The Shinkai Makoto story really starts with the surprise release of the iconic Hoshino Koe, It must be close to a decade since I saw that, when it was the hot new thing, much-lauded for being made almost in its entirety by one person – and since Shinkai has become one of the auteurs of anime, alongside such prestigious names as Miyazaki Hayao, Takahata Isao, Satoshi Kon, Hosoda Mamoru and Yuasa Masaaki. I don’t snap up his works as they come out, I must admit – I still haven’t seen 5cm per Second, let alone Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo – as somehow they always strike me as needlessly slow, pretentious and uninspiring in terms of story and character, which for me takes precedent over art or individual effort.
But before that beginning was this little vignette, a five-minute animation that won minor awards and had some in the know sit up and pay attention. Who knows? Perhaps without this, Hoshi no Koe wouldn’t have been taken seriously…
It really shouldn’t work. The black-and-white short film full of oblique angles, rain and a sombre, overly poetic narrator is such a cliché of French arthouse film that even the hook – that the narrator is a cat – has been used in viral send-ups of the genre such as Henri 2, Paw de Deux, which does similar things to this short but in the choleric rather than melancholic mode. And I’m fairly sure it was not influenced by She and Her Cat. In animation terms, it is horribly transparent throughout that this is an exercise in how to make almost no animation look like motion, and one gets a little sick of the camera panning across a still image to give the illusion of movement. There’s some very nice exterior shots, but it’s very obvious what we’re looking at is essentially a photograph that’s been traced for animation – and the same goes for most shots of the kanojo in question. The cat itself is amusingly incongruous, a cutesy blob that screams
and generally it feels almost disingenuous, how many shortcuts are made in a
blatant attempt to masquerade as finer animation.
And yet, oddly enough given my objections to Makoto’s other films, it works because it is subtle and heartfelt. It’s clever and simple and doesn’t have to spell everything out. The cat’s simple love and adulation, its childish pride in believing itself so much more adult than its little feline girlfriend, its inability to understand how anyone could make its owner sad and its simple life are pitched perfectly so that they are adorably naïve yet not sickly sweet like Chii in Chii’s Sweet Home.
There is much to criticise in artistic terms here, but of course a person making their own little animation as a personal project will want to make the most of the little they have. And the key is a script that doesn’t mind its unoriginality and lack of subtlety – yet spins things in a way just vague and yet adorable enough to make the short work very well. More than either of the longer animations I’ve seen from Shinkai, this makes me want to see more.