While I think these films deserve 4 stars, this package deserves 6. This is one of the best packages I've ever seen in anime. At the current price I feel this is a real bargain for all the content that is here. It may be expensive on a per-hour basis (the films are about 2 hours total), but the extras are worth every penny. Beyond the value, these films are definitely worth owning. What you get with this set is:
*Soundtrack for Voices of a Distant Star
*Two incredible booklets for each film, Commenting on every detail of the films (from story to production to music)
*A ton of extras including director's cuts, interviews, and Shinkai's first animated project in She and Her Cat
VOICES OF A DISTANT STAR / HOSHI NO KOE:
8 / 10
This is a short film: 24 minutes in length. But what it lacks in length it makes up for in quality. Produced entirely on Shinkai's home computer with himself and his wife doing the voices (though there is another cast in the "official" version, the original version is here as well), it is one of the most marvelous achievements you'll ever see. Shinkai blends a superb science fiction story with an even better moving love story. This film centers around a young couple, Mikako and Noboru who fall in love. Mikako is sent to fight in an interstellar war that leads her light years away from Noboru. Their only method of communication from this distance is cell phone e-mails. As she gets further away from Earth, messages take days, weeks, months, and finally years to reach Noboru on Earth.
Ultiminately, this is a film about love transcending time and space, which is told through some of the most amazing animation and visuals you've ever seen. Shinkai blends traditional 2D handrawn art with real life environments and 3D CG to create a truly stunning vision. This is animation at its most visually captivating and finest. Thankfully, this is not a case of "superb animation, terrible story", as the story is one of the most touching ever in anime. Beyond the animation, the music - composed by Tenmon - is equally beautiful, and I'm extremely grateful the soundtrack is included.
My complaints are few, mostly centering around its short running time. With it, Shinkai is able to keep the narrative extremely sharp and focused. It doesn't feel as if anything is wasted, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, as it makes re-watching this terrific film multiple times easier. A curse, as I feel an even better story could've been rendered in an extended format. My only other complaint is a personal one and that's Shinkai's extreme romanticism. In crafting a beautiful story, one must also realize how very unrealistic it is - even from a thematic perspective. However, film and animation are a vehicle for imagination and idealism. Keeping that in mind, it's not so bothersome.
This is one of those animes that must be seen. I've never seen a debut work show as much potential as Shinkai showed here.
THE PLACE PROMISED IN OUR EARLY DAYS / KUMO NO MUKO, YAKUSOTO NO BASHO
7 / 10
This is Shinkai's first forray into feature length. Promised is at the same time a success and a failure. This paradox is due to the number of levels this film succeeds and fails on. The story is about a future where Japan is divided into two opposing sides. In the center sits a huge, mysterious tower, which is also the central point of the conflict. Takuya and Hiroko are two boys who dream of building a plane to fly to the tower. They also have an interest in a girl named Sayuri. These three spend an unforgettable summer together, and make a promise to all fly to the tower when the plane is completed. It's not long before life and war tears them apart. Within this new and dangerous world, only the lasting promise still binds them.
Promised's biggest flaw comes with its pacing and focus. While Shinkai was able to keep extremely sharp focus in the 24 minute Voices, he drifts too much with Promised. The first 30 minutes is a most beautiful and poetic beginning which establishes the bond between the three main characters. After that, the narrative begins to fall apart. As we move 3 years into the future, the focus shifts from these characters to the conflict and mystery behind the tower and an advent war. This splits up the main characters, and where Shinkai fails is keeping a rhythmic pace between these diverging storylines.
Along the way, many mysteries are introduced and never properly explained: such as Sayori's sudden coma-like state and her connection with the tower. The idea of alternate dimensions is introduced, but we don't get a cogent explanation behind them. The nature of the war is also not elaborated on. It's hard to feel a sense of conflict when you don't know what it's about. I'm not sure whether Shinkai needed more time to flesh this story out, or less time in order to keep him focused on what was there. Shinkai also fails at making smooth transitions and edits. This makes the narrative flow all the more jagged and uncomfortable. The ending is also unsatisfying with little resolution. Ultimately, it's not the length or ending which dooms this film, but merely it's pace, rhythm, and timing.
Much like Voices, where Promised succeeds is with its breathtaking animation and visuals. If one were to mute it and ignore the dialogue, the visuals would perhaps tell an even better story. Shinkai has developed a near mastery of this animation style that's thoroughly spellbinding. The music, again by Tenmon, is only slightly less accomplished as in Voices. However, the main theme is superb and the variatons on it help maintain a link throughout the film. Much like in Voices, Shinkai maintains a nostolgic and mesmeric tone throughout, which creates a superb sense of unfulfilled longing. A kind of elegaic reminiscence of past days that's both uplifting and somber. Shinkai presents very romantic fantasies and tranfixes optimism within the context of realism. This combination is truly beautiful and one I hope he continues.
Shinkai has been hailed as the next Miyazaki. As where Miyazaki succeeds as a supreme storyteller of modern fantasies through animation, Shinkai is more about tone and atmosphere. He captivates you with the most astonishing animation and settings. He seems to love to tell very romantic stories set in sci-fi worlds. This is a superb combination that I can only hope he learns to master with time, as these two films show an infinite amount of promise and likely represent the future of anime.