The Japanese anime 5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, in both a visual and thematic way. It's the story of two people who're inseparable as kids (both entranced by the falling cherry blossoms, which allegedly fall at 5 centimeters per second) but are split apart by their families moving, yet they are determined to meet up again, they do and fall in love as teenagers, only to be split apart again, before becoming adults who still think of each other but have moved on with their lives (or are trying to learn how to). It's breathtakingly animated. Writer/director Makoto Shinkai allows so many shots of lonely looking objects to linger a bit longer than most would let them, underscoring the longing our characters feel for each other. The score by Tenmon, who's scored all of Shinkai's work, is an empty piano score which even further enhances the feelings of our main characters. At just 63 minutes, 5 Centimeters doesn't outstay its welcome, but Shinkai takes his time unfolding his story in a way that makes sure it doesn't feel truncated either.
The story reminded me forcibly of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great Three Times, another love story set against 3 separate time periods (and was in my top ten of the decade). Of course, Hou set the stories apart by having the same actors playing different characters in different time periods and then watched how they play out their love scenarios. Shinkai simply gives us three segments from the same characters, as they grow older. The first segments are strikingly similar, as the man (boy in 5 Centimeters case) seeks out the woman (girl) before eventually meeting and sharing a simple expression of affection, although Shinkai's ending is as achingly beautiful as Hou's, it's in a different way, since 5 Centimeters follows the same characters throughout its 3 stories, we don't leave our characters at the end of the segment. So there isn't the ending note of love, since we will catch up with Shinkai's characters (and his first segment ends on a less fully romantic note, there's some mixed feelings there). The unreciprocated feelings in the second story are interesting and worthwhile as a story, but don't have quite the same emotional weight as the opening segment.
The final segment, though marred a bit by a too on-the-nose power ballad that stands at complete odds to the sparseness of the rest of the soundtrack, is the ambiguous end to the story that maybe isn't so ambiguous once you think about it. Our hero is haunted by the lost love that never got to see its fruition, while the heroine still occasionally thinks back on those days gone by, even as she has moved on. The chance meeting that the hero has longed for finally happens, but how you feel about the outcome will ultimately depend on each viewers interpretation of the characters feelings at that point in their life.
I think it's a beautifully mature ending to a gorgeous movie, one of the best I've ever seen. Sadly, and for a reason unknown to me, 5 Centimeters Per Second is unavailable on US DVD, as far as I know. However, it is easily viewed through Google Video, which is how I got ahold of it. It is a truly remarkable movie from a filmmaker I need to see more from. Makoto Shinkai has been labeled as "the new Miyazaki", although the thought wouldn't have come to my mind from this movie due to its lack of action or adventure or many of the ecological or aeronautical themes that Miyazaki returns to time and again. What Shinkai does have in common with Miyazaki is that he has made a beautifully animated movie, one that I will return to many times over the years. I wouldn't call him "the new Miyazaki", because really he's "the current Makoto Shinkai".