When Tokyopop filed for bankruptcy in 2011, one of the many titles left in licensing purgatory was Voices of a Distant Star, Mizu Sahara’s adaptation of the 2002 Makoto Shinkai film. I had a dim but fond memory of reading Voices — maybe in 2007? — so I was delighted to hear that Vertical Comics would be re-issuing it, given the company’s stellar track record with Shinkai’s The Garden of Words, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and She and Her Cat. Voices is, in essence, a two-hander about young lovers who bridge space and time by means of text messages. (Even in the future, it seems, we’re all tethered to our smartphones.) But would it be as moving this time around?
What would it be like to embark on a deep space voyage, knowing that when you returned, nothing on Earth would be as you remembered it? That’s the question at the heart of Makoto Shinkai and Mizu Sahara’s Voices of a Distant Star, a thoughtful — if sometimes clumsy — rumination on the human toll of interstellar travel.
The story begins in 2046, as sixteen-year-old Noboru Terao anxiously awaits text messages from his childhood friend Mikako Nagamine, who’s enlisted in the military. As we learn through snippets of conversation and text, Nagamine isn’t at a conventional boot camp: she’s been deployed to Mars, where humanity is preparing for a lengthy campaign against an alien race known as the Tharsians. Her early exchanges with Noboru arrive in a matter of days or weeks, but when she’s transferred to the front lines, she realizes that it may be years before Noboru receives her next text; as she ruefully observes, “By the time this message reaches you, everyone will be growing up into people I don’t know.”
The emotional honesty of their epistolary romance is the best reason to read Voices of a Distant Star. Through their brief exchanges, we grasp that Noboru and Nagamine are torn between the desire for a normal relationship and the dawning realization that they may be better off pursuing their own destinies — a realization made more poignant by the sharp contrast between Noboru’s ordinary school life and Nagamine’s extraterrestrial mission. Their dilemma would be more moving, however, if the artwork wasn’t executed in such a desultory fashion. The characters are utterly generic, lacking any semblance of individuality, while the space combat lacks any sense of place; the story could just as easily be unfolding in Phoenix, AZ as on a planet eight light years from Earth. I know — the story is supposed to give me the feels, not the chills — but a little more attention to the dangerous aspects Nagamine’s mission would have raised the emotional temperature of Voices of a Distant Star from mild to muy caliente. In spite of these artistic shortcomings, Noboru and Nagamine’s plight remains powerful, reminding us that our greatest obstacle to space travel isn’t distance — it’s time. Recommended.