Release Date(s)2004, 2002 (July 30, 2018)
Studio(s)All the Anime
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B-
- Overall Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION B-locked Blu-ray release.]
Makoto Shinkai may not be a name that’s as well known to international audiences as that of Hayao Miyazaki, but over two brief decades, he has built up a body of work that rivals (and in some ways surpasses) that of the universally acknowledged master of Japanese animation. He’s also gone from being something of a cult figure to an established box office juggernaut, with his most recent features Your Name and Weathering with You having been major hits in Japan—Your Name actually became the second-highest grossing domestic production of all time, behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (though both were later improbably surpassed by Demon Slayer: Mugen Train in 2020).
Yet there’s a remarkable consistency in all of Shinkai’s work, from his examinations of the ways that people interact with each other despite the different sorts of barriers that lie between them, to his fascination with how individuals interact with the environments that surround them. Like Andrei Tarkovsky, Shinkai takes frequent visual digressions to follow things like raindrops, or water flowing down a stream, or even the path of train tracks through urban environments. Yet he’s most interested in how all of that affects the lives of his characters, and that’s as true of his early films as it is of his later work.
All the Anime’s Region B Blu-ray release of Shinkai’s first two films Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days combines both of them on a single disc. Since the set also includes the short subject She and Her Cat as an extra, this could really be considered a complete collection of all of the early films by Shinkai. The insert is reversible, with the main side featuring artwork for The Place Promised in Our Early Days on the front and the blurb on the back, while the reverse includes alternate artwork for Place on the front and artwork for Voices of a Distant Star on the back. Note that all of the extras for both titles are included together on their own submenu, but for purposes of clarity, this review will separate them by film.
Voices of a Distant Star tells the story of MIkaku and Noboru, two teenagers who are separated when Mikaku is recruited into the UN Space Army to fight a distant alien enemy. Noboru is left behind, and the two are only able to communicate via email messages sent by cell phones. Yet as Mikaku travels farther and farther away from Earth, their messages take longer to cover the distance. The gaps between those messages grow from mere minutes to several years, increasing their sense of loneliness and isolation.
One of the most interesting aspects of Voices of a Distant Star is that Shinkai created a fully realized futuristic world, but then only gave brief glimpses of it, leaving the details unexplained. The storytelling remains elliptical, because his primary focus was always Mikaku and Noboru, with the world itself being little more than an obstacle that keeps them apart. Yet that world-building still provides a tangible sense of reality, which in turn brings the characters to life. In Shinkai’s universe, environment is character.
Amazingly, most of the major facets of the production of Voices of a Distant Star were handled by Shinkai himself. Possessory credits are always controversial, but in this case, Voices is absolutely a Makoto Shinkai film. He didn’t just write and direct it; he also served as producer, cinematographer, editor, and art director. As if that wasn’t enough, he also animated the entire film by himself, and even originally provided one of the voices. It’s as pure an expression of one person’s vision as can be found, and yet for Shinkai, it was only the beginning.
Voices of a Distant Star was animated digitally in standard definition, which has been upscaled to 1080i for this release. The image is understandably soft, with some aliasing visible. Since it’s interlaced, that may introduce combing artifacts depending on setup. (They occurred during vertical pans despite having an Oppo UDP-205 performing the deinterlacing and scaling, and they were still visible when viewed on a PC running Leawo instead.) The excellent 4K upscales of Your Name and Weathering with You were performed by Q-Tec, Inc. in Japan, and they likely could have produced better results here even when working with an interlaced standard definition source, but this particular upscale is less than satisfying.
Audio is available in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 LCPM, Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Japanese 2.0 LCPM. (There’s also a Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track that can be selected via the extras menu, but more about that later.) Subtitle options include full English subtitles, or English songs and signs only. While English vs. Japanese may be a matter of personal preference when it comes to anime, the voice acting is arguably better in the Japanese version. In that case, the uncompressed 2.0 is also preferable to the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It sounds more robust, even after accounting for level differences (the LCPM is mastered louder). The differences are most noticeable in the lovely score from Tenmon, with its delicate piano lines benefiting from avoiding any lossy compression.
Extras include the following:
- Alternate Japanese Audio (Featuring Makoto Shinkai)
- She and Her Cat (Upscaled HD – 4:45)
- Interview with Makoto Shinkai (SD – 8:31)
- Storyboards (SD – 23:09)
- Trailer Collection (SD – 4:52)
The Alternate Japanese Audio is supposed to be the original track with Shinkai himself performing the role of Noboru, but the disc appears to have been authored incorrectly—it sounds like it’s just a duplicate of the regular Japanese 5.1 track, with identical voices. She and Her Cat is Shinkai’s first black-and-white short, and it’s even more of a one-person show than Voices of a Distant Star. Aside from the music by Tenmon and Mika Shinohara voicing “Her,” everything else was done by Shinkai. She and Her Cat is also presented in upscaled 1080i video, with Japanese 2.0 LCPM audio. The Interview with Shinkai looks like it was conducted immediately after production of Voices, as he’s asked about what he wants to do next. He explains that he wants to create something that will last a long time in people’s hearts, and considering the remarkable films he’s made since then, he’s certainly achieved his goal many times over. The Storyboards are really a complete animatic of the film, presented in black-and-white, with partial animation and storyboards covering the incomplete sections. Unlike the Alternate Japanese Audio, this includes the original voice track with Shinkai.
