Episode 8: Five Centimeters Per Second - Is that a Good Speed?

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            When I was growing up, I had all these fantastical dreams of what I wanted to do with my life or what career I wanted to have or all the things I wanted to achieve. But these were just ideas. Nothing more than abstractions or conceptions I hastily assembled from the images I saw of these different professions on television or found in the many books I read. These were more assumptions of what I thought it was like to be [blank] rather than tangible dreams of the life I could have in the future.

            Now, there’s nothing wrong with ambiguity. But because everything was so vague, I didn’t know where the future would be. None of these proposals were ever linked to a place. I mean, my proposed law career would likely land me in Washington D.C. at some point. There was something… inevitable about that. But it was the only dream that had any sort of concrete nature to it, and even then, I think may limited plan was to only be in DC some of the time.

            Is that the same for everyone? Does no one dream in detail? It had always felt like this was the product of my circumstances. So much so that I could never imagine anyone else having this problem. Or, at least, it always seemed like everyone else knew what they wanted from their life: who, what, when, and how. Especially where. But I was just going through the motions.

Then again, I think—however improbable—I always imagined these career would keep me in Arizona, even when I was dreaming about being an Egyptologist or paleontologist or a historian specializing in colonial American history. Yeah, on the profession front, I got around in a couple senses.

            It was easy to think of Arizona as my future home, however unwise it might have been. For all its problems, Arizona was the only home I had ever known, meaning that it was and had to be part and parcel with my idea of home, for better or worse.   

            That isn’t to say it was completely impossible for me to dream of living in some off place, in the abstract. Italy came to mind. It was a nice thought but not one that ever took root. There were pieces of that formula that were missing, unfortunately. I’d never been one for maps or geography. I loved Italy because of the Stravaganza books, but that was it. This all changed when I got to college. At that junction in my life, I went from the city—yes, Phoenix is technically a city; it just has its own style of being a city—to a small town in the middle of the corn fields of the American Midwest. It was a shock to the sense in so many ways, and while I found it somewhat unnerving and disconcerting, the newfound silence though deafening was a gift, if only because it helped me clear my mind and hear my own dreams.

            I needed that time, but still, I missed the energy of the city, the excitement, the people, and the activity. I missed the aura of independence that I took from the city’s indifference to my existence, from the ease with which I could move about. I missed the adventures. I missed so much.

            After college, I made my way back to the city. One grand scheme after another, some would say, but I made it. I made it to the city I spent my college years staring towards longingly. I made it to the city I spent my college time dreaming about. Another new start. Another new place. Another next step.

            (Music fades out completely) Hi, it’s M. Welcome to Episode 8.

            (Music starts up again)

            Today, I want to talk about Five Centimeters Per Second a 2007 Japanese animated romantic drama made by Makoto Shinkai, who wrote, directed, and produced it. This is his brainchild in many ways, a product of his soul. And there’s something fitting about that descriptor when one considers the subtle emotional intensity of the story.  

            Takaki Tono and Akani Shinohara were two schoolchildren that were inseparable until their families moved and placed an insurmountable distance between the two of them. Two close childhood friends, children already separated from their peers by their need to be indoors and not out in the flurry of the playground, were torn apart not through their own choices or actions but when their parents’ lives take a turn. New jobs in new places, how commonplace and yet still somewhat tragic. But through it all, their determination and in many ways love for each other compeled them to hold on.

            The film starts off in the 1990s when smartphones, or what we now just call phones, did not exist. Even the old school cellphones which could momentarily reduce a thousand miles to a perceived nothing were somewhat rare, and email hardly existed. But because the story is set over eighteen years, Takaki and Akari would see these things appear and would fall into the digital world as it was unfolding, all the while these developments would be constantly reminding them—albeit not in an explicit or obvious way—that they just missed the revolution that could have kept them together.

            And the title? Five centimeters per second is the speed at which a cherry blossom petal falls from the branch to the ground. From its first home, from its figurative roots, from its starting point to the ground where it could be crushed but would certainly decay. Five centimeters per second, the rate at which the petal travels to its end from where it had been before.

