Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second is a film (or a trilogy of interconnected shorts, depending on your perspective) that dives deeply into the theme of distance throughout its 63-minute runtime. Takaki Tono and Akari Shinohara’s distant relationship sets the idea of distance in the viewer’s mind from the very start of the movie. We see the pair a short distance from one another but unable to reach each other as they’re separated by a train track. It’s this sort of ambiguous distance that lingers throughout the film.
You would be mistaken in seeing distance as solely a physical measurement in this case because the concept of distance is played with, subverted, and even self-contradicting at times. As we mentioned just above, physical distance plays a significant part in 5 Centimeters per Second, especially in the first story; however, we come to realize that even when characters are within touching distance, they can still be far apart, and even when characters are so far apart, they can be close in ways that go beyond physical contact.
The first story in 5 Centimeters per Second, Cherry Blossom, highlights the physical distance between Takaki and Akari. They live far apart and can only communicate via letters and occasional trips to each other’s cities. Unfortunately, Takaki must move to the other side of the country and that ends any chances the two characters have of seeing each other with any frequency. Takaki chooses to visit Akari one final time before his departure but finds that the universe is working against him with bad weather and train delays pushing his fateful meeting with Akari further and further away. This is distance at its most blunt and straightforward in 5 Centimeters per Second.
Unfortunately, even when Takaki arrives and is pleased to see Akari waited for him after all the hours-long delays, there’s a bittersweet feeling during their reunion. Takaki realizes that this is the last time they will ever be together again, even as they confess their love for one another and spend a night together. Their closest moment, where they kiss, marks the beginning of their increasing distance.
Together but Far Apart
5 Centimeters per Second’s second story stars a girl named Kaede Sumida who laments about her inability to figure out her future or confess her love for Takaki. Kaede finds endless ways to spend time with Takaki, but although Takaki is nice to her, it’s obvious that his mind and heart are in another place. Takaki seems like he’s always thinking about someone else, that someone being Akari.
Despite being close together, there’s an insurmountable distance that Kaede notices will prevent her from ever confessing her love for Takaki. This relationship is sharply contrasted with a space shuttle that is being launched into the sky. The immense physical distance between the space shuttle and its destination somehow seems far shorter and reachable than the one between Takaki and Kaede. It’s hard to tell whether Kaede will do better than Takaki in moving forward because she believes she will love Takaki forever and concludes the story by crying
Far Apart but Together
The final story refocuses on Takaki and his continued inability to move on from Akari. Although he has a girlfriend and a successful career, he still longs for Akari and that has hindered his ability to enjoy his life. Coincidentally enough, Takaki has a breakdown at just about the same time that Akari is about to move to Tokyo to get married. Takaki quits his job and ends his relationship with his girlfriend when he starts having a dream that is mirrored by Akari.
Although they have not seen each other in years and have been apart physically since then, this is the closest Takaki has been with someone since the night of their fated kiss. Even with their distance, they share an experience and a dream that few people can hope to ever share with another person. The story concludes with the two characters in the same place where they started, separated by train tracks. For once, the train tracks seem irrelevant and so does Akari’s disappearance after the trains have finished crossing. There’s a semblance of tranquility and satisfaction in Takaki’s face that seems to indicate he may be willing to move on now.
Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second points towards distance being entirely irrelevant. Characters who are together can be further apart emotionally and mentally than the distance between the Earth and any distant planet, while characters who are far apart can be connected emotionally and mentally in ways that make you think they share the same mind. Although Takaki and Akari will not end up together, the story feels more bittersweet than it does tragic and we still feel that while they may have moved on, they have left a piece of themselves in each other that will always keep them close at heart.