5 Centimeters per Second: Distance of the Heart, Part 1

I’m a pretty big Makoto Shinkai fan. I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan, but if I were to list my favorite storytellers, he would be one of them. Personally, I love the themes he explores in his short but perfectly paced stories, and combined with the beautiful animation and more often than not perfect background music (I’m also a fan of Tenmon so that makes for quite a nice duo), I thoroughly enjoy many of his works.  As such, I was very excited for his newest work Kotonoha no Niwa. Its recent release inspired me to consider a series of Shinkai posts, which then led to this week of Shinkai. I will start with 5 cm/s, a film which resonates very strongly with me and the one which I consider his masterpiece.

5 Centimeters per Second is a short film depicting “a chain of short stories about their distance.” It is a story of love, but not the kind one would expect from the average romance show. A lot of criticism for it originates from having an unsatisfactory ending, the romance being ruined, and/or an overall disappointing, depressing show. However, while it’s true Shinkai films tend to be a flop for those who don’t resonate with the message, I think many people watch Shinkai films with too much of a focus on the plot and not enough on the underlying character interactions. Even those who enjoy it sometimes completely miss what the message is about. 5 cm/s is not a show about pure, innocent, ideal romance, but one about naïve and realistic romance. It is not a story that seeks to entertain you, but rather enforce internal reflection about the foolishness of those jumping to what they believe to be “true love” and the very real power of distance.  With that in mind, you may wish to watch it if you haven’t already as the rest of this will be written with the assumption that you have. However, while there will be spoilers, this is not a story that loses value from knowing them, so continue reading if you wish.

5 Centimeters per Second

In the first part of the movie, you get a story of 2 naive children who truly believe they may be able to eventually be together forever. They’ve experienced so little in life and jump into infatuation and child love at finding their simple similarities which no one else shared with them which only fueled their attraction to each other. The idea of finding a like-minded person, especially one of the opposite gender, when no one else could understand you is the pivotal point of their relationship. With this single human connection, they indulge themselves in only each other. What others think and say of them is easily forgotten because they have no connection or relationship with anyone else. However, “fate,” or rather, reality, pulls them apart physically and this slowly pulls their hearts apart from each other as well. The letters back and forth are their only connection, but they both treasure these moments more than one can imagine. At this point in time, their physical distance has served to increase their desire for each other, but in reality, their hearts are slowly moving away from each other. However, neither has yet to realize this fact. They are both too young and inexperienced to understand that their relationship, maintained solely through these letters, will inevitably fail. Ironically, it is this growing distance that is reflected by the importance of these few exchanged words; as they grow further apart, they hold onto the thin connection even stronger. The desire to see the one person who could relate to them is already deeply rooted in their life and serves to cause both anguish and hope. This is also reflected in the flashbacks of when Akari announces her departure. While the separation is understandably heavy on their hearts and endless crying, no words need to be spoken for them to understand each other. The pain Akari feels or the sympathy and equal sadness that Tohno thinks of are conveyed through silence. The full irony of their situation climaxes as it is here that reality will begin to tear them apart, but also when they feel most connected. Excluding the thoughts of sadness, there also arise thoughts of hope that despite their physical distance, their hearts will grow closer together. However, this naivety will prove to be very wrong.

At last they try to meet, but the weather is clearly against them. Both of them look forward to the day with great longing as the day they will finally be reunited. No doubt, they both consider it is a day their romance will finally bloom and overcome their distance. However, the long train ride, delayed again and again by the snow is like the realistic barrier of their ever-growing distance. The train moves a bit then stops and this process is repeated over and over, with each stop length growing. With each letter their distance grew. Yet because of their still young and innocent minds and their powerful attachment to one so similar to each other, they are able to, for a single night, break this barrier and meet again. It seems so romantic at first glance, and perhaps both of them thought so as well. When Tohno sees Akari has waited for him long past his arrival time, feelings of both pain and happiness come out, both of which serve to further grow his love toward her. However, reality is much crueler than simply pulling them apart physically. With a single kiss under the barren cherry blossom tree, reality strikes hard and a small crack in their relationship appears which will eventually trigger their inevitable separation. They both realized, at that moment, that their relationship and connection would not blossom the way the cherry tree does. Rather, the barren tree which they stood under is instead their future. Tohno lost his letter to the wind, but Akari would choose to not give him hers. Thus, although this was a night of joyous reunion and romance on the surface, underneath such happiness shows that even when their distance was closed to zero, their hearts only grew further apart. For the first time in their lives, they see a glimpse of just how naïve they were being in thinking they could stay the same forever, and this but foreshadows what lies in their future.

The crux of this entire story is the portrayal of distance. While the premise gives off the impression that the problem is physical distance, that is an idea that was explored in Shinkai’s Voices of a Distance Star; instead, this is about distance of the heart. Tohno and Akari are separated by physical distance, but what halts their relationship is distance of the heart. With a single line, Tohno defines their relationship as one in which their hearts would never move a centimeter closer. Even though their relationship was incredibly close on the surface, the reality was that they never developed a relationship between their hearts. Although they continued to send letters throughout junior high, in their hearts, they knew the messages were shallow excuses to continue a slowly dying relationship. It is almost as if their meeting was to confirm that their relationship would be no more rather than some rekindling of love torn by physical distance. The fate of their two letters is actually quite symbolic. As Tohno loses his letter, he still wants to hold onto the hope that something may come from their relationship. However, Akari intentionally refrains from handing hers to him, showing her acceptance that letters alone will never bridge the gap between their hearts.

