By Makoto Shinkai and Mizu Sahara. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Vertical Comics. Translated by Melissa Tanaka.
Of the various horrifying secrets I have, “has never seen a Makoto Shinkai anime” surely must rank among the largest. But it’s true. I’ve gradually stopped watching a lot of anime anyway, and what I do watch does not tend to fall into the introspective mode that Shinkai does so well. So, just like your name and The Garden of Words, I am coming into reading Voices of a Distant Star as someone unfamiliar with the original anime. Indeed, I never read the manga when it came out from Tokyopop back in 2006. But now I have read it and, as with most things Shinkai has been in charge of, I’m glad I did. The plot is slight, and the characters fairly easy to understand. but that’s because it’s going for a feeling that most of us know only too well, even if it’s couching it in the language of science fiction and time dilation.
We open on two middle school friends who clearly want to be more than friends. There’s just one problem. One of them has been chosen to go into space to help fight aliens, meaning they’ll be separated. But that’s OK – they have email! Unfortunately, this is a more realistic version of space travel, meaning that as time passes and the interstellar distances get longer, the communication gets leagues more difficult. Can their budding love stand the test of both time and space? Now, of course, what makes this even more interesting is that the pilot who’s been recruited is the girl, Mikako, and it’s her friend Noboru who’s staying behind on Earth, trying to live the live that she wanted to live and figure out what he wants to do next. Mikako gets a lot more to do, meeting fellow pilots, then losing them just as quickly, and also discovering the crushing loneliness that comes from a mission like this. Is this another Shinkai title with a bittersweet ending?
Well, no, it gets to be more sweet than bitter, though as you might expect the emphasis is on the ambiguity. In fact, from what I understand the manga actually made things clearer and more explicit (the manga seems to have expanded things a lot from the original anime, which was quite short). This is a one-volume manga, and it’s just the right length to let readers feel the ache of the story it’s telling without wallowing too much in it. The emotions are what we’re here for, adn they’re excellent. Noboru’s most stoic endurance cracking near the end, and Mikako’s love seemingly growing stronger the farther away from him she gets. I will admit that I wasn’t thrilled with the alien invasion subplot, which felt more like an excuse to put some action – any action – in a story that could just as easily have been about Mikako on a space exploration flight.
This is a quiet, emotionally devastating but ultimately uplifting story, and you really like the two kids even when they’re questioning themselves and their own feelings. It’s well worth the read.