Friday, 12 December 2014

Voices of a Distant Star

This is a film that I discovered back in the summer of 2013 purely by accident, picking it up off the shelf of a public library on nothing more than a vague whim that its cover looked interesting.  This is, incidentally, the same way that I discovered my reigning favourite film: Ken Russell’s The Devils. And in exactly the same way, coming across Voices of a Distant Star introduced me not only to a great new film, but opened a doorway to the world of a fascinating new filmmaker: Makoto Shinkai. As a Japanese animated film, Voices of a Distant Star is situated within the established traditions of anime: the character designs are the familiar simplified bodies with exaggeratedly expressive eyes; their movement in the frame is minimal, compensated for by the inordinate atmospheric detail of the backgrounds; and the plot is a genre work that eventually involves giant combat robots, here called “Tracers.” The benefit of being part of such a well-established tradition, however, is that you can hit the ground running and know that you and your audience are on the same page. Voices of a Distant Star is a debut independent short that Shinkai made totally according to his own lights, but the film manifests none of the qualities that we associate with “independent” filmmaking here in the West – such as an a priori rejection, on principle, of the norms of the mainstream. Like the features that Shinkai would go on to make after it, the film’s visual style and tone are essentially the same as innumerable more mainstream anime films or series, but just better – the product of a superior imagination at work on its own terms.

The film’s basic narrative has a teenage girl, “Mikako Nagamine,” being separated from her (boy)friend “Noboru Terao” by virtue of being recruited as a pilot cadet for the “UN Space Armada” about to depart Earth. Off in space, Mikako can only communicate with Noboru via cell phone messaging. Voyaging via hyperdrive further out into, and finally beyond, the Solar System, however, her messages – moving only at the speed of light – take progressively longer and longer to reach their recipient. Mikako and Noboru’s relationship inexorably becomes more theoretical, as however deeply they reside in each other’s hearts, millions of kilometres of separation nonetheless take a toll. The UN Space Armada to which Mikako belongs is notionally heading out into space to find and engage a hostile alien force called the “Tarsians,” but this narrative premise is left highly ambiguous. Shinkai certainly doesn’t go into full-on Starship Troopers-style sardonic satire, but there’s nonetheless an inescapable suggestion that this whole deployment and war might not be necessary, or could have been avoided. This makes the pathos of Mikako and Noboru’s separation all the greater.

One of the very first things one notices about Voices of a Distant Star is its utter lack of any concession to the inattentive spectator. Like so many Japanese artists throughout history, Shinkai possesses a keen eye for the juxtaposition of visual elements within a composition, as well as an apparent fondness for the “pillow shots” (like at left) that some Western scholars have attributed to Ozu – cut-aways to details of a sequence’s environment that have no immediately apparent narrative motivation, but which do an inestimable amount to create atmosphere. All these, however – like most of the film’s images, in fact – zip past at a split-second rate, such that a spectator who glances away from the screen for even the briefest of moments is royally screwing themselves. This isn’t done in the name of Michael Bay-style hyperkineticism, however, but is a considered aesthetic choice to cram the maximum amount of narrative information in to the film’s short 25-minute running time. Probably very few spectators could maintain the required level of sharp-eyed attentiveness for a full 100-minute feature length, but for a quarter of that, it works.

One result of this editing style is that the film really gets an aesthetic of intellectual montage going. The spectator who has an active visual imagination, and a long-standing interest in science fiction matters, will get far more out of this film than one who doesn’t. For instance, getting to the space station in Jupiter’s orbit, Mikako mentions “the Flux Tube between Io and Jupiter… the hugest lightning in this Solar System!” and “I never get bored of looking at Jupiter’s clouds.” These observations are only accompanied by brief images, but their dramatic treatment and the sentiments at work unlock a whole host of reminiscences in me, of images such as the above painting of Jupiter’s “surface,” or the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact in 1994. A film that offers me these sorts of pleasures is incredibly rare, and resonates deeply with me.

Before this, however, one of the film’s absolute highlights is a sequence on Mars, where Mikako’s training as a Tracer pilot takes place. We dissolve in on an astonishing vista of the Martian surface, with a vast canyon wending its way from the bottom of the frame up, between vast craters. White and green clouds hover above it all, still beneath the frame’s point-of-view… and then the silence of it all is shattered as Mikako’s Tracer blasts down from the top of the frame, zooming off across this vast horizon. We soon hear about how she’s seen Mount Olympus and the Marineris valleys, again accompanied by brief-but-vivid accompanying images, and some further shots of a squadron of Tracers swooping across an awesome Martian vista of plateau tops poking out above the clouds. And all this isn’t even to mention the Tarsian ruins (pictured) that now exist on Mars in this film… Later, the UN Armada reaches the very edge of the Solar System, and we see the Lysithea pulling up to the bleak twin worlds of Pluto and Charon. Images such as these speak to my deepest-held instincts about animation: the idea that the graphic nature of the medium frees you to realize any narrative spectacle whatsoever, making filmmakers limited only by their imaginations.

