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As Makoto Shinkai’s 5cm/second finally gets a UK release, Andrew Osmond goes looking for anime background detail.

On the DVD of Makoto Shinkai’s new film, 5 Centimetres per Second, the director discusses the role of scenery in his anime. “We don’t necessarily portray the scenery realistically,” he says. “Rather, we want to portray the scenery in the characters’ memories… During the movie, you might think you’d be able to see the exact scenery if you go to the actual location, but if you actually go there, you’d say, ‘Hey, the colours were different,’ or ‘The details were different.’ What we portray is the image of the scenery, so we’re not necessarily obsessed with how it looks in real life.”

Nonetheless, one way in which anime often differs from other animation is in its extremely “realistic” backgrounds, based on actual places. (A recent example is Kenji Kamiyama’s Eden of the East, where much of the action takes place in the Lalaport Toyosu shopping mall in Tokyo’s Kotu-ku district.) It’s less unusual in Western CGI films – think of the Paris kitchen in Pixar’s Ratatouille – but the drawn hyperrealism of 5 Centimetres would strike many Westerners as weird. From the film’s opening minutes, we’re bombarded with scenic images, some edited as fast as a Michael Bay actioner. They show details as mundane as the lettering on the controls of a washing machine, or the platform signboards at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, that giant maze designed by a demented Dungeon Master.

As Shinkai says, landscape in anime is bound up with nostalgia. Another nostalgic director, Isao Takahata, explained why he didn’t just make his memory-lane drama Only Yesterday in live-action. “I don’t think audiences watch live-action features carefully,” he said. “However, they’d be forced to for an animated feature, because animation catches things we do and reflects reality more solidly than it actually is.”

Shinkai extends this principle by having his characters isolated from everyday Japan, desperately seeking a way back to the world they only now appreciate. In his breakthrough short film, Voices of a Distant Star, Shinkai showed a girl in a space war, light-years away from home, as she forlornly recalls the sights and sounds of Japan, “like the sound of raindrops hitting an umbrella, like the softness of spring soil.” In The Place Promised in Our Early Days, the sleeping-beauty heroine is trapped in the silent quantum interstices of God’s dreams. She laments, “The world is so beautiful, but I’m so far away from it… all alone.” 5 Centimetres traps its hero in a snowbound void, and later uses the metaphor of a space probe, endlessly flying into deep space.

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Such things only have the meanings humans give them. In the first section of 5 Centimetres, watch how the snowy landscape “changes” from a realm of misery to something sublime, matching the hero’s perceptions. And at the film’s end – no spoilers – watch the signboard to the side of the picture in the last scene, and consider what it might mean. Another “realistic” detail, or the key to the whole film?

5 Centimetres Per Second is out on UK DVD on 14th March from Manga Entertainment.

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