*This article contains major spoilers for the film Five Centimeters per Second, as well as minor spoilers for the film Kimi no Na wa.*
Five Centimeters per Second. When I first heard of the title of this romance movie, I thought I knew the story inside out. It’s a critically acclaimed romance movie in anime format, so clearly it’s the story of two people gradually coming to love each other. Simple, right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The only other Makoto Shinkai movie I had watched previously was Kimi no Na wa, which was a great movie with plenty to analyze, but one that left me with the impression that Shinkai was a talented director of conventional romance films. This was because Kimi no Na wa was exactly that: conventional. Two people find each other attractive, and through hardships and separation, the two unite in true love, as if it was destiny all along. So when I watched Five Centimeters per Second during an airplane flight with that same mentality, I was hit with the hardest sucker punch I have ever received from a romance anime… in the best way possible.
After some reflection and analysis of the film, I realized that against all prior expectations, Five Centimeters per Second was completely different from Kimi no Na wa, most specifically regarding its message. Because if Kimi no Na wa is about the magnificence of uniting in love, Five Centimeters per Second is instead about the beauty of falling apart.
The Chosen Cherry Blossoms – A Dream Realized
Dreams. Everyone has them. Not the ones that are imagined at night, but the ones that inspire us to keep moving forward. A wish, in other words. Often times, dreams are achieved later in our lives, or perhaps never at all. That’s fine; dreams give us something to work towards, and while we never know what the perfect path to achieve a dream is, the inspiration itself remains a vital part of our lives. Completing this journey to our dreams allows us to be satisfied, and lets us move forward in life, looking for new dreams, and in the end, dying happily. But then we must ask the question: what if a dream achieved is taken away from us?
This question is a major theme in FCpS, and it is one that is reflected upon through the life of our main character, Takaki Tohno.
The first episode, The Chosen Cherry Blossoms, shows Tohno’s struggles after seeing his best friend, Akari, leave. Through their numerous letters, it’s seen that Tohno and Akari accepted the fact that they couldn’t maintain the close relationship they had. For their age, this was the unfortunate truth. One day, Tohno realizes that he will move even further away from Akari soon, so he decides to meet her one last time, seemingly as a final reunion before an eternal split.
Through hours of harsh conditions and unlucky circumstances, Tohno reaches Akari, sadly losing his sincere letter during his travel. They spend one final night together, hoping to create one last memory together before most likely splitting forever. But one event puts aside these ideas entirely: the kiss.
The kiss, when viewed for the first time, is an extremely moving scene, full of romance and emotion. However, after viewing a few more times, I came to see the scene in a different light; the scene does not portray intense love, but instead shows a tragic misunderstanding.
First, it’s important to note that both Akari and Tohno were happy to kiss. Neither forced themselves to kiss, but were willing to do so wholeheartedly. However, the misunderstanding occurs because their feelings behind the kiss were different.
Tohno, during the kiss, believes his whole world changed. He gains an understanding of Akari unlike never before, even saying he knew where eternity lay and that he wanted to keep Akari’s warmth next to him forever. This entirely contradicts his belief from when he was planning the reunion: sharing a final memorable moment with Akari. Instead, something new awakened in Tohno. It was his dream. The kiss was able to reawaken a dream Tohno had for years: developing a deeper, romantic relationship with Akari and keeping it for the rest of his life. Momentarily, Tohno even believed his dream was achieved. The kiss represented the type of intimacy Tohno wanted to share with Akari forever, and when forced to separate, he continues to strive for that moment, wishing to obtain that dream one more time, this time for eternity long. This was Tohno’s tragic misunderstanding.
In the final scene of Episode 1, we see one quick shot of Akari that shows exactly what Tohno’s mistake was. Akari reveals that unlike Tohno, she didn’t lose her letter, but simply decided not to give it to him. While she could have possibly forgotten, her expression shows us that it was intentional. Her belief behind this action was simple: she didn’t want to give Tohno another way to remember her. This may sound harsh, but consider their ideals from the beginning. This was their last moment together. By giving him another letter, Akari would imply a continuation of their relationship, since Tohno would reply with another letter, continuing their cycle of distant, wilting communication.