In this spirit, the film’s moments of greatest sublimity come after the UN Armada – after a sudden and vicious engagement with the Tarsians – has had to make an emergency hyperspace jump away from Pluto and Charon which takes them 8.6 light years away from Earth, to the Sirius Alpha Beta system. “Since the last century, we’ve known that Sirius has its own planetary system,” Mikako narrates, “but we are the first in all humanity to observe another planetary system with our bare eyes.” The film then takes us down onto the surface of the new planet, christened “Agartha,” with some vertiginously huge tilting shots – one from above the planet up in orbit, another down to the surface from below. We see an alien stag-like animal, standing on a hilltop, looking up at the Tracers as they descend through the sky. This presages an astonishingly beautiful sequence on another world that is Earth-like, but subtly different. In just one beautiful image among many, we see Mikako’s Tracer standing on a ridge before a vast grassy landscape, with the edges of cliff faces surrounding her. Rain clouds are pouring across the landscape, but through a few scattered holes, sun beams shoot brilliantly down.

And yet having been exposed to this long succession of sublime cosmic images, Mikako’s ability to feel awe and rapture ultimately fail her. Inside her Tracer pod, we see the rainfall suddenly stop as the clouds above her part. Seeing the beams of the alien sun break through and fall upon her – a distant star becoming her own – she looks directly upwards in reverential awe for a moment, then breaks down in tears. She simply wants “to be hit by the rain,” and “to go to a convenience store and eat ice cream” with Noboru, she narrates.

At this point, taking a cue from Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, Shinkai has Mikako have a telepathic encounter with one of the Tarsians on Agartha. The telepathic avatar appears to her, hovering in mid-air outside her cockpit, as herself, dressed in her old school uniform again, rather than her Tracer flightsuit. It then says to her, in her own light, ingenuous teenage voice, that “to become an adult, pain is necessary to. But you will probably be able to go much, much farther, even to other galaxies and other universes.” This is the final humdinger of the film’s narrative evocation of the Tarsians, since it’s the most diametrically-opposed moment imaginable to Independence Day’s captured alien demanding “DIE…” This alien emissary seems to be offering nothing but wise and inspiring words, indicating a utopian vision of humanity someday taking its place a larger galactic community. And yet then the big climactic battle starts up anyway.

In the course of the following, extremely gruesome, combat, the film’s aesthetic agenda reaches new heights of fascination. We’d already learned from the battle around Pluto and Charon that, regarding her actual Tracer piloting skills, Mikako is a brave and resourceful pilot. This is confirmed again as, during the ensuing sequence, she royally kicks ass, at one point pinning a Tarsian warrior-entity by the neck and bloodily blasting its head off with her Tracer’s wrist-mounted guns. The film, however, is not really interested in this side of things, and treats it all in a very detached and aestheticized manner. The soundtrack, for instance, consists of an ethereally romantic pop song called "Hello Little Star." During the battle, Mikako rockets back up into orbit over Agartha, all the while narrating an imaginary conversation with Noboru about all the small pleasures of everyday life on Earth, which she misses so sorely out in the distant reaches of space. They include “things like summer clouds and cold rain; the smell of fall breeze; the sound of rain drops hitting an umbrella; the softness of spring soil; the feeling of peace at the convenience store in the middle of the night; the cool wind after school; the smell of chalkboard erasers; the sound of a truck passing by in the middle of the night; the smell of asphalt in the rain.” Once this recitation ceases, the battle reaches its climax, with Mikako making a kamikaze run against the Tarsian mothership. This leaves her Tracer crippled and drifting off into space, both it and its pilot seemingly totally drained and spent.

With Voices of a Distant Star, thus, Shinkai has made what amounts to a pessimistic rewriting of 2001. Mikako is so wedded to all her Earthly loves and attachments that she can’t let go of them even when confronted with cosmic visions of incalculable wonder. As an analogue to Dave Bowman, she fails to become the Star Child, and instead ends up like Frank Poole. Her constant attention to texting on her cell phone thus seems an appropriate master metaphor here. Even though, narratively speaking, her use of it is entirely valid – keeping in touch with Noboru – it nonetheless ultimately seems a limiting device, what with her glancing down at it whenever any important new development beckons  exactly, BTW, the habit you need to avoid when watching this film. Shinkai certainly isn’t belaboring any moralizing point about the younger generation of today, but just seems to be making a simple observation – one that, again, deeply resonates with me. 

Around the same that I first saw this film, I had a dream that I woke up having been transported tens of thousands of years into the future. My humble little apartment now opened out onto a balcony, from which one could appreciate the view from an upper-atmospheric skyhook (roughly like the image at left). There was nothing but cloud visible beneath me, and looking up, I could clearly make out a 2001-style space station hanging in low orbit – probably equidistant to me, or closer, than the Earth’s surface. And yet, I remember from my dream, my first thought upon taking all this in was “damn, what’s millennia worth of e-mail Inbox build-up going to do to my cell phone?” This is the level of simpatico with my deepest subconscious imagination that Shinkai shows with this film. Truly a rare experience.

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