I’m always wary of spin-offs and retellings that aren’t done by the original writer or artist; particularly so when the story is one of my personal favourites. As much as I admire Makoto Shinkai’s Hoshi no Koe OAV I’ve always felt it had some room for improvement, but wasn’t sure whether anyone else could recreate what made it so special. There’s no denying that it was a tantalisingly short piece in the first place, which is all part of its charm really, but I was still intrigued by what could be done in a different format without the restrictions imposed on the film that it’s based on.
A couple of years ago the single-volume manga adaptation was fairly easy to find but I’m assuming it had a limited print run because it’s a bit rare these days. I quite like the effort Tokyopop went to with the presentation though – the panels at the beginning of the opening chapter are reproduced in full-colour, which is a nice touch.
I don’t want to judge this too harshly just because the OAV means so much to me: Shinkai’s story achieved one hell of a lot in a short space of time and no solo project should be expected to look as good as it does. Even so, the narrative could benefit from being expanded on and it does look a bit lo-fi next to newer, higher-budget movies (including his own later ones). An in-print adaptation has the opportunities to flesh out the story and introduce new characters that the OAV never had, which is really the main reason why I’d recommend it.
Mizu Sahara, a.k.a. Sumomo Yumeka (who I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of before) chose to include a supporting cast but otherwise it doesn’t stray far from the events that fans are familiar with. Shinkai’s version worked on the bare minimum with two leads but no other significant roles and that worked fine; I have to say that the appearances of Hisa, another tracer pilot who Mikako befriends and Miwa the superior officer, actually work okay too. Most importantly they don’t significantly lessen the impact of the Mikako/Noboru relationship but they do offer more opportunities to highlight the nature of the situation and build on themes that the OAV had too little time to address.
Miwa has left a close friend on Earth when flying on the mission as Mikako has so it’s easy to look upon her as an elder Mikako because their situations are, intentionally I suppose, seen to be very similar. Hisa adds a bit of drama when their mission becomes more dangerous and she has some pretty tense moments that were a complete surprise to me but didn’t feel out of place in the new storyline.
Similarly Noboru meets other people, most importantly Wakana, a would-be love interest who he spends time with at high school after Mikako leaves. These relationships actually fit very easily into the story, mainly because it stands to reason that Mikako and Noboru are still living their lives despite the separation so inevitably interact with others; in the same way that there are little love triangles and side-stories associated with the leads in Place Promised… and 5cm… the character dynamics are embellished a bit and the narrative is better for it.
It’s a relief that Sahara is so respectful of a story that is, fundamentally, a shining example of its type and doesn’t have any major flaws that need correcting. In addition to having the benefit of including these new characters in order to heighten the emotion and reiterate certain ideas, Sahara knew better than to tear up the script and carry out needless rewrites so merely lengthened the narrative to give the plot points more room to breathe. It’s a difficult thing to make additions to someone else’s work with the end result of making them feel like they were there all along, which she deserves credit for.
Artistically however, Sahara’s take on Hoshi no Koe isn’t anything special. Certain frames capture the feel of the OAV but the opportunity to polish up the character designs (one area that Shinkai’s style could be improved on, especially at this early stage in his career) was missed. Her weakest moments are probably in the combat scenes but in fairness it’s a tall order for anyone to capture the panoramic views and kinetic action seen from the point of view of Mikako’s Tracer cockpit with static images anyway. Instead the emphasis is on the dialogue-driven aspect, which plays to the strengths of the format and is probably within Sahara’s field of expertise too.
The criticisms I have for the graphic novel overall are fairly trivial: Mikako still wears her school uniform in space, which strikes me as a bit strange when you’d expect her to be issued some form of uniform or specialist clothing (the point where she and Hisa swapped uniforms struck me as a bit pointless too). If I were to dwell on that I could just as easily question other irrelevant quirks such as how the phone technology could work, or pick holes im the mechanics of the faster-than-light travel; they never mattered when I watched the animated version so aren’t detrimental to the graphic novel either.
The ending was one of the most heart-rending and bittersweet conclusions to any romance I’ve been fortunate enough to experience so I’m glad it pans out in pretty much the same way here. Sahara’s approach of building on pre-existing ideas and following them through more fully extends to this aspect too, but it isn’t as effective in this case. Taking the ‘what happened next’ thread a little further is no less powerful, but it isn’t more powerful either; we don’t learn anything we could’ve deduced for ourselves but because it’s explained at greater length that power is diluted a bit. Sahara’s take on the ending shouldn’t ruin it for you, but the novel as a whole wouldn’t have been any worse if she’d left the closing scenes as-is.
Looking back, Hoshi no Koe wasn’t just a marvel because of the technical details or its production process; it’s an effectively-told tale that resonates with the viewer on a fundamental level. This is why a manga adaptation is more than a cash-in or a legalised fanfic: it’s able to convey those same feelings of longing and introspection, except with a shifted emphasis. It can’t match the overwhelming, tearjerking sucker-punch of the original but the addition of new characters and exploration of existing concepts makes it a worthwhile companion piece if you enjoyed what the film has to offer.