Vertical Comics’ Voices of a Distant Star is based on, and largely expands upon the plot of, a 2002 short film of the same name. Mizu Sahara provides the manga’s artwork, and the writer, Makoto Shinkai, was also the director of the original film. Voices of a Distant Star has the technological and outer space trappings of much science fiction, but it approaches that content from a unique angle. Rather than an action-adventure, it is an emotionally charged love story about two people coming to terms with what their world’s sci-fi innovations mean for them personally, as well as their resultant separation. The premise is unique and promising, but is it well-executed?
First of all, I have to tip my hat to Sahara. The artwork throughout this manga is beautiful. This is a story centered around characters struggling with inner turmoil yet pushing through every day life, and Sahara captures what that looks like beautifully. The facial expressions are emotive without being exaggerated; there’s a subtlety to Sahara’s work that makes it all the more impactful.
The shading and background details throughout the volume are also gorgeous, particularly when it comes to the portions set in space. The skies of other worlds throughout mix a sense of unknown possibility with a remote emptiness that matches the narrative’s tone very well. The events set on Earth are also pleasing to look at. The way Sahara draws rain in particular evokes the senses; I could feel the slight chill of the air and hear the downpour’s hum just by looking at the page.
The designs of the mechs and aliens are also impressive. The mechs (referred to as Tracers) have a simple, retro look that is fun while also fitting the idea that they are relatively early models of such technology. The Tharsians (an extraterrestrial species) lack most of the physical features associated with human emotion, divorcing them from human conceptions of life more than they would have been if they were just humanoids with say, bright green or blue skin.
It’s also worth noting how stellar this story’s pacing is. The main characters and would-be-couple, Mikako Nagamine and Noboru Terao, communicate via text messages; the only face-to-face interactions they have occur in flashbacks. Mikako is off in space piloting a Tracer and searching for evidence of Tharsian civilization, while Noboru lives an average high school life back on Earth. The farther Mikako goes into space, the longer the pair’s messages take to reach one another, and the more they feel the distance between them.
Shinkai’s handling of how the characters cope with their separation is fantastic. The love between Mikako and Noboru is believable and poignant, but so are their moments of doubt. I especially appreciate the fact that both characters have lives and relationships outside of their attachment to one another. Mikako’s budding friendships with her fellow mech pilots are particularly enjoyable to watch develop. Noboru’s back-and-forth decision process regarding what he wants to do with his life is also poignant.
Voices of a Distant Star is a moving love story partially because there is never a sense that either character couldn’t exist without the other. Rather than being a pair of fictionalized people who were created without individual depth, Mikako and Noboru are each fully realized souls in their own right. As a result, their relationship is a believable union, not a plot-mandated event. The story’s artwork also contributes heavily to its success, with emotive and impressively detailed work that plays to the senses. Overall, Voices of a Distant Star is innovative science fiction at its best. The futuristic details of the plot are downright cool, but the story draws its true strength from the attention it pays to universal matters of the human heart.