects the reality of life, most people don’t meet their loved ones by saving them from a burning building, love usually doesn’t announce itself to the world, instead it is something which most be worked upon by two people, slowly, but surely.
** This theme is furthered emphasised by Takaki’s description of his most recent relationship with a nameless girl. “We must of exchanged emails a thousand times, but I doubt our hearts got closer by even a centimeter.”
*** I love cyclical stories, it gives the impression that all the events were significant and that the story did follow an over arching plot. 5 Centimeters Per Second begins with Akari running across the train line whilst Takaki is held up on the opposing side, likewise the same scene is reenacted with the same characters but at a much older age. Originally, Akari waited for Takaki, their constant communication and their common interests meant that Takaki was important to her. Sadly, as the pair grew older and further apart, Akari chooses not to wait for Takaki anymore and unfortunately, he is no longer a part of her life. It was moments like this where the film really shone, Shinkai has the ability to embed so many emotions in such a simple action.