Voices of a distant star
I'd like to thank Antony I. for lending me this title, which is certainly an interesting one. I believe it's also pretty much the work of a single man which is extremely impressive, but I'll try not to let that factor in the review.
Mankind has finally gathered the technology to make it to mars, where a rather chilling discovery is made. Not only are there alien ruins there but the aliens themselves are also in residence, and they take a rather dim view of un-invited guests. One massacre later and the hostilities are confirmed. But while the aliens are a massive threat they also offer a source of technology, something humanity has always coveted... primarily because it allows you to build mecha, which is the apex of technological progress.
But mecha alone are not enough, you also need 15 year old Japanese school girls to fly them. And so it is that one young girl finds that instead of high school she's going to be a mecha pilot on an expeditionary fleet. Her only connection with the life she should have been living being phone messages to a male friend she left behind. However as she moves ever further the passage of time, and the ever-increasing delay in messages being transmitted, inevitably narrows this solitary link.
I've been a little bit mean there, but consider it a shot of antidote against the hype surrounding this piece. The core plot really is about as deep as I've outlined and there are some substantial gaps in it. Like the question of why she's still wearing her school uniform as a mecha pilot and why she seems so disconnected from the thousand other people in the fleet. With a 30 minute running time, and a very calm pace, there's a lot that passes by unsaid.
Serious anime fans will also be struck by a definite influence from Gunbuster, the rather nice Gainax OAV series. It also explored the idea of a school girl becoming a mecha pilot in a lonely war against a seemingly unbeatable alien menace. Likewise the technical aspects, specifically transmission latency and time dilation (and I think even restricted warp), were also explored in that title. Time dilation, the theory that when traveling at light speed time passes (relatively speaking) more slowly being a particularly powerful dramatic device in both titles.
Likewise the production values are excellent, but not without some significant weaknesses. Of course since this was the work of one man you can afford to cut him a lot of slack. But that doesn't actually change the fact that, like all computer animation, it's a little too crisp in all the wrong places. Likewise movement is restricted and the animation far from smooth. There's one scene of multiple mecha walking on an alien planet that is downright painful. It's good, excellent on ambient effects (the guy likes drawing skies) and observation of the mundane, but it's not actually deep or exciting enough to compete with the current state of the art.
This matters primarily if you bought this title expecting some alien space battles. Something the packaging could easily lead one to expect. Instead it works much better if you consider it from a drama point of view, as an almost poetic study of the bond between two characters being stretched. The title is much, much stronger in this aspect. The short anime included on the DVD ("She and her cat") making it clear that the creator is very skilled at summoning a mood with his choice of words and the pace with which they are delivered, not to mention the scenes and atmosphere against which they are played out. Both pieces manage to express a palpable sense of solitariness, and will have you empathizing with the characters above and beyond the story. The phone acts as a tool of synchronization, keeping the two lives connected and the individual stories working together without offering true warmth. It's also worth noting that both titles (and come to think of it the phone is used as a dramatic tool in the short as well) are not over dramatised or grindingly negative, which also shows skill in the subtle handling.
So ultimately you have to decide what you value, although I'd certainly recommend experiencing it if you get the chance. If you really value the ability of one person to craft a complex creation then owning this is mandatory. If you really want awesome space battles I don't know I'd rush to buy it. If you want a character piece, set against an imposing backdrop, then I highly recommend it. Ultimately it's short running time does mean that while it can create a powerful ambiance there are limits in what it can achieve.
I think I've pretty much covered the production above. It is good, but it probably looks much better in stills than it does when moving. The character art is a little rough, the motion not without some flaws and there are short cuts taken (lots of sliding and panning). It's certainly more than enough to tell the story though, and some of the long shot work is spectacular. The creator clearly likes creating environmental effects. The voices are excellent and the music is moody, giving an excellent hint as to what is to come. I watched the Japanese pro soundtrack, but there's also an original track. The only annoying part is that messages on the phone, which seem important, are very hard to read at a glance (since they're in Japanese and fight with the subtitles). I don't think over-focusing on them is a good idea, the actual messages are not as important as the reactions they spark.
Who knows what a friendship between a young boy and girl can grow into? Well Mikako isn't going to find out because she gets enlisted as a mecha pilot in a war against a potent alien menace. As the fleet she is a small part of gets further from earth it is only the narrow, and much delayed, phone messages that keep her memory alive in the lonely void of space. A lovingly produced masterpiece, almost entirely by a single creative mind, makes this a piece worth experiencing.