Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Compliment: A Story

The concept of the compliment is pretty easy to explain. It's usually given to someone you care about that deserves praise or accolades for doing something ordinary in an extraordinary way. In the case of the performer (actor, musician or otherwise), most of them are short and straightforward, like "you're awesome", "you rule", "you're incredible" or perhaps simply "I like you... I like you, a lot". Though I wonder, have you ever truly paid someone a compliment? I mean, the ones that go deeper than the ones you see above. The kind of compliments where you communicate a sense of understanding and deep appreciation, for both their presence in pieces of work that you love and their dedication to their talent. In doing so, you honor the person you are complimenting and yourself.

To that end, let me tell you a story. I went to Ohayocon 2009 about two months ago. It was the first anime convention I ever went to and, as expected, it was rather crazy. In the middle of this madness, I was on a mission which involved an actor named Caitlin Glass. Caitlin Glass is a lovely and talented voice actor/director who mostly works for Funimation Entertainment as well as some occasional ADV Films projects. Although I hadn't seen her in very many things yet, she had already captured my attention from her performance as Winry Rockbell, in the anime "Fullmetal Alchemist". I knew that if she was at this convention, I was going to give her my regards if it was the last thing I would do.

So at 5:30 PM, I arrived at her "Ask Caitlin Glass" panel, ready and waiting. She was a little late and flustered when she arrived, notifying us that due to poor scheduling the panel had to be shorter than most voice actor panels. For you see, she had to attend the "Ouran High School Host Club" panel, an anime which she directs and plays the lead character, Haruhi Fujioka. After waiting for several people to get in their questions first, I was ready to give it my all. I knew that in the spirit of the panel being shorter, I had to be as hasty as I could. I raised my hand and after one other question, I was called.

I shall recount what I said the best I can, as well as add some annotations that I didn't get to say.

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I have a tremendous affinity for voice actors. Voice acting, to me, harkens to two things. One is silent acting, which is essentially the inverse of voice acting; where the actor shows their entire history and emotional complexity from the look in their eyes and the expression on their face. Whereas in voice acting you bring out the history and complexity through the way you speak a line. On that level, the other thing voice acting harkens to is singing, which deals in the same principle. There is a sense of sincerity in the way you sing or the way you speak if done well. To that effect, I want to tell you when I fell in love with you as an actor. In "Fullmetal Alchemist" you play Winry and there is a specific scene that stuck with me. I don't know if you remember this or not. It's in episode 26 (Her Reason) and it's the scene where Winry is sitting in a hotel room with Ed (Edward Elric) after she had just repaired his automail. She asks him whether or not he can come back to Resembool (the respective hometown to both of them) to see if she can update her work on him some more. He thinks for a second and decides not to do it, he'll pass for now. After this answer she bows her head in sadness and she says quietly, "Haven't you been satisfied with my automail, Ed?" When you say that line, you say everything. You are emotionally pure and open in this moment. The question itself is not about whether her work is good or not, it's more about the hurt you feel for him and his brother Alphonse, and the loneliness you feel without them. These are two people who lost their mother and are continuing their lives as if they are the only family they have; but you've always seen these two as your family along with your grandmother, Pinako. You want to take care of them, give them a home and relieve them of their hurt as well as your own; you want to help but they either refuse or don't listen, especially Ed. You have a deep love for them and you hurt with them, but you're still faraway yet so close to them. Only a great actor can show that much emotional depth by doing so little. So I have the utmost respect and honor for you because of that.

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As I said these words, which I had spoken in my head many times leading up to this, I was looking at her. She was visibly moved by what I said and soon after my finished she agreed with what I said and started talking about how personal it was to play Winry. At that moment, I felt so accomplished. I had given someone I respected something really personal. At that moment the dichotomy wasn't performer and fan, it was a level of mutual honor between two different but similar individuals. It was beautiful. I later received an autograph and a picture from her while I told her about how these words were one of the main reasons I came to the convention in the first place. This knowledge made my words move her even more.

This experience is exactly what a compliment should entail. A moment where you let someone you like know that you were given something so special from the simple words of a performer, courtesy of their talent and their acute awareness of humanity.

Thanks, Caitlin.

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Oh, I almost forgot to mention, she's a beautiful singer, too.