            The two children had watched the cherry blossoms together before, and on the eve of their separation, they promised to do so again, someday. And as with all children, there was no concern as to how or to possibility. That’s the overt reason for the title, and it speaks to the separation that these children experience. It’s the rate at which they move away from each other, from this promise, from this dream and from all that could have been.

            Five centimeters per second, slow enough that you can still see the fall happn and think that somehow you can stop it but fast enough to be completely out of your hands.

            (Music starts)

            I can’t remember how I found that movie exactly. If I had to guess, it was a digital rabbit hole. Google and YouTube may be the most famous for these things, but they can certainly happen on any streaming site, even if its algorithm hasn’t reached its full attention-absorbing potential yet. It was the image accompanying the title that made me click on it. Having a beautiful cover image is just as good at pulling people in as a sophisticated algorithm or spending a ton of money on advertising. Besides, in my experience, the most lasting connections are the serendipitous ones, the ones in which one entered that connection without expectations and without the unintended closed-off attitude or limiting demeanor that comes from thinking you know what will happen. Surprise—for better or worse—leaves you open for anything.

            It’s not that I fell in love with the movie, head over heels and no holds bar. Because, really, there are very few movies that can elicit any such feeling in me. I’m just not that much of a movie person. If the right movie catches me in the right mood, then some magic can happen, but those instances have been few and far between. What this movie left me with was not love or infatuation but an unsettled feeling. Not discomfort or sadness or resentment for the way the world now operates or nostalgia for a time when everyone died within ten miles of where they were born. No, it wasn’t a heaviness in my heart but static, just static. Or a buzzing with a faint voice underneath.

            I need to make sense of this movie, but it wasn’t that the movie didn’t make sense. Its narrative is sound, and its logic consistent. However, the reality it depicts and the authenticity with which Makoto Shinkai depicts it are not things I’m capable of letting go.

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            For those who treat movies strictly as an escape mechanism, you won’t enjoy this movie. There’s no softer way of putting it simply because Five Centimeters per Second does nothing to sugarcoat the harsh reality it is portraying, the trials—however innocent—of life in the modern age when roots are little more than a suggestion or a far flung ideal than they are a reality. In this movie, there are no reality-breaking conveniences, no miracles worked, and no deus ex machinas to allow these children to slay the dragon that is their separation. No, in this movie, the sword cannot pierce the dragon’s scales, and as a result, things that could have otherwise endured for a human lifetime if not forever died away when jobs were changed and families had to relocate as a result. Single events shift lives, irrevocably.


            A cherry blossom fell from the branch and grew more distant at the fate of five centimeters per second.

            If you Google the movie, like I did, you find one general consensus: love lost, reality won. Final score.

            (Pause) (Music restarts)

            I mentioned before that there were things about Arizona that I didn’t want to leave behind. My childhood best friend, being one. The church I grew up attending being another. There are, of course, many other things on that list. But these list can only and must always feature the things that will never traverse such a distance to go after me or things that can never come with me.

            To meet the film’s honesty with my own, I have things I need to admit. I tried to hold on as long as I could to this place, far longer than I should have. I clutched that branch until my knuckles went white and I risked losing my fingertips from the lack of blood flow, but it was all in vain. Once I entered that new sphere, that small patch of academia amidst seas of farmland, the break had happened, the separation had started. Five centimeters per second, or some other rate that I can’t easily calculate mathematically.

            Fall semester of freshman year was the hardest for me. And I think that’s true for everyone. It’s the beginning of that existential shift and the movement beneath your feet will certainly unsettle you stomach. I cried myself to sleep at least once when my roommate was out late, thinking at the time it was because I was homesick, but I don’t know. Maybe it was just the stress of the transition getting to me. New place, new people, new climate, and for me, new name. On that last note, I’d always had a fondness for my given name but not the backbone to switch over. In college, no one knew what to call me, so it was easy to make the switch. It was the first time I regularly heard it, though. I loved it. I loved the beauty of my given name and felt that all the extra syllables were enough to break the ice. In some ways, it was a good time for the shift, and in others, well, it was just too much too quick.

            After a week or so, I started counting down the days until I’d be going home. The number was far too high for my liking.

            My rector had said, “This is your home now.”

