When you’re young, love can be the most frustrating and confusing experience you ever have. The formative years of my life were strange and frightening, and I often didn’t know how to cope with it. Back in 2008 after my first real break-up, I found a way to cope by immersing myself in anime. What I ended up stumbling upon is 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), a beautiful film about young love, seperation, and longing. My reaction to it was probably something along the lines of “This totally speaks to my soul!”. While I now realize some five years later that I was a blabbering idiot, the themes of this film still resonate to me, and is one of the most honest (and heart-wrenching) love stories in its medium.
5 Centimeters Per Second is director Makoto Shinkai’s most well-known work. The film follows Takaki Tohno, a young boy who falls in love with his childhood friend Akari Shinohara. Told in three “episodes”, we follow Takaki from a young child into adulthood, as the two slowly begin to draft apart as the years go by. This is by no means a gushy love story, but instead tells a heartbreaking story of first loves and ultimately what it means to grow up.
The first episode, titled “Cherry Blossom“, introduces us to our two main leads shortly after becoming friends in elementary school. Akari moves away after they graduate, but they later stay in touch by writing letters to one another (this story takes place in the 90s, before the advent of cell phones and the internet). After learning that his family is going to move again and therefore make it nearly impossible to visit Akari, Takaki decides to take a train to go see her and confess his feelings. This story is personally my favorite out of the three and has a strong air of sentimentality in it. Hearing Akari say “Dear Takaki” as he reads her letters gets me every time, with scenes showing the two go about their everyday lives apart from one another. The train scenes are paced really well, and I liked seeing the anxiety growing in Takaki as time was working against him.
The second episode “Cosmonaut” switches perspectives and follows Kanae Sumida, a young and indecisive high school girl who has strong feelings for Takaki. Kanae’s character is refreshingly honest in a medium where most anime girls are either clumsy, have large breasts, or moe blobs that try to act cute. She’s uncertain about her future compared to everyone around her, who all seem to know where they’re headed in life. No one knows what the future holds, and Kanae knows this best. The fact that she can’t figure out what she wants out of her future is what frustrates her the most. The one thing she is confident in is her love for Takaki. Although she loves Takaki immensely, she realizes that he’ll never love her back, shown in a beautiful scene involving a rocket launch. Compared to Kanae, Takaki’s character is a bit more flat, and exists solely to give Kanae empty smiles and type text messages on his phone about a certain girl. The theme about unrequited love in this segment was well-played out, and seeing the normally cheerful Kanae struggling with her feelings really tugs at my heartstrings.
The third and final episode is the eponymous “Five Centimeters Per Second“, and follows a now adult Takaki. I had some issues with this segment. The biggest issue is that it is very short compared to the previous two segments, clocking in at around 10 minutes or so, not including the musical outro. We only get brief glimpses into Takaki’s adult life, such as his failed relationship with a girl and his decision to leave his job. We see him struggling to cope with depression, but the film leaves so much open or implied that we as the audience don’t know what has brought about this state. The logical conclusion would be that he still isn’t over losing Akari. What the film hints at (the novel further explores this) that his aloof personality keeps him from getting close to anyone and staying in a committed relationship. In addition, the crushing realization that his tedious job is slowly sucking away his youthful optimism is what causes him to quit. Filmmakers are taught to “show, not tell”, but with the episode being practically half as long as the other two, I’m sure there was plenty of room to strengthen Takaki’s character outside of showing him moping around.
What can I say about the visuals other than they are gorgeous? Makoto Shinkai definitely has a photographers eye, and the numerous cutaways are stunning and breathtaking. The color hues work to reflect the stories, such as in “Cherry Blossoms” where the flashbacks had bright tones to coincide with spring, while the present day scenes with Takaki showed a darkened skyline with a setting sun. The visual department is where this film shines the brightest, and I’m certain that any single frame from this film is worthy of being hung up in a frame.
Accompanying the scenery is Tenmon’s beautiful score, which consists mainly of a piano and strings. It’s simple and doesn’t distract from what’s being displayed in front of you. The film’s theme “One More Time, One More Chance” by Masayoshi Yamazaki is heard throughout the film as a recurring motif. Supposedly written in memory of a deceased love one, the song’s message of longing fits perfectly with the film’s theme, and harkens back to days long gone.
5 Centimeters Per Seconds hold a special place for me, as a reminder to my own experiences with love as I was growing up. As a 15 year old kid dealing with his first break-up, I had a completely different interpretation of the film. As someone who couldn’t handle the reality of being heartbroken, I believed that I would end up just like Takaki as I got older: cynical, cold, depressed, and lifeless. A lot of people interpret the end as extremely depressing, with Takaki and Akari never truly seeing each other again and each continuing to walk down their paths in life.
Older and wiser me can now see that while the experience was painful, Takaki is slowly learning to live life happily again. Getting away from the grey concrete city, he finds himself walking down the same streets he used to navigate with Akari when they were children. With the cherry blossoms in full bloom, it’s a reawakening for Takaki, as he realizes that he shouldn’t stay stuck in the past, and with that, we see him truly content for the first time since his childhood days. And really, isn’t that what we all want, to be content with our lives despite the heartbreaks?