VOICES OF A DISTANT STAR (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/C+/B
The Place Promised in Our Early Days takes place on an alternate timeline when Japan was divided by the Allies after World War II, with the Soviet Union (simply called The Union here) controlling Hokkaido to the North, and the United States controlling the rest. The Union has built an enormous but mysterious tower, which has become the obsession of young schoolmates Hiroki and Takuya. They work on building a plane that they dream of flying over to the tower, and they’re supported by their friend Sayuri, whose own dreams of the tower are of a different sort. As the years go by and the friends separate, it becomes clear that her dreams are connected to the tower in a literal way, and as hostilities grow between the North and the South, Hiroki and Takuya must reunite to find a way to help Sayuri escape her dreams to fulfill the promises that they made to each other in their youth.
As with Voices of a Distant Star, the story for The Place Promised in Our Early Days operates within a world that’s largely left unexplained, at least explicitly so, but it’s primarily a backdrop to the core relationship between the three protagonists—though it still has an influence on how they interact with each other. The cycle that has them coming together, being pushed apart, and coming together again, is tied to the world around them in ways that they only slowly come to understand. There’s a bittersweet edge to The Place Promised in Our Early Days, especially when the hopeful ending is considered in light of what one character says during the prologue (which is actually set after the events of the film). It seems that the cycle may continue for all three characters, not always happily so. Nothing in life is certain, even happy endings.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days was also animated digitally, and while there’s little information available, it was likely produced at native 1080p resolution as that’s what was done for later Shinkai films like Your Name. (IMDb claims an extensive series of film cameras were used, with Super 35 being the source format, but all of Shinkai’s films have been the product of digital animation rather than traditional cel animation.) It was framed at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio displayed here, though that would have been cropped to 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. The image is sharp and clean, with little banding or other artifacts. Thanks to the bigger budget and assistance from a supporting team of artists, the animation is much smoother and more detailed, too. It’s a major leap from Voices of a Distant Star, and not just because of the higher resolution. Shinkai’s gift with lighting is also more apparent in The Place Promised in Our Early Days, showcasing his trademarked interplay of light with the environments. It’s a beautiful transfer.
Audio is available in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 LCPM, Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and Japanese 2.0 LCPM. Subtitle options include full English subtitles, or English songs and signs only. Unlike Voices of a Distant Star, the lossless 5.1 tracks are preferable regardless of which language is chosen (though again, the Japanese voice actors do have an edge). The surrounds aren’t very active, but they do provide reverberations and other ambient effects, as well as occasional directional effects such as airplane flyovers or offscreen voices. Like Voices, it’s the wonderful score from Tenmon that provides the single most important element of the audio experience.
Extras include the following:
- Interview with Yuuka Nanri (SD – 11:50)
- Interview with Masato Hagiwara (SD – 10:59)
- Interview with Hidetaka Yoshioka (SD – 9:46)
- Interview with Makoto Shinkai (SD – 12:30)
- Trailer Collection (HD – 7:03)
Not surprisingly, the interview with Shinkai is the most interesting one out of the four, and it provides some keen insights into his work. He talks about making the transition from working solo to working with a team, and says that he was satisfied with what he had accomplished alone, as it helped him to understand what he was good at doing, and where he was lacking. He explains why he focuses so much on background scenery, showing his photographic references for many of the backgrounds in the film. (The blend of painterly details with photographic realism is one of the hallmarks of his work.) He makes the interesting point that he likes to end his stories with a line of dialogue that takes the story a step ahead of where the film ends; life goes on. The interviews with the lead voice actors Nanri, Hagiwara, and Yoshioka cover things like their feelings about their characters, the story, working with Shinkai, recording their parts in the studio, and seeing the final film for the first time.
THE PLACE PROMISED IN OUR EARLY DAYS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A-/A-/B+
While All the Anime’s Blu-ray release of Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days would benefit from an improved upscale of the former film, it’s still a major step up from the older DVD edition of both films, and it includes most of the extras from that set as well. There’s just one serious omission: the DVD release included a CD with the soundtrack for Voices. If you have that set, hang onto it for that alone. Otherwise, upgrading to this Blu-ray is a no-brainer. For those who have yet to experience the early films of Shinkai, this is an excellent place to start.
- Stephen Bjork