5 Centimeters Per Second: A Stark Portrayal of Romance
Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second is a story of anguish and longing, following the life of Takaki Tohno, his relationship to Akari Shinohara, and the growing distance between them. Divided into three parts, Shinkai presents the bond established between these two characters at childhood, traces Takaki’s growth—or lack thereof—as he enters high school, and later, the adult world.
Contrary to the idealized depiction of love and the “happily-ever-after”s one comes to expect from traditional romantic fiction, Shinkai subverts typical romantic norms in favor of a more realistic portrayal of love and relationships. Shinkai comments on the naivety of idealized romance, the notion that a couple will surmount whatever obstacles they encounter, and blends the lines of dream and reality in order to create a painfully conflicted and somber reflection.
Below is an English-subbed trailer of the film for those of you who are interested in checking it out, and as a word of warning, this article does contain multiple spoilers.
During the first part of the film, “Cherry Blossom,” Takaki reflects on how his relationship began and developed with Akari—a girl whom he meets when she arrives at the same elementary school as him. After becoming close friends and graduating, Akari tells Takaki that her family is moving—a thing which occurs often in both Akari and Takaki’s families. Despite their separation, they promise to write letters and visit one another. As time passes, Takaki learns that his family will be moving farther away from where Akari is living, so the two of them decide to see each other one last time before that happens.
Shinkai’s use of retrospective narration allows him to comment on the naivety of childhood romance. The decision to tell the story in such a manner lends a greater sense of sadness and longing to all acts and events; the dread of the inevitable casts a long shadow over the past, yet it is this same understanding that creates urgency. Memories fade and details grow dim, but this is what leads the individual to feel all the more strongly as one laments the loss of something that used to hold great meaning. Thus, when Akari responds to Takaki’s letter, regarding his family’s moving, “It’s pretty far away this time, isn’t it? When the time comes, it will no longer be a distance which would allow us to just get on a train and meet each other. As I thought, it’s going to be a little lonely,” Akari’s alluding to the possibility that their relationship will be torn asunder lends a tone of tragic irony to her words.
It acknowledges the likelihood of losing touch with one another, which thereby comments on the traditional belief that despite the obstacles, a couple can manage to make a long-distance relationship work. However, even though Shinkai presents Takaki as understanding of this, he still has Takaki go forward with believing they can stay together: “That we could not be together forever after this was a fact I clearly grasped … but the anxieties which I had caught sight of soon melted away. And after that, only Akari’s tender lips remained.”
In this instance, Shinkai presents the younger Takaki as actively choosing to set aside the inevitable in favor of the faintest glimmer of hope. In doing so, Shinkai suggests that without the wisdom of age that is necessary for weighing one’s feelings against the circumstances, the individual is more likely to cling to the things that sway him most for the time being; for the 12-year-old Takaki, that “something” is his love for Akari. This is why Shinkai’s decision to have Takaki look back on the events of his childhood love, rather than have him narrate at the time when he was 12 years old, purposefully shapes the presentation of Takaki’s relationship in a significant manner; one may try to blind oneself to the future in order to live in the present, but hindsight makes that impossible.
Takaki’s telling of his childhood love story serves not just to detail the events of his romance, but to reflect on the naivety of his former beliefs. As a result, when Takaki claims, “we would be together from then onwards. For some reason, that’s what I thought,” his use of the phrase “for some reason” acknowledges the blind innocence of his former mentality. To have life turn out exactly the way we want it to would certainly be ideal, but it is not realistic.
M.H. Abrams’ comparison of realistic fiction to romantic fiction reinforces the notion that Shinkai’s portrayal of the younger Takaki’s beliefs is meant to be a commentary on the traditional ideals of romantic fiction: “Realistic fiction is often opposed to romantic fiction: the romance is said to present life as we would have it be, more picturesque, more adventurous, more heroic than the actual; realism, to present an accurate imitation of life as it is” (152). In addition to Shinkai’s use of retrospective narration, he incorporates the role of fate as part of the machinery of realistic romance. As an active force in shaping the outcomes of a person’s life, Shinkai presents fate as indifferent to a person’s struggles, commenting, again, on the notion that a couple can overcome whatever obstacles they encounter.
The thematic weaving of helplessness reinforces the idea of the futility of struggling against fate in favor of an idealized result. When Akari discusses with Takaki the fact that her parents will not allow her to go to the same secondary school as him, Takaki reflects: “I understood perfectly that Akari had been hurt, but … I couldn’t do anything about it.” In this instance, Takaki’s sense of helplessness is emphasized not only by the phrase, “I couldn’t do anything,” but the fact that he pauses before he speaks this line suggests that it is a difficult thing to admit—as though to say it is the same thing as to give in to fate’s dictates. As a result, Shinkai presents the younger Takaki as constantly struggling.
