"...if you look at our everyday lives, you realise that we're well-fed, well-clothed and well-housed. We also live in a society where there's almost no class discrimination. And we have freedom to live our lives however we want. Considering what kind of society we live in, if you still have problems with relationships with people, the cause of the problem is probably not society or anything readily apparent. In that case, you have to find the cause within yourself. That's actually a hard thing to do, I think. You might think there's a nothing within you that's causing the problem. So I had a strong desire to portray that 'nothingness' as it is."
That's the director Makoto Shinkai on the film. No doubt he's somewhat blinkered in his view that society places almost no restrictions on our liberty. That kind of complacency is frustrating, but the myopia runs deeper. The truth is, trying to isolate the cause of your discontent without reference to the expectations placed on you by others is a mug's game. That's why the characters in this film feel more like archetypes role-playing doomed love affairs rather than real people. Takaki is little more than a dreamy heartthrob yearning to protect Akari from the evils of the world. Their drifting apart is the product of the cold mathematics of speed and distance – their families move away, it's too far for them to continue their relationship. It's as simple and as brutal as that.
The real highlight is Kanae in the second 'Act' of the film – the only time it adopts a female perspective. She also pines after the cool Takaki, and formulates her life-projects with reference to his own. That leaves her in limbo when she realises that he will never be interested in her. In fact, her one moment of glory comes when she achieves something on her own – learning how to surf from her older sister. That victory is clouded by her subsequent rejection, but it points to the damage caused when tying up all your self-worth onto the whims of another person.
There is another highlight, of course – the dazzling imagery. Every frame of the anime is polished to a brilliant sheen, sometimes to the point of distraction, particularly when it comes to the nebula-stuffed starry skies. The animation is more impressive when it comes to the everyday details of train stations, convenience stores and countryside roads, which capture the look and feel of Japan unbelievably well. It's those wonderfully realised bits of quotidian existence that add a weight to the otherwise fluffy angst the film is portraying. It's a shame that for all his efforts to embed them in the real world, Shinkai can't make his characters actually feel real.