The letter also points back to the kiss. Akari didn’t share the same feelings as Tohno when they kissed. It’s heavily implied she also loved Tohno at that time, but unlike him, Akari wanted the kiss not to represent the start of their new love, but the memorable end to their friendship. While Akari decided to move on, Tohno misunderstood her ideas, carving himself a new dream from the false idea of their love.
Tohno even admits that they probably won’t see each other again, saying “I clearly knew from that point on, we wouldn’t be together forever”. He knows the unfortunate truth. However, in that moment, Tohno achieves his dream and refuses to let it die. Instead, Tohno sets that moment as his new dream, working every moment for the coming years to keep it alive, with no chance of success. He lives in his dream without realizing it, and what comes for him is but an inevitable failure. What we see next is the life of one who lives in a failing dream.
Cosmonaut – Tohno’s Reflection
In the second episode of FCpS, Cosmonaut, we are introduced to a new character, Sumida. At first she may seem annoying, since we already know and root for Tohno’s love with Akari. However, Sumida ends up paralleling Tohno’s story, and ends up foreshadowing the future Tohno is headed to.
At first, Tohno and Sumida may seem to have very different experiences, especially regarding love. However, looking closely, Tohno and Sumida’s lives are actually incredibly similar. For one, in the beginning of their respective stories, they both befriend a new student in their school. For Tohno it was Akari, while for Sumida it was Tohno. As time passes, both characters become extremely close to this friend, even starting to have romantic feelings for them. But the next similarity is the important one: they both lived in a dream.
As mentioned earlier, Tohno, in the kiss, lived in his dream of having a romantic relationship with Akari. For Sumida, there may seem to be no such moment in her life. If anything, she seems to be searching for a dream constantly. However, the reason behind this is because unlike Tohno, Sumida’s dream stretched throughout several years, gradually building up and immersing her, making her satisfied enough to not have a clear next step. Her dream was also to have a romantic relationship with her friend, Tohno.
It may seem that unlike Tohno, Sumida never had a romantic connection with her partner. But let’s try stepping away from the details for a second. Try to imagine this episode as a stand-alone. If this episode was not connected to the rest of FCpS, our views of the story shift quite a bit. So ask yourself: if this episode was a stand-alone, would we have believed that Sumida would have had a successful confession?
For most, the answer would be yes. Similar to numerous romance stories, what Sumida is given is a near-perfect scenario for success. She attends the same school as Tohno, and has no apparent competition for his love. She also walks home with him often, allowing them to spend plenty of time together. Lastly, their location in a remote island allows them to not only have privacy, but also seclusion from the tempting modern society. Sumida should have succeeded…but she didn’t. Why is that?
The answer is simple: the entire episode is in her perspective.
This detail is quite important regarding Sumida’s dream. As mentioned just now, Sumida is given a perfect setting for romance. All she would need to do in this flawless setting is confess. And in her mind, this setting means that success is simply guaranteed; it’s only a matter of time. The entire time she builds up to her confession, she lives in that dream of success. It’s not that she needs Tohno’s acceptance to achieve her dreams; she believes he wouldn’t ever reject her. Her dreams of having a romantic relationship with Tohno is complete in her eyes already. This is the dream Sumida foolishly lives in.
This dream is also the reason Sumida couldn’t find anything to write in the future survey. Just like Tohno, Sumida becomes so mesmerized by her own beliefs that she fails to move on from it, even when pressured.
So it’s quite apparent by now that Sumida parallels Tohno’s life…but it doesn’t stop there. Sumida’s story has more to offer us, and now it isn’t just a parallel: it’s a foreshadowing.
Near the end of episode 2, we see Sumida trying to confess to Tohno, only to fail. This stage of her story is the one yet to be seen from Tohno’s life: the breaking point. Sumida, in spending time with Tohno and getting closer to him, realizes that Tohno looks beyond her. This means that her previous belief in Tohno – that he would never reject her – is false. Her dreams are shattered. To us, this was obvious, but in the Sumida’s view, tricked by her dreams, it was impossible to notice until she was right next to the truth.