(Yours Truly & Caitlin with Haruhi Fujioka wig)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Drifting Away at "5 Centimeters Per Second"

Cherry blossoms are in full bloom and falling along the paved landscape, leading down the street to where two train tracks lie, together but apart, going in opposite directions. A man walks along this road he has been down many times before and knows instinctively that he must cross the track in order to continue his desperate contemplation. On the other side of this marker is a woman walking along the same pathway who approaches the track with the same thought and purpose. As the man and woman pass one another as they are crossing, a quiet jolt of emotion comes back. Was that the girl he once knew? Was that the boy she first loved? They keep walking apart silently until they reach their respective other sides. As the caution signals come down they both remain still, not really sure of what to do next. When they slowly begin to turn their heads to look at one another, a train passes by with surefire precision. The man waited until the train had passed, but by then, she was gone. Faded into memory.

That subtle but powerful image captures the tone of the film "5 Centimeters Per Second", a melancholy portrait of human longing by Japanese animation auteur, Makoto Shinkai. The movie tells the tale of Takaki T┼Źno (David Matranga) and his lingering love for Akari Shinohara (Hilary Haag), a childhood friend of Takaki's. They initially meet through attending the same school where they are new students together. Soon they realize that they each have similar interests and vibes and begin spending more time together. The other students tease, but their bond cannot be broken. Unfortunately, both of their parents have very transient jobs which forces them to move farther apart from one another. Slowly and surely, they drift out of each others' lives with no word of closure between them.

The film is structured in three distinct acts. The first, "Cherry Blossom", deals with this recounting of how the two of them met, as Takaki takes a train ride through treacherous cold weather to go to see Akari before she has to move further away from Takaki. The second act, "Cosmonaut", is mostly told from the perspective of another woman from Takaki's high school named Kanae Sumida (Serena Varghese). She has an undying love for Takaki but cannot find the words or courage to express it to him; all this while he deals with an ever greater physical distance from Akari. The third and final act, "5 Centimeters Per Second", deals with Takaki's present adult life, showing him as an emotionally stunted man. The couple's history in between that time is told through a beautiful and lyrical montage which ultimately, reveals him as lonely, untouchable and detached from his own life.

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One narrative motif in any of Shinkai's films is the written word. From either a handwritten letter to text messages through a cell phone; these simple words and thoughts recur through his characters' minds constantly like a lifeline to save them from drowning in their own numbness. This is featured most prominently in the first act with Takaki, in addition to trying to meet Akari, carrying a letter that he feels he must give her. Again, due to the terrible weather, he loses the letter in the harsh winter windstorm and never delivers the note he wrote. However, at the end of the act, you see that she had her own letter for him but it was never given or received. By the end of the film, you could make the inference that the young woman's letter was not a happy one.

One of the saddest observations I have noted in my life is how much damage can be inflicted by one person on another. Not in the sense of physical violence, yelling, or actual abuse. No, the pain that can be done to the human heart through quiet subtle acts of rejection or ever worse, indifference. These are the things of lifelong hurt and regret. I had two such instances in my life that were called to mind by this film. In one, I was "spared" by the honesty of a young woman who rather quickly met my courtliness with a letter that declared her intention to remain friends. This, while savage in its own right, at least spared me years of longing which would have the danger of repeating a harrowing previous experience.

At one point in my younger years I became infatuated with a young lady, one smart, charming, lovely and kind; her name was Elyse. I held her in the highest regard for years, always showing her the utmost respect and well, love. She kept me somewhat at a distance, but I thought nothing of it, a good amount of people did anyway. Unfortunately, nothing prepared me for the mental car crash that awaited me. Several years after the infatuation began, I attended a school social, hoping to encounter her there. Sadly... she arrived on the arm of another man, a fellow classmate I might add. Although I was upset with the classmate who accompanied her, Elyse made me feel a low I never felt before. I felt so used and cheated. All that wasted emotion, and for what!? For a searing emotional scar, given to a heart that had been through enough alienation by his fellow peers. Nary a word crossed between us that night, but I live with the hurt of it still; shy to ever put forth so much of myself in an uncertain world towards an uncertain female.

Our actions are not only defined by what we do, but what we don't do. In the case of the film, what would have happened if Akari gave the letter to Takaki, like the woman who gave me the same letter years ago? It would hurt, but maybe, just maybe, he could have moved on and found happiness again, maybe with Kanae... but we don't know. As human beings, we have this terrible habit of thinking we know exactly what's right for the other person regardless of emotional truth. This is a problem I deal with as well and I hope to get better at understanding that concept. The truth may be harsh but it's better than owing an emotional debt we can never repay.

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I made this expression on the film, mostly based around the third act. I'm proud of it and I hope to improve my craft in future works.