            And I remember, though perhaps falsely, that there was something like a “get over it” in her tone or maybe her actual words. No shade on her. Orientation day had been a long day for everyone, but her word choice or the tone while understandable didn’t matter. I didn’t believe her. There was no delivery that could make me believe her. I wasn’t capable of it. Not then and not when she was making made no sense and went against everything I was inclined to believe.

            At this talk, I was sitting next to another girl on a couch. We lived down the hall from each other, and in time, we’d realize that our roommates were friends.  She had long black hair, broad shoulders, a slightly sullen, default expression. What a sight to see we must have been. She sat larger than herself while I was desperately trying to send the atoms of being back to Phoenix and distracting myself from my failure by twirling a marker in my hand.

            Fun fact, the marker was broken. Second fun fact, it was only after it had spilled its entire contents onto my hand that I noticed.

            Somehow, this caught the other girl’s attention. Maybe I squeaked, maybe the teal ink across my skin was just too obvious, or maybe… No, I don’t know what it was. But when she looked my way, she saw the chaos that had unfolded and being the momma hen that she is, she rushed into action.

            She asked why I was drawing on myself. Which I was not doing. And when I adamantly said as much, she told me to do the only logical thing. Namely, she told me to toss out said marker, to throw it in the garbage where it belonged as a defective object. However, there was no bin nearby, and the marker was already empty. The damage had been done. And as a result, my priorities remained set. I couldn’t be bothered to interrupt my unsuccessful disappearing trick just for this.

            This trick of mine was so unsuccessful, that she could not fathom my inaction, but she was also—for her own reasons—unwilling to stand up and walk over to the trash herself. The urge to act remained, so instead, she ripped the marker out of my hands and shoved it into the couch.

            (Music shift)

            That was the beginning of our friendship, if you can believe that life can ever be so comical. And occasionally, I still need to defend myself from the accusation that I had caused the spill or from the accusation that I’d been drawing on myself. Neither of which are true, for the record.

We actually became something above best friends. In time. I was stand-offish at first, my mind busy focusing on some other home on the other side of the nation. College was just a quest back home. I was Odysseus, trying to return to his kingdom despite fate conspiring against me. And part of that quest was erecting figurative barriers between me and the world I had found myself in. It was the only way to keep from putting roots down of any sort because it is an inevitable, natural process, one that will happen if you don’t consciously resist it. I had to fight it constantly. Very hard, and all the time.

            But fights, even when you win them, don’t always yield something of value. There isn’t always a prize, never mind a prize worth having. I could have gone back to Phoenix. It’s a possibility, but it’s not something I should have done.

I wanted to hold on to the only home I had ever known, one that wasn’t great but was familiar. I never developed the habit of weighing traits properly or properly prioritizing sentiments or anything that involves my own feelings. For all my talents, as few or as many as I may be able to account for, that will never be one of them. I put familiarity above functionality. I always put familiarity above functionality. But I shouldn’t.

(Music fades out and shifts to new song)

            Meanwhile, outside of my mind, the world kept moving, even if I didn’t. It’s always like that. The branch sways in the breeze. Its weight as it grows shifts its resting place. Storms can come and break a section off. Things change. Circumstances change them. Even the branch, that relatively inconceivably large starting point, is subject to its own influences.

            No one is in control. No one can be in control. Reality continues shifting.

            (Music starts)

            If you believe in soul mates or a simple rhyme and reason to the world, the premise of this movie and the way the events transpire might be worrisome. If you believe all the pieces of the world need to fit in one particular way for its participants to find fulfillment or happiness, you may be inclined to worry, just in general. Even if you can’t fathom the immenseness of existence and therefore cannot truly know how the pieces fit together, you believe, truly and ardently, that you know this much: those two children belonged together, perhaps not romantically, you can say, but somehow, they should have remained connected. The actions of people, the folly of man, as it were, ripped apart what should have remained whole. The fallen world fell further because these two children couldn’t hold on any longer.

            That’s a bit… dramatic, I would say. But those are just the thoughts that ran through my head as I watched that movie for a third time. It seemed so apparent. That these two young children fit together in such a way—so perfectly and wholly—that their continued separation felt wrong or was outright wrong. It was a cosmic violation if such is possible. After all, what they had was love, the genuine type that comes from internal or personal inclinations lining up, hearts coming together to dance a beautiful ballet ongoing for all eternity, as was intended by some cosmic force. Like the story the ancient Greek philosopher Aristophanes told to explain love. That it was simply a search for a missing piece, a search for wholeness and for completion.