In relationships, romantic or platonic, the most important way to develop them is through connecting hearts. Acquaintances and friends are people you know, get along well with and may even spend large amounts of time with. However, to truly build relationships with people and to truly become lifelong friends, something more is needed: connection of the hearts. The distance of hearts will always be the one thing preventing a relationship from growing. Oftentimes, this is something that is not even noticeable until you already start drifting apart. Akari and Tohno had a very close relationship; they were closer to each other than with anyone else. However, their hearts did not move closer. This story of the two warns of mistaking such relationships as true love.


Thoughts, interests, and circumstances, all of these were similar between them and they lived each day with happiness. Everything on the surface was one in which society would define as an ideal relationship. But when reality pulled them away just a little, it spiraled into a relationship that only grew farther apart. A relationship that can stand the test of time is one in which the two hearts are engaged. If you do not make the effort to close the distance of hearts, then such a relationship will remain deceptively close and invariably shallow. This distance cannot be ignored. Both Akari and Tohno recognized the distance of their hearts, even as far as admitting their hearts would not move closer. However, Tohno continues to hold onto a misplaced hope which will impact his entire life while Akari accepts their relationship will one day fade. Society may depict ideal relationships as something which will succeed if enough time is invested, enough common factors are found, and enough love is showered. Unfortunately, without a deep connection of hearts, none of these will lead to a real, meaningful relationship and will remain a superficial love.

Christians’ relationship with God is the same, “having a heart for God,” as it is said. Going about all the actions of a good Christian is by no means bad. Regardless, what is necessary to deepen our relationship with God is connecting our heart to His. Truly listening to what He says, studying scripture with an open heart, and having the boundless love that He has for us. Even when things seem they are going perfect, it is an action that must always be continued. Continuously developing the connection of our hearts to God’s is perhaps the most important thing we can do, as everyone else will flow from a heart that is truly connected to God. Ironically, Tohno’s choice is the correct one when it comes to God. Akari gave up when she accepted their hearts would never move closer, but God is always waiting to draw our hearts closer to Him. If we truly desire it the way Tohno did, God will seek us out and all we have to do is respond to Him. Do not become complacent with a stagnating relationship with God, but always continue seek out his heart.

In the end, 5 cm/s is a story about naïve love. As much as I point to the need of connecting hearts, it is not as if relationships can’t succeed without it.  However, can you really say you love someone if you do not know their heart? Love is a powerful word and emotion that people nowadays use incredibly loosely, but the greatest form of love, God’s love, is beyond anything we can even comprehend. Love occurs when you love not a just a person, but also the person’s heart. Nana Mizuki once said if she were to marry someone, she wouldn’t want someone who simply loves her with kindness but someone who could understand and accept everything about her and the depths of her heart. I was very surprised and impressed when I read that, and I think too many people settle for a love that does not involve a deep connection of the hearts. 5 Centimeters per Second begins with a story with two children who mistook their shallow feelings for love. It will continue to further explore the idea of naïve love and the end results of the choices such people make.

6 thoughts on “5 Centimeters per Second: Distance of the Heart, Part 1

  1. It’s that age-old adage that long-distance relationships don’t work.

    But I must say I think you’ve missed a key difference when you compared Tohno and Akari’s relationship to people’s relationship with god. I can only speak for myself here, but when I was a Christian I sent countless letters to god (ie: prayers) but I never received a response. How can I have a relationship with someone who doesn’t write back?

    Certainly, Tohno and Akari were misguided to think they could maintain a relationship without finding a connection between their hearts. But I would argue that during the time that I was religious, I think I was just as naive, because like Tohno and Akari I had built up an idealized image in my heart that fell apart when I discovered the reality of my relationship was very different–it simply didn’t exist. >.<

    1. Well actually I was arguing their letters didn’t do anything for their relationship anyway but that aside, you’re right. As someone who does feel God writes back to me, I was not going to think of that, but your point remains valid. And I think the “correct” Christian response to that is just irresponsible bs that doesn’t help or mean anything to the person in question, so I’ll just concede that I don’t have a satisfying answer for you. Thanks for your input; it’s interesting to see how personal experiences change what we see in a film such as this.

      1. Thanks for not giving me the usual evasive tactics by telling me something like, “you weren’t listening hard enough,” or “you needed to give god more time,” or “god works in mysterious ways.” You’ve gained a great deal of respect from me through your capability to admit that you don’t have all the answers (not that I’m trying to say I have all the answers, either).

  2. Great post on 5 centimeters. I looked up Shinkai on wiki, and found a whole bunch of newer movies he’s done since 5 cent. I never knew! Thanks a lot, will be checking those out. Have you watched any of them yet (his works after 5 cent). This anime movie was a classic for me, I really did enjoy it and (like other anime’s) was an emotional experience that I honestly don’t get out of many western animations/movies in general. They usually feel so “intentional” when this one is very real, raw, like how life is.

    1. Thanks! He’s really only done 2 films since 5 cm/s; the others are like 5min long haha. I have watched them all, of course, as I am a huge Shinkai fan. I actually wrote a post on Garden of Words, which was a film I think most people misinterpreted. As for Children Who Chase Lost Voices, I thought it tried too hard to be like a Miyazaki film and Shinkai just didn’t stick to his strengths. I definitely agree with how real it can feel as Shinkai’s intent is certainly to portray what really happens in these sorts of relationships.

      1. Oh they are that short? OH well, yeah, I downloaded garden of words and children who chase voices so am going to check those out, never seen them at all. The animation looks beautiful (of course!) so yeah, looking forward to them. God bless ya, and hope to read more of your writing 🙂 Feel free to check out my blog too by clicking my profile image 🙂

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