Sunday, October 20, 2013

2007, Part 2: Seven for Seven: Two for Love

Having covered three tales of technology for 2007, Part 2 from Owen (Twitter handle @riajuunibyou) covers the human side of anime in two forms, one from a digital distribution and another from the more traditional means.

More often than not, stories about love inevitably turn into stories about time. Whether it's the aftershocks of a breakup, a long, hard look at loves past, or even new love budding in the present, the lens of love is always there to colour matters. With each new relationship, the examination of the past is all but certain—we look to the past to think about the future.

Consider 2006's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It uses time travel not as an escape or an afterthought, but as a way of underscoring the pinning of love and how obdurate such feelings can be; it uses time travel as a means to emphasise, through repetition, how even the most fervent attempts to undo time cannot undo hearts. Love, it decides, is inevitable—just a matter of time.

The two anime covered this time as we embrace the shows from 2007 have no scientific or fantastic aspirations, yet in themselves do contain that dimensionality with their nuanced take on a subject well explored. It's unavoidable, after all, that the sum of one's here and now is but the result of every year, every day, every second that we've lived, and it's this that we bring to each relationship, new or old.

Love is like time travel in that regard. Romance stories in such a vein take the long route, an introspective that starts then and ends now; as much as it is about the feelings and hopes and dreams that two individuals bring together, it's also the way in which so many of us are shaped by what we've gone through and those we've loved, and how that affects those we're now in love with.

Tokyo Marble Chocolate is a bittersweet mouthful, an acquired but ageless taste.

The story is presented as an OVA in two parts—the girl's half, Mata Aimashou ("Let's Meet Again") and the guy's half, Zenryoku Shounen ("Youth in Full Throttle"). While the episodes are symmetrical and can be viewed in any order, the recommended sequence is the one listed, if only because the former ends on a down note that's complemented by the latter's uplifting one.

The first few minutes of each episode is painfully frank in a way that belies the sunny optimism afforded its peers. Separately, yet in parallel, the protagonists Chizuru and Yuudai convey a sense of inevitability and resignation in their opening monologues that sets the tone for the next 52 minutes, simultaneously reconciling the outcome of their relationship to the viewer in a way other works fail to do with twice the runtime—we want to cheer this couple on. We want them to make up. We want them to succeed.

But who hasn't been there? The very broken halves that make up this couple are nothing short of comedic in their mutual tragedy: Failure condensed thickly, a series of relationships that, when seen through the strained lens of self-deprecating memory, seems to have been nothing more than a futile struggle. A pattern starts to emerge, and reasoning with it: if I've met this many people and failed to maintain a relationship, it reasons, might I just not be desirable enough, not good enough, not deserving enough of love?

The events that transpire following the setup are nothing short of slapstick, immaculately arranged yet earnestly contrived into a microcosm of Why Lovers Fight, that to laugh at them is to also wince in the same breath; to root for them isn't so much in moral support of a fictional couple as it is cheering love on, believing in it enough for it to complete the final lap before it collapses in a broken heap at the finish line. Everyone loves an underdog story, and this one is no exception

While you'd be hard-pressed for symbolism in a genre like this, it's to Tokyo Marble Chocolate's credit that it weaves such accoutrements into its fabric, revealing itself to only the most observant. The rogue mini donkey that makes its appearance halfway is nothing short of a show-stealer, with its garish looks making it endearing and intimidating in the same way that discovering someone anew is; a frightful experience that you can't bear to look at, but which you can't bear to look away from either.

There is a Japanese idiom called "Jumping off the stage at Kiyomizu Temple" that corresponds to "Taking the plunge" in English. The stage at Kiyomizu-dera itself is 13 meters tall, and it was believed that those who would survive the fall would have their wish granted—here, it is Yuudai and Chizuru's figurative leap of faith that encapsulates their shared ordeal; the idea that we are so much more than what we make ourselves out to be to others, and only those who accept us as we are, warts and all, that are worthy of reciprocation.

Tokyo Marble Chocolate examines an age-old trope with modern tools, its contemporary urban setting a bleak and superficial experience that it rejects in favour of something else. More than that, it acknowledges the nihilism with which relationships in this day and age can be reduced to, ad absurdum, but not before tempering it with a healthy dose of hope. It postulates that relationships are a gambler's trap that favours the house, with feelings used for collateral. Inherently destined for failure, it takes a small push to turn a simple interaction into a formidable obstacle, with separation on the cards.