            They could have been whole together. They could have been happy together. Assuming it was so simple.

            (Music starts)

            The metaphor of the cherry blossom doesn’t work anymore. The cherry blossom that falls from the branch has no future ahead of it. This is its end. Completely and totally. It depended on that branch for life. But with people, it’s different. There’s always some place after, some direction we are travelling to, some place we are going to, some next adventure we are unknowingly approaching.

            For people, it’s not the full end. It’s an end but also a beginning, transpiring in tandem.

            I live in Chicago now. I’m not overly inclined to believe in things like destiny, but the power of the descriptor is very much real. The feeling or perception is real. It’s the inability to picture your life going in any other direction or having any other result. That there is this outcome and no other. All potential alternative realities are completely impossible. And when this feeling is coupled with that intense joy, well, then there is no going back, now is there?

            (Music starts up again)

            It’s only towards the end that the characters of Five Centimeters per Second have any sort of digital connection at their fingertips, the kind used to cling to a relationship long past its prime. Like Facebook, places were the figures from your past can keep a vice grip on your soul and it’s incredibly rude—by most people’s standards—to disengage from that embrace, to let go. To some, unfriending plays into the nightmare of social rejection or the fear of social isolation that many of us have. One rejection can lead to so much more because it confirms to you that there are reasons to reject, but on the other, more realistic hand and one that most people could agree to use, it certainly stings when it happens to you. It may not be life-altering, but the ripples of that disconnection can be unsettling.

            Yeah, I’ve been the one who gets unfriended. Happens all the time, but I don’t notice right away. And realistically, I also need to do some unfriending, but I’ve struggled to do so.

Maye it’s the sting of being on the other side that has stopped me. Or maybe I’m just not on the site enough. Or maybe some habits never die.

            In the digital age, it’s so much easier to clutch and cling to the past. And the allure of the familiar begs up to do so. Is it that we only remember the good, and by this point in our lives, we’ve learned to cherish that good? Hindsight is pretty persuasive, isn’t it? Or are we reluctant to admit that we are so powerless in our own lives that we don’t even pick our friends or close relations. That this is just another thing that has been decided for us. Instead of actively selecting, we are left with the breadcrumbs circumstances throw our way. That friendship is not about who we chose to associate with but who we see most frequently.

            As for me, sometimes, it’s just that I feel trapped. (music fades out abruptly and a new song fades in) Social bonds demand I remained tethered to these specters from my past for better or worse. I see them pop up on my newsfeed, and my word, all I want to do is let go—relieve myself from the sight of faces that evoke nothing but bad memories and leave me trembling in disgust.

            And yet, I don’t. Lately, I’ve started to wonder what it is I’m risking in my present. I know what little the past offers, but I can’t see the other side of the equation. What am I missing in the present by keeping my head turned backward?

            That girl who shoved the marker in the couch became a dear friend, after some hesitation on my part, after the cost of maintaining the walls became too much and everything started falling away. Suddenly, I was left standing in the rumble of misguided dreams. Alone and scared. I’m lucky she was still waiting on the other side. I’m lucky she never gave up.

Now, I don’t know what we are or what she is. It’s just so hard to pin down with simple words. She’s like a dear friend but also a sister, but she is—undoubtedly—the confidante of last resort, the person I go to when I can’t talk to anyone else about something. No boundaries, no fears, and usually no judgement. Well, no judgment on anything not marker related. She’s become such an important part of my life now that I can’t remember what it was like not to have her.

            I spent so long sequestered in a fort of my own making, alone and with her on the outside. And though I know it happened, I can’t remember what it was like. Realistically, it’s possible, but it doesn’t seem that way.

            Suppose she hadn’t been on the other side, waiting for someone who had made up her mind to not come out? Suppose I never came out? It’s something I don’t want to face. It’s a nightmare, one that I wake myself up from each and every time.

            Five centimeters per second, the speed at which a cherry blossom falls. It seems so slow, somehow. Is it resisting? Should it be?


            (Music starts again)

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