As described by the title, Tohno was the Cosmonaut. He didn’t want to remain in his place in the present, but instead looked past what surrounded him: to the stars. Sumida was an admirer, and dreamed of being with Tohno, but it didn’t matter to him. He looked far beyond her, and everything else that surrounded him. He had a dream in mind, and even as it faded, he knew it was there, somewhere beyond the skies.
And as such, Sumida’s story comes to a close. As her previous ideals clash with the truth, Sumida is quickly broken due to her failure in accepting the truth. Her passion for Tohno refuses to die, and in protecting the dream she dedicated her life to, we see one final shot of Sumida, crushed by sadness, tears escaping her tired eyes.
Now one question remains: Is this Tohno’s fate?
Five Centimeters per Second – Moving Away, Moving On
Does Tohno escape the same future presented to Sumida? That is the question to be answered in Episode 3, and right away, it’s fairly clear that Tohno is hurtling towards the same ending as Sumida shown earlier.
As Tohno lives on inside his dreams, his real self starts crumbling. He struggles to keep himself inside his dream, as what he aspired to have as a child seems less and less possible, and perhaps not even identifiable. At this point, even Tohno realizes fully that the love he imagined was but a fleeting dream. But as we know from the previous episodes, realizing is far different from accepting. Still trying to hold back from accepting this truth, Tohno is starting to break from the inside out.
Similar to Sumida, Tohno, stuck with his romantic ideas of the past, still lives inside his dream. And just like Sumida, all Tohno needs now is a breaking point – one where his dreams clash against the truth in vain – to be crushed completely. But Tohno’s next encounter might just change Tohno’s fate. . .
The first scene of Episode 3, and perhaps the most important scene of the movie, presents us with Tohno’s long-awaited reunion with Akari. After quitting his job, abandoning his girlfriend, and seemingly having given up on life, Tohno is at the end of the line. . . only to be saved. Full of details and connections to the rest of the movie, this last scene is the single scene that makes Five Centimeters per Second a distinctly beautiful romance movie.
This incredible last scene can be split into three parts: the surrender of a dream, an illusion of a second chance, and the final look back. Let’s start with the first one: the surrender of a dream. When Tohno and Akari first pass by each other, Tohno seemingly passes by her, failing to notice the one who started his greatest dream. But notice that Tohno gasps briefly when passing by. He realizes that Akari, perhaps without even knowing her name, is important to him. What he sees pass by him wasn’t just a random woman, but the person who could save him. The one who could give him the key to unlock the dream he longed for. In his dull, gray world, one in which he has lost all purpose and meaning, filled with only sadness, he sees a single, colorful spark. Yet he doesn’t grab the spark, nor does he even glance at it. He merely continues.
Tohno, in this scene, isn’t giving up on his dream. At least not yet. Instead, he simply fails to believe that there is light in the world. Slowly breaking apart over years, Tohno finds it impossible to believe that there is hope for the dream he lived in to be completed.
I think this scene is one that resonates with a lot of us. We’ve all had times when we gave up on dreams, or became so lost in the hopelessness that we failed to notice the light in front of us. Tohno, in a sense, reflects all of our lives, and mirrors the times in our lives when we simply gave up on everything, only to be left a dreamless shell of a human.
In addition, this scene could even point back to Episode 1 of FCpS. The first episode is the one in which Tohno leaves behind Akari, believing that he will never stop chasing after her. In this scene of Episode 3, Tohno leaves behind Akari, and as we’ll soon find out, will attempt to chase after her one more time…
And that’s where part two of this scene comes in: the illusion of a second chance. After watching Kimi no Na wa, Tohno and Akari standing, facing away from each other, signaled one event to me: a heartfelt reunion. However, what I received was quite different.
When Tohno looks back, his body is filled up with hope unlike ever before. He finally notices a chance to achieve his dream. However, that’s exactly where the illusion comes in. As we all know from before, Tohno has no chance with Akari, and Episode 3 even shows us that she’s already engaged. While that second chance is all Tohno ever wanted, to have chased it would have meant his breaking point, as his inner hope would have become demolished by the harsh reality that his dream was long past achievable.