This is most noticeable in the way Shinkai portrays nature as a force of fate, not only through its physical hurdles, but through its foreshadowing of Takaki’s separation from Akari, and the consequences that follow from their separation. The first element of foreshadowing can be observed with how the snow repeatedly forces Takaki’s train to be delayed as he travels to meet with Akari: “Time, clearly as if it had a malicious intent, slowly ebbed away above me. I clenched my teeth, and keeping myself from crying was the only thing I could do.” In this instance, Takaki’s reference to “Time” as having “malicious intent” implies that he feels fate is purposefully working against him—seeking all opportunities to distance himself from Akari. His sense of frustration is suggested by the fact that he “clenches his teeth,” and his helplessness is evoked by the phrase, “keeping myself from crying was the only thing I could do.”
Since Takaki removes his watch, when the snowstorm forces the train to stop for a long period of time, it signifies his refusal to accept “the malicious intent of Time,” or, the decision of fate to keep them apart. Another instance that shows how nature functions as a force of fate can be observed in the way the wind steals the letter that Takaki plans on giving Akari—a letter detailing all of his thoughts and feelings for her. The significance of this moment lies not only in fate’s decision to sabotage Takaki’s efforts, but it can also be metaphorically interpreted as representative of how Takaki’s life turns out; forever in a state of longing, constantly hoping his feelings reach and stay with Akari, and a painful feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment with the state of his life.
When Takaki sets out for his journey in the first place, Shinkai’s presentation of nature as suddenly appearing barren and empty, after being populated with life, reflects how Takaki’s relationship turns out with Akari: “in the blink of an eye, the buildings in the scenery became sparse …. The invisible winter wasteland outside the window, the flowing away of time, the painful hunger, all these things gradually wore down my heart.” Perhaps the most powerful example of nature as a force of fate can be observed when Akari and Takaki look on at a leafless cherry blossom tree, and Akari ironically refers to the falling snow as cherry blossoms: “Doesn’t it somehow resemble snow?”
This image showcases how a person longing for the ideal may skew their perception of the present for a more favorable reality; instead of witnessing bright, vibrant cherry blossom petals falling, all that is there is the cold, indifferent snow, gradually burying a stark, naked, cherry blossom tree that is vulnerable to the forces of the world. Thus, this moment embodies the same idea as Takaki choosing to focus on something more beautiful and meaningful to him—the hope that he will forever be with Akari—than accepting reality for what it is and the inevitable fate of his relationship.
In the second part of the film, “Cosmonaut,” the story is set in another town Takaki and his family have moved to, narrated primarily by Kanae Sumida—Takaki’s classmate and friend. Shinkai’s presentation of Kanae’s relationship to Takaki illustrates the torment of unreciprocated love and reinforces the futility of fighting against fate. As Kanae reflects on her relationship to Takaki, her feelings towards him suggest the sentiment of struggle: “It was scary, and each day was filled with anguish. But feeling happy everytime I met him, was something about myself that I couldn’t do anything about.”
In this instance, Kanae’s struggle is a result of the need to express her feelings while feeling completely helpless in attempting to do so. Shinkai’s negative portrayal of the consequences love has on the individual thereby comments on the belief in traditional romantic fiction that one’s love will eventually be reciprocated. Yet this is clearly not the case for Kanae. Shinkai’s refusal to allow her to express her feelings, let alone have them reciprocated, indicate that “happily-ever-after”s are not to always be expected in real life.
Characters do not necessarily fall in love with one another simply because one person feels a certain way, as every individual has their own emotional troubles to deal with—a fact that Kanae comes to understand when she realizes Takaki is constantly thinking of someone else: “Tohno-kun has always … been looking at something far beyond, far higher than me.” The scene where Kanae finally breaks down into tears in front of Takaki thereby reinforces the notion that one’s love will not always be reciprocated, and that struggling with fate’s finality is futile. This is the reason why Shinkai juxtaposes this moment with the spaceship being launched: “To desperately and blindly stretch out our hands towards the heavens … and to fix our eyes on something in the darkness of the far reaches of space.”
This line conveys the inherent struggle of an individual’s feelings of love, for despite the fact that we do not know what lies in store for the future, we are constantly trying to shape it with our free will. Another feature to consider, despite its few appearances in the second part of the film, is Takaki’s dialogue. As Kanae attempts to understand who Takaki is, Takaki’s struggle with fate is expressed in momentary exchanges. For example, when Kanae tells Takaki, “I’m not even sure about tomorrow,” Takaki responds with, “I think, everyone is like that.” While such a statement may appear to a passerby as “simply making conversation,” the knowledge of the first part of the film alerts the viewer to the idea that Takaki is still dwelling on his relationship with Akari. Uncertain of the future, Takaki tells Kanae, “I am full of hesitation.”
The significance of this line is that it echoes the same anguish Kanae expresses about the experience of longing for another. Shinkai thereby shows how time serves as an active agent in shaping a person’s perception of life. Especially when the characters are still at such a young age, they cling to what little experience they have in order to survive in the world. Takaki’s decision to stop communicating with Akari through text messages is thus important to consider. It showcases Takaki’s attempt at finally pushing beyond the naïve dream of ending up together with her, in order to survive in a world where life and love are not decided by the individual, but rather by the dictates of fate.
