“Five Centimeters per Second”, the best movie you haven’t seen that you should watch right now
As I am want to do with films that I love, I’ll be delving into spoilers in this, but I’ll try to keep them minor.
How often are teenagers in the movies portrayed as hopelessly earnest? So many movies portray teens in so many lights (consider the rash of cliches that the “high school comedy” genre has provided: cynical, bubbly, horny, square, nerdy, jock…ish?) but rarely do the venture out of archetypes and address the way teenagers so often live on a constant plane of heightened emotion. One of the toughest parts of being a teenager is how little those emotions are taken seriously by adults. It’s much easier for movies to depict teenagers as emotional infants with the desires of adults than to hone in and approach teen characters with utmost seriousness.
It is that earnestness that drives Makoto Shinkai’s magnificent “5 Centimeters Per Second”. Here is a film that takes the melodrama of teenagerdom completely seriously. There were elements of this approach is Shinkai’s previous two works, the short film “Voices of a Distant Star” and his first feature “The Place Promised in Our Early Days”. But both those films framed their emotional stakes alongside intergalactic conflicts. “5 Centimeters Per Second” doesn’t bother hedging its bets: it’s completely about its earthly characters. It has cosmic elements, but they’re poetic parallels to the story, not the driving forces.
And the film doesn’t just work when it seems like it ought to drown in melodrama- it excels. It is, by far, my favorite entry into the teen romance genre aside from “Whisper of the Heart”. And yes, both those films are anime. For the non-anime watchers out there, there are a ton of genuinely great films that you’re missing out on.
“5 Centimeters Per Second” presents itself as a trio of short stories, and that’s about right. It’s only 62 minutes long. Few films deliberately mimic the short story format. While the likes of Guy de Maupassant and Edgar Allen Poe made short stories viable with twisting and turning plots, the form came into its own with tales that emphasized the gravity of small moments over dramatic turns of screws. The most dramatic scene in my favorite work of literature, James Joyce’s “The Dead”, involves a woman simply telling her husband about an event in her past that he hadn’t heard of before. She considers it a minor story, but it strikes her husband, and the reader, like a lightning bolt. “5 Centimeters Per Second” follows this kind of beat. The opening act, “Cherry Blossom” has a plot that is incredibly simple: a 13 year old boy taking a long train trip to see a girl. More significantly, a girl who occupies a space that’s neither fully romantic nor platonic, but that for someone of that age contains more importance than anything else. The simplicity of the story rings true to anyone who has been on a delayed train, and that ends up making it absolutely nerve-racking. The boy, named Takaki, experiences delay after delay thanks to a severe snowstorm, and experiences a full course of dramatic stresses, starting with nervousness and evolving into panic and, finally, resigned defeat.
Which is why the ending of the story, again, almost spare in its simplicity, is so utterly satisfying. The girl, named Akari, waited for him. They meet, share their first kiss, and take shelter for the night in an old shed. Shinkai takes a plot that anyone could have made puerile and imbues it with so much truth that it feels triumphant. Every stop Takaki makes, every delay he experiences, brings us as much misery as he feels. If we were being told this story point for point, it might seem boring. But in this film, it’s captivating.
It is the second part of the film that elevates it to greatness, however. “Cosmonaut” is, again, a story we’ve seen before. Takaki is relegated to supporting status, and the segment is narrated by a girl at his high school named Kanae. She is hopelessly in love with Takaki, in that way that adults can’t seem to take seriously and that teenagers feel like is unrecoverable. And slowly, she tries to work up the courage to tell him. However, she is unable to get past the fact that he is constantly texting someone, someone who she feels will forever have a place in his heart that she will never occupy. Without saying any more, “Cosmonaut” absolutely nails teenage unrequited love, and how it’s perceived by all those involved. It treats Kanae’s misery with utmost respect, while simultaneously understanding Takaki’s situation, as the film knows exactly what we do as well. This teenage melodrama is splendidly framed in front of a constant backdrop of stars, rockets, and other cosmic objects. Shinkai is not trying to diminish these characters’ feelings by juxtaposing them against proof that there are much bigger, more important things than summer romance. Rather, the film’s visual scope truly isolates these characters. They are alone in their feelings, feelings whose magnitude is equal to the size of the cosmos.
The third part of the film is an odd little denouement one that takes place with the characters as adults. To say anything about it is difficult, as it’s a very short segment and any piece of information would be too much of a giveaway than I’m comfortable with in this review. So I’m going to leave it at that and let you get back to me when you see this magnificent film.