Again, this second part can be related back to Episode 2 of FCpS. In the second episode, Tohno is shown to be constantly looking back to Akari, always trying to write a letter to her without even realizing who she was to him. As we connect it to this scene, we see for the last time that Tohno, despite his most hopeful beliefs, never had a chance at reuniting with Akari in love.
Yet despite this tragic truth, Tohno manages to take a hopeful step in the end as we see in the third part of this scene: the final look back. As the train passes by, Tohno sees that Akari is long gone. Tohno still has one chance – or seems to have one – to achieve his dream. I remember being extremely frustrated in this scene in my first viewing, yelling at Tohno to go after Akari. However, that’s the foolish idea we all believe in, and fortunately, Tohno looks past the common belief in love. . . and moves forward.
Not only in romance movies but in life as a whole, I think we so often believe uniting in love is the most beautiful part of romance. We also tend to show respect to people who try their absolute hardest to keep a relationship alive, seeing it as a dedication to their partner. But what about those who give up on their relationship? Frequently, I see people get dismayed over a “cute” couple separating, whether they were celebrities or close friends. In the end, the truth that Tohno realized wasn’t simply that Akari had left him, but that falling apart can be just as beautiful as falling in love.
When Tohno sees that Akari is gone after the train moves off, we don’t see a look of dismay on his face. Instead, we see the exact opposite: a smile. Tohno, a man who gave up on everything in the past decade to follow his one dream, smiles when he sees his dream fade away from him. Tohno finally understood that Akari left him long ago. It had been years since Akari and Tohno last met or even talked, and in that time, Tohno had changed. By seeing that Akari, the person he connected with the most, failed to even notice him, Tohno comes to see that she would have changed as well. And with change comes the obvious shift in love and friendships. Akari and Tohno, even if they were to have met, would fail to have shared the same childlike friendship they had. They would instead meet as complete strangers, awkwardly forced together by memories of happiness.
Tohno, in the final scene of the movie, realizes this truth, and comes to see the detrimental effects of his dream. A dream long gone shouldn’t be sought after eternally, and lost love shouldn’t take up his heart years later. Looking away from the train tracks, Tohno takes a step forward. Away from his withering dreams. Away from his lost love. Towards a new future. And with renewed hope in his eyes, Tohno shows us the beauty of falling apart from a loved one.
Conclusion – Withering Blossoms
As I close off this write-up, I want to mention one last detail about the movie: the title. As mentioned earlier, I thought the title referred to two people coming closer together. Instead, the story showed me the exact opposite, and that’s when I realized what the title truly meant.
When a cherry blossom falls, we see an absolutely stunning event. Petals, pink and white, fall from the sky like snow on a winter day. In the moment of their fall, cherry blossoms are perhaps the most beautiful. However, as time passes, and the year goes, cherry blossoms slowly wither away, fading away from the world.
Now imagine that these cherry blossoms never left the tree and simply stuck to the tree until they withered away. We would see the exact opposite of beauty, and see the tragic effects of time on the beauty of life. We would never see the stunning moment of the petals falling, but instead witness the withering petals gradually dying off.
“Five Centimeters per Second”. The title refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall, and I think the theme of the movie is captured by that very image. Cherry blossoms represent people. When two people unite, just as blossoms on a tree, they are quite beautiful. Whether it be love or friendship, the bond between two people is simply gorgeous. But when time comes for two to separate, trying to stay together can simply seem ugly. Similar to cherry blossoms simply withering away as they stick on to a tree, people too dedicated to another gradually rot away from the inside.
But cherry blossoms don’t cling on to the trees. Instead, they fall. Sure, cherry blossoms falling does still mean that they will die off someday. Yet as they fall, we are able to witness a moment of true beauty. That’s the same for two people; as two people fall apart from their past relationship, despite the fact that a bond is broken forever, we witness a beautiful event; one to be remembered for years to come. . .
It’s alright to give up on something. It’s far better than to see yourself rot away. That’s the message Shinkai’s Five Centimeters per Second held for me, and I hope I conveyed that message well.
Thank you so much for reading.