However, Takaki’s thought of, “When did I start typing messages that are never sent?,” invites the idea that Takaki is surprised with himself—surprised that he would give up on something he has cared about since childhood, something which has had so much meaning for him.
Shinkai’s presentation of Takaki’s conflicted emotions thereby presents a realistic portrayal of the individual: that we are contradictory, uncertain, at times confident, at times desperate, and that no matter how hopeless reality may seem, we still cling to the memories of moments that were once most precious to us. Takaki’s comment about the spaceship being launched into space reinforces the notion of clinging to the ideal despite knowledge of the inevitable: “they say it will continue traveling through the solar system and beyond … No matter how long it takes.” Shinkai’s presentation of Kanae and Takaki’s looking up into space thus shows how important a role nature plays for the individual. We are uncertain of the unknown, yet we look towards it with hope; we don’t know what the future has in store for us, but we know that there is a range of possibilities. And the knowledge that there is even the slightest chance that things will turn out just the way we want it to, motivates us to strive forward, to cling to the idealized, and fall when fate hands us a different hand.
5 Centimeters Per Second
The third part of the film, “5 Centimeters Per Second,” is perhaps the most bitter in tone, and the most stark in its depiction of the consequences of clinging to the ideal. As Shinkai presents Takaki as continuing to experience feelings of longing and sadness, perhaps even entering a depressive state, the results are portrayed as devastating. As an adult, Takaki struggles to find a purpose for himself; he has a job—which he quits after a brief period of time—, he has been in relationships since high school—though all of them have been short-lived—, and he still clings to his memories of Akari. This can be observed in the way the sight of a cherry blossom floating into his room from the window causes him to stop what he is doing and go outside: “Thinking back to that day surely, that person must also strongly feel it when she thinks back.”
Takaki’s reference to Akari as “that person” can be interpreted in a few ways: either, he feels his connection to her has grown so distant that she appears more as a faint, pleasant dream than a once living reality—a thing which is reinforced by Akari’s thought of, “I saw a dream from long ago”—or it could be Shinkai’s decision to present Takaki’s relationship to Akari as one of the countless instances that have occurred to other former couples who have grown apart. In this case, the film may be allegorical as presenting Takaki’s journey as a kind of “rite of passage” that perhaps all individuals at some point in their lives experience.
However, it is difficult to say whether this is the case or not as Shinkai presents Akari as an adult and happily engaged to another man, conveying the notion that perhaps Takaki’s inability to reconcile the past with the present is a unique case that does not occur that often. Regardless of whether either of these possibilities are intended, Shinkai’s portrayal of love and the consequences it has on the individual appear rather pessimistic: “When I at last noticed, my heart had already become hard … And on a certain morning, when I at last came to an earnest realization, that I had lost everything that was beautiful.”
The fact that Takaki devotes himself completely to his memories of Akari, while shunning almost all other aspects of life as he lives in an isolated state, reinforces how important such memories can be for the individual, and how hoping for the ideal, instead of accepting reality, restricts oneself from personal growth. The very ending of the film highlights this as well as Takaki passes by Akari without noticing until it is too late. Since Takaki is shown as constantly walking alone with a brooding, somber look on his face, it suggests that Takaki is so immersed in his own world and feelings that he barely notices the world going on around him—even the woman who he had fallen in love with and thinks about obsessively since then. However, the depiction of this “crossing of paths” is ambiguously presented.
Even though Takaki notices Akari passing by, after a few moments where his vision of her is interrupted by two trains crossing, she immediately disappears from his sight, leaving the viewer to wonder whether or not she was actually there, or if she was simply a manifestation of Takaki’s feelings of longing. As the second part of the film features a kind of convergence of dream and reality, as Takaki struggles to accept the present and break free from his dwelling on the past, it is possible that Shinkai continues this theme to the very end of the film.
If this is the case, then Shinkai may be using this moment to directly attack the tradition of romantic fiction. Instead of having the couple end up together, despite all the anguish and strife they have encountered, Shinkai seems to present such a notion as a naïve, hopeful illusion; that life does not cater to each individual’s wants, but rather plays out in the manner it is set for by fate. Therefore, Shinkai’s presentation of love and relationships in the film comment on the idealized depictions of romantic fiction. Shinkai presents life as predetermined by the dictates of fate, so despite how much we may struggle and long after another, there are always circumstances that are out of our control. The use of retrospective narration allows for thoughtful reflection and an understanding of the differences between what is realistic and ideal, and the presentation of the individual’s relationship to nature as a representation of one’s journey into the unknown, as well as a force of fate, allows Shinkai to shape his commentary, and to create a beautiful, moving tale that resonates with countless individuals.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th Edition. San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.m 1988. 152-154.
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