The Voices of a Distant Star
Makato Shinkai’s The Voices of a Distant Star is one of the most unusual manga I’ve read. First, it was originally a short anime. (Many manga go the opposite way, appearing in print first before being adapted to film. This story was adapted into comic format by Mizu Sahara.) Second, it’s complete in one volume. Mostly, it takes some standard elements and uses them to tell a completely unusual story.
It’s about unrealized young love that can never be, and the hope that shines in the face of impossibility. In the future, the world has joined together to fight the alien Tarsians. Mikako is a student selected to pilot a fighter robot. (I said it used standard elements.) Noboru, her classmate and good friend, is the one left behind to face boring normal life. The two were starting to include each other in their plans, trying to get into the same high school, and now, due to faster-than-light travel, they aren’t even aging at the same rate.
Like many girls of her generation, Mikako is used to communicating with anyone instantly via cellphone text message. She keeps sending her messages, but as she travels further into space, they take longer and longer to arrive. The boy she left behind has little to tell her, as they forcibly grow apart due to circumstance and the laws of physics. There’s a lot left unsaid, conveyed by mood and image as one reads between the lines.
The contrast of an immediate communication method, normally used for the most sudden and surface of thoughts, being asked to carry what might always be her last message… it’s disconcerting. At first, she keeps chattering. “How’s the weather? Good luck on exams!” As they lose the ability to interact, due to the lag, their messages change from talking to someone else to revealing their innermost thoughts. As receipt becomes delayed by years, their only audience is themselves, and they become more truthful in their messages.
The art is denser than in many manga, with toned backgrounds anchoring the drawn world. Faces are often in shadow, suggesting separation and loss. Wordless flashbacks capture everyday moments, such as kids taking shelter from a sudden shower. There’s nothing particularly special about those incidents; their significance is only in their absence, something never to be shared again and remembered more powerfully for that.
I found it pleasantly unusual that Mikako is a natural high achiever, praised for her skills but not defined by them. She’s part of something much bigger than herself, sacrificing her individuality to attempt to save the world. (It’s not at all clear that these efforts are actually helping, but they’re the best anyone can think to do.) Their lives are part of such a big effort that the smallest symbols becomes immensely important.
I also don’t usually see a male portrayed as the one left behind to wonder and wait and put his life on hold. While others forget her as soon as she’s out of sight, he errs too far in the other direction and can’t focus in her absence. He spends his time waiting, until one day he can’t any more. It’s like dealing with the grief of a death, only worse, because she’s alive but completely unreachable. She left her world behind, but as they age and she doesn’t, she feels that she’s the one left behind. The grass is always greener.
The comic medium is perfect for this story, as the reader can pause as the significance of events overwhelms, or to remember similar incidents or feelings in their lives. The world is shown in broad-stroke detail; the settings and happenings are quickly recognizable, but the selection of small events provides a realistic feel. The goal of the work is to create a contemplative, elegiac mood, and it works well. The story envelopes the reader, not to be easily shaken off or forgotten.
That’s why I liked the manga better than the anime I previously reviewed. In print, there’s more space to ponder and the ability to proceed through the story at the reader’s own pace.