Similarly, the foil to this downward spiral is deceptively simple: Rather than struggling against the idealistic image of a partner and the gap that informs the real thing, love here is a state of acceptance. In acknowledging the song and dance that is two individuals trying to understand each other, it comes full circle with the adage of loving yourself before you love others. There are no perfect relationships, but it accepts the feelings that result from striving to such a standard all the same.

Initially, my reaction to the title was to google it in English, which was a mistake; Rather than referring to marbled chocolate, it was "Marble Chocolate" all along—a brand of candy from Meiji, the Japanese equivalent of M&Ms in all but name. As colourful and varied as the confection it references, Tokyo Marble Chocolate has never sounded more apt.

5 Centimeters per Second is love as a monologue, in love with love itself.

It's hard to not refer to Makoto Shinkai's previous works, namely the entirely self-made Voices of a Distant Star and his first feature-length film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, when writing about 5 Centimeters per Second. It is, after all, his third major work to return to his theme du jour: distance.

A month before its theatre premiere, the first third of 5 Centimeters per Second was streamed on Yahoo! Japan. 2007 was a year when NicoNicoDouga was taking its first steps, and Crunchyroll had yet to stream anime legally. As it had been three years since his last film aired, the internet, naturally, took notice. Web rips surfaced and with it makeshift subs, but it wouldn't be until much later that slightly better copies of the film would surface. (5cm's appearance online may have also been the leak that led to the flood of online streaming, which is why it's included as a "TV" anime. - Ed.)

Was it worth the wait? Shinkai's emphasis on it being grounded in reality was notable at the time, although I couldn't put my finger on it then. Having seen it countless times since, it only seems natural to wonder if his desire to not be typecast into the role of "director who does sf/f anime about a boy and a girl separated by distance" was showing.

At the very least, his desire to depict the real world served to solidify his reputation as an up-and-coming director. While it was, fundamentally, not so different from his previous works—in that it was about a boy and a girl, and the distance between them—the way in which this was presented testified to Shinkai's versatility, if not flexibility, with what seemed to be his comfort zone.

The title, a reference to the speed with which sakura petals fall, immediately makes the subject matter clear to its native audience. As a motif with long-standing traditions in Japanese storytelling, sakura blossoms are said to embody the ephemerality with which they come and go; a relationship presented in such a context is flagged as being short-lived, ultimately destined for separation. Previously having explored the concept of distances spatial (Voices) and temporal (Place Promised), 5 Centimeters per Second encompasses them both while adding a third facet to it, the emotional.

Told in three acts, the first part, Okashou ("Cherry Blossoms"), is the longest and acts as a framing device for the other two. Takaki and Akari are elementary school students, brought together by a shared status as transfer students and their mutual love for books. The second act, Cosmonaut, focuses on a girl called Kanae who nurses unrequited feelings for the now-adolescent Takaki, while the titular third act looks at the adult Takaki and Akari, who seemingly pass each other by at a train crossing one day.

The result is an incredibly personal and cohesive examination of how the greatest distance of them all can be self-inflicted. It posits that while time and space can seem to be insurmountable, there is nothing greater than the distance that results from inaction, be it through a hopelessly idealised image of someone or sheer teenage infatuation. How often do we let opportunities pass by as a result of sheer passivity? The panacea of regret is no panacea at all, and thinking about what might have been has stronger allure than wanting to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Shinkai has been compared to Hayao Miyazaki in recent years, yet such finely tuned emotional sensibilities seem to channel Haruki Murakami more than anything. The latter's short story, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning, bears a familial resemblance to the third act. More montage than story, it's shown to the tune of Masayoshi Yamazaki's "One more time, One more chance". Both uplifting and crushing, it's with a bitter smile that we see Takaki finally moving on. The ennui he feels throughout the film is unquestioningly self-inflicted, yet perfectly understandable, for what-ifs and maybes can be paralysing in small amounts, intoxicating in large ones.

There is an official English subtitle that can be seen on the promotional materials for 5 Centimeters per Second, the curiously phrased "a chain of short stories about their distance." While "chain" seems like an unconventional choice, it seems obvious on hindsight. The way in which chains are linked to each other and their use for restraint and shackling is indicative of how this isn't a love story by any conventional measure—just the idea of love itself.

Next time: Part 3 remains, but let's take a peek at recent memories in the year 2010 first!


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  2. Thanks a lot for this review. I usually don't like watching TV but now we have kids that love to watch it, ultimately I have to join them in order to be sure that they are watching only quality stuff. They are huge fan of the shows by Andy Yeatman. Even I am quite enjoying watching those.