Voices of a Distant Star [ほしのこえ, Hoshi no Koe] (2002)
AKA Voices of a Star

Starring Sumi Muto, Chihiro Suzuki, Donna Burke, Mika Shinohara (original version), Makoto Shinkai (original version)

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

It’s hard to find an anime that can truly be called a low-budget film. You can’t grab a camcorder and some like-minded amateur actors and whip something up over a few weekends for a few thousand bucks. Animation is very labor-intensive work that requires some rather specific, and expensive, tools. Few anime justifiable as a film are ever made on a shoestring budget. And then you want one with an English release? Well, that basically leaves you with Voices of a Distant Star.

The entire production was done by Makoto Shinkai over a seven month period. It’s only a 25 minute film, but the amount of work it must have taken for one man to do it all is staggering. He directed it, he animated it (both the CG and hand-drawn elements), he edited it, he wrote it, he did just about everything in it except the acting. Oh, wait, he did that too for an early production version, and one of the DVD features is to watch the film with his original voice work, where he acted opposite his fiancée as the lead. So really the only thing he didn’t do himself was the music.

There’s a lot of CG here, which is understandable for such a low-budget production. Now I hate CG, but I’ve seen professional studio productions that don’t look any better than this. It’s not just surprising that one man could do all this; it’s surprising that he could do all of it as well as he did. Despite my dislike of CG, I can understand the necessity of it in this case and admire the work that had to be put into it.

Lots of little shortcuts were used to make the animation easier, but he does a great job of disguising them. You don’t immediately notice that motions are often implied rather than shown. A character walks from one room to another to answer his phone, but you never see him move. The shot is only of the phone flashing on the table, while the sound of footsteps comes from off-screen. The front wheel of a bicycle is shown spinning, but the camera cuts to a different shot while we hear the brakes. It’s amazing how well he was able to overcome the limitations of the production and create a narrative flow that works quite well.

The story itself is a romance set in the future with an alien invasion and giant robots fighting them. It’s pretty standard fare, but it’s really just the backdrop for the characters relationship to play out. Would you be upset to find out that a western had a bunch of shootouts in the desert? The film takes a familiar genre, but tells its own story within it. It’s real concept is science fiction in the truest sense of the term: taking an interesting scientific concept and playing with it.

Mikako has joined the military in fighting the aliens, and as the war takes her further and further away from Earth, her messages to her boyfriend take longer and longer to reach him. Even at the speed of light, their e-mails take days, then weeks, and eventually years to traverse space. There are some odd holes in the plot, like why did the military draft a fifteen-year-old girl to fly a robot out in space? (And why the hell is she still in her school uniform while she does it?) However, what will probably turn more people off are the psychedelic moments at the beginning, when she somehow forgets that she’s in a giant robot out in space, and especially at the end when Mikako starts talking to some strange hallucination of herself. You start to wonder whether Mikako is losing her mind or if the aliens are messing with her head, but it’s only an odd form of dramatization and interior monologue. The ending is rather inconclusive as well. It would have been nice to get a true ending that wraps everything up, but we’ll have to settle for getting an intriguing, well-executed concept with a lot of confusing aspects to it.

Voices of a Distant Star is nowhere near perfect, but it does have a great premise and some great storytelling made all the more impressive by its one-man production. Anyone who wants to make their own film ought to check this out as an example of just how much one person can do with a vision and determination.

As a final note/warning, I should mention the English dub. From what I have read elsewhere, and from what few scenes I have seen in English, the translation is wildly different from the original. The scenes I saw in the English trailer made me scratch my head with confusion trying to remember where they occurred in the film, until I realized they never did. Clumsy translation is one of several reasons I prefer subtitles, but here the problem is apparently much worse than usual.