“Five Centimeters Per Second” refers to the rate at which a cherry blossom drifts to earth, and time forms the subject and substance of Makoto Shinkai’s animated feature, in which events are measured in minutely detailed tableaux of passing clouds, eerily reflected lamplight or silently falling snow. Divided into three episodes, virtually plotless anime traces fragile, emotion-fraught moments in its hero’s childhood, adolescence and manhood. Vividly capturing the lost promise of youth, this exquisite, light-drenched tone poem requires creative handling to secure even limited niche play, though hour-plus running time makes it ideal for cable.
First episode, “Cherry Blossom Story,” journeys from the warmth of a shared childhood to the coldness of separation and loss. Young lad Takaki and little g.f. Akari come across as nerdy soulmates, sharing a love of books and the derision of their peers. They stroll together under a pastel blizzard of cherry blossoms and, even after their parents move, manage to keep in touch via cell phone and e-mail.
But a final visit before a major move finds Takaki on an endlessly delayed train ride through unfamiliar stations and snow-bound nightscapes toward an infinitely receding reunion with Akari. Shinkai subtly renders the angst of something precious lost, of being irreversibly too late, as time dilates and contracts in the minutiae of messages, sputtering fluorescent bulbs and inexorable clockhands.
Part two, “Cosmonauts,” finds loner adolescent Takaki on Tanegashima Island, composing text messages to Akari he never sends, while a lonely young girl, Kanae, whose voiceover monologue provides whispered accompaniment, waits to declare her love for him. Huge patterned skies, filled with indecipherable patterns and traversed by rockets launched from the nearby Japanese space agency, limn an interval of yearning promise and unformed dreams.
In the third, present-day section, titled “Five Centimeters Per Second” and set in the lonely rooms and impersonal cityscape of Tokyo, Takaki is a disillusioned adult who aimlessly wanders the city, pausing to wonder about a familiar-looking woman crossing the railroad tracks in the other direction. Unfortunately, Shinkai rhymes the film’s last, whirling-memory montages to a hokey Japanese pop tune too sappy for his evanescent imagery.
Shinkai has been hailed as the next Miyazaki, and his dreamy mindscapes often equal or surpass the anime maestro in breadth of detail and depth of emotion. Shinkai extends the innate possibilities of the anime dynamic, reapplying its principles of lush effects, inflated background detail and sometimes undernourished character animation to mirror the interiority of the characters in every nuance of their surroundings.