For years, amateurs with access to computers made their own short films at home. However, because most people who knew how to use computers and also wanted to make movies were usually youths with little life experience/maturity or talent, most of those home productions weren't worth watching. (Heck, a lot of those projects probably involved cutting and pasting from geekdom's favorites such as the "Star Wars" movies and other action flicks.) However, the computer revolution has reached a point in time when those from the first generation of computer-based filmmakers are working for either special effects houses such as ILM, Digital Domain, and WETA or computer animation firms such as Pixar and PDI (DreamWorks). Even the ones who make movies at home have gained some valuable life experience/maturity and even nurtured their once-nascent talents. It was only a matter of time before something like "Voices of a Distant Star" was made.
The story goes like this: a computers guy in Japan made a short film called "She and Her Cat". That short won a couple of awards, and the guy, Makoto Shinkai, became encouraged enough to start work on "Voices of a Distant Star", a far more ambitious project than "She and Her Cat". For starters, "Voices..." would be in color while "She and Her Cat" was in black-and-white. Also, "She and Her Cat" ran for only five minutes, but "Voices..." would be thirty minutes in length. Well, Shinkai gritted his teeth and pressed ahead with his dreams...
After a little more than seven months, "Voices..." was ready to be shown. It amazed audiences that it was made by essentially one man. Shinkai devised the concept, wrote the script, directed, and animated for "Voices..." Almost by himself, Shinkai made a motion picture more worth watching than about 80% of what's made anywhere in the world. Of course, Shinkai had help in the form of financial backing from a third party, a music score from Tenmon, and voice acting by professional actors. However, Shinkai wrote, directed, and animated the whole thing--quite a Herculean effort when you consider that the credits for Pixar's short films often list teams of forty or more people.
"Voices of a Distant Star" begins with two middle-schoolers, Mikako and Noboru, talking about their dreams for the future while walking home after school one day. They're an almost-couple in the shy Asian way, but the union doesn't really get a chance to gel because Mikako is about to leave Earth for deep space in order to help defend humanity from aggressive aliens. Mikako and Noboru can communicate only via cel phone text messaging, and as Mikako's expedition flings itself further and further away from Earth, the couple's text messages take longer and longer to reach their recipients. Also, while Mikako barely ages in the vast expanse of outer space, Noboru grows into adulthood...
Yes, "Voices..." tells a sad story, but it's the way that Shinkai tells his sad story that makes it so moving. The characters don't just talk about how much they miss each other. Rather, they talk about things like the smell of rain, the feel of snow, and the sights of spring. They talk about sharing experiences. They talk about what it means to love and to endure loss. "Voices..." is the kind of animation that is best appreciated by adults who have experienced the kinds of feelings that the film's protagonists do.
In and of itself, "Voices of a Distant Star" is no more than an excellent short film. (That's a compliment, by the way.) However, how it was made--by one person clicking a mouse and tapping a keyboard during his spare time--can be seen as an inspiration to talented aspiring animators everywhere. The technical barriers to making a quality motion picture at home have been lowered, so now anyone with a good script and a decent grasp of emotions can make a movie that looks good and doesn't feel like a shoddy hack-job.
The 1.33:1 video image has been slightly windowboxed (slender black bars around the entire frame). Since "Voices..." was made on a computer, I'm guessing that the smooth, clean image was transferred to DVD directly from digital sources. As such, you won't see any film-negative-related problems, nor does the film's thirty-minute running time tax the compression authoring. However, some of Makoto Shinkai's lighting choices yield weird visual compositions, so some sequences look a bit "off". I'm really making a quibble with the filmmaker's artistic vision, though, and not a complaint about the video's technical aspects.
Despite the fact that some of "Voices..." features battles between mechas, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese audio track isn't the most aggressive of mixes. The sound design is front-heavy, and the surround channels are used mostly for musical ambience. The subwoofer sees some light action, and a couple of interesting directionality effects across the front speakers keep things lively. However, the audio is mostly spare and poetic, reflecting the presentation of the subject matter.
There's a DD 5.1 English dub on the DVD. From what I could tell, the English script makes some additions to the story in terms of the dialogue, so purists may want to stay away from it. However, the voice acting is decent, and the track shares the Japanese one's technical qualities.
Optional English subtitles support the audio. You can choose a subtitle stream that translates all the Japanese dialogue, or you can choose a subtitle stream that translates only the words of a song that plays towards the end of the film.
There are quite a number of worthwhile extras on the DVD. The first bonus to visit would be the "Director's Cut" of "Voices...". It's actually a bit shorter than the final cut that you can access via the Main Menu, and it has vocals done by Makoto Shinkai and his fiancée, Mika Shinohara. Shinkai and Shinohara used their vocals in order to finalize the animation, but Shinkai went with professional voice actors for the final version of the film.
The "Original Production Animatic" is a combination of black-and-white footage as well as sketches compiled by Shinkai in order to get a sense of how the final version of "Voices..." would be made. The animatic has been matched with one of the completed Japanese audio tracks (I'm not sure which one, though). There's also a featurette that offers lengthy interview footage with Shinkai.
The DVD also offers the opportunity to view three different versions of Shinkai's "She and Her Cat", a charming grace note of a film about a cat who looks after his owner and has girlfriend troubles while his owner goes through a breakup of her own. There are "digest", three-minute, and five-minute versions of "She and Her Cat". (By the way, Shinkai and Shinohara also did the vocals for "She and Her Cat".)
Finally, you get some of the original Japanese trailers for "Voices..." as well as previews of other ADV releases.
A glossy insert provides the lyrics to the song "Through the Years and Far Away (Hello, Little Star)" (used in "Voices of a Distant Star") as well as a note from Makoto Shinkai. Through the transparent keepcase, you can see Shinkai's notes about "She and Her Cat".
The DVD release of "Voices of a Distant Star" shows how the computer revolution has made it possible for aspiring filmmakers--especially ones interested in animation--to work on their own time with a minimal amount of resources and end up with an exhibition-quality movie. The story that "Voices..." relates is very inspirational, and the story-behind-the-story is equally moving. Yes, there are works that are better and better-made than "Voices...", but it's awe-inspiring knowing that one person can make such an emotionally resonant film. I recommend that you buy this DVD immediately.
Yes, "Voices of a Distant Star" is Japanese animation, and yes, it does have space battles between mechas. However, it's not the usual garbage bag of wall-to-wall, nausea-inducing action, and it's very grown-up in terms of its understanding of sensibilities. Since it's only thirty-minutes long, it wouldn't hurt for you to give it a shot. You'll be pleasantly surprised by how genuine and effective (not to mention non-stereotypical) Japanese animation can be.