When you first choose to go vegan, it might just seem like the most beautiful thing ever.
You feel liberated. Veganism empowers you to rise above the ways in which pop culture and mass media have moulded us into perfect consumer drones who will swoon over heartwarming stories of firemen rescuing trapped animals one moment, and then line up at the next meat buffet. It is a rejection of the hold that social conditioning and peer pressure have over us. It is the closest thing to freedom.
You feel humbled. When you watch videos of animals who have just been freed from industrial farms and research labs, you realise how insignificant your troubles seem. These animals don’t even know what happiness is. Slowly, they awaken to the fact that there is more to life than suffering; that life is just as much about pleasure, hope and company; that life is something worth living. This is why you fight. Because it’s too sad to think that someone could come into this world just to suffer, and leave it without knowing anything else. You can’t even begin to imagine yourself in such a position. It’s just too sad.
However, the beauty won’t last. At some point in time, you become disillusioned. You feel as though you’ve pigeonholed yourself into such a radical lifestyle that it has forcefully intruded upon every single aspect of your life. You can’t enjoy a simple meal with your friends and family without feeling uncomfortable at some level. You’re forced to answer the same questions so many times that you feel like a walking advertisement, not an individual. You realise that veganism has some gaping moral flaws and is still a long way from ‘cruelty-free’. Even the health benefits of a vegan diet start to fail you at times, because you’re skipping meals whenever you can’t find any proper vegan options where you are. And you can’t appreciate simple stories of firemen rescuing trapped animals any more without thinking about all the hypocrisy.
You feel like you’ve gone insane. These people around you who would kill without a second thought – they’re not bad people. You can’t blame them. You realise how little the world cares about your revelations, and how small you are as an individual. Who are you kidding? Nothing has changed.
If you don’t know anyone whom you could relate to, this is when you might become very bitter. If you’re part of a vegan community, at least you have an outlet, but you will feel an immense pressure to distance yourself from everyone else. You don’t want to live in a world where you have to be punished for doing the right thing.
Were you expecting veganism to be perfect? To be beautiful? The romanticisation of veganism could be your downfall.
Romanticisation is the framework that 5 Centimeters Per Second starts out from. We’re introduced to two children, Takaki Tohno and Akari Shinohara, who mean the world to each other, but are pitted against a world that is determined to tear them apart. Constantly changing schools due to the nature of their parents’ jobs, they immediately take a liking to each other. However, by the time they are able to construct a private sphere of their own, they are forced to move again. Now they face a dilemma: Do they accept that their love was not meant to be, or do they fight for the right to choose their own destinies?
They do exactly what we want them to do. They fight. And it is not easy. As Takaki takes a train in the middle of the howling winter to see Akari one last time before he moves much farther away, the world pushes back harder than ever. He is met with delay after delay, and the letter that he carefully writes to convey his vulnerable feelings to her is swept away by the wind. As the hours pass, his feelings for Akari are pushed to their limits as he wonders if she will wait for him or not. He is forced to ask himself whether loving Akari means that he would rather she go home first, or wait for him no matter how long it takes.
Regardless of his answer, Akari waits. They meet in the dead of the night, and they kiss. They spend a night huddled under a blanket, basking in each others’ warmth. Suddenly, the harsh snowscape transforms into the most beautiful sight they have ever seen. For once, their determination has prevailed. The world has been forced to acknowledge their relationship.
Fast forward a couple of years. Takaki and Akari inevitably drift apart. However, Takaki is unable to move on. He cannot bring himself to betray his memories of the girl who first showed him what it means to love. He desperately searches for the beauty that he’s lost. He dreams that he and Akari are still star-crossed lovers, forever waiting to hold each other in their arms once more.
Meanwhile, Akari has moved on, and marries someone else.
5 Centimeters Per Second is a nasty punch to the gut for hopeless romantics. We like romances because they have a cathartic effect – they allow us to experience the kind of beauty that we will never be able to experience in our own lives. If you don’t already have a childhood friend whom you still keep in touch with and you’re pretty sure has a thing for you, you can forget about it because you’re never going to get one. In this case, however, Shinkai invites us to place our hopes in Takaki and Akari just so he can knock them down. What an asshole, right?
So what’s he trying to say? On the surface, 5 Centimeters Per Second is a wake up call telling us to moderate our expectations on love. However, it is more nuanced than that. Even after we know that there is no hope of Takaki and Akari ever getting back together, we are treated to an ending montage that plunges us right back into the sheer beauty if their childhood romance (just in case you’re counting how many times I use the word beauty/beautiful in this post, STOP COUNTING YOU WILL LOSE COUNT). From the breathtaking sceneries to the poetic imagery to Masayoshi Yamazaki’s impassioned voice, you cannot help but feel sorry for the romance that never was, yet be in awe of what transpired at the same time. This, folks, is the meaning of poignance.
Even after Akari has moved on, she still looks back on her memories of Takaki with an inexplicable fondness. And even if Takaki were given the opportunity to erase it like in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’m sure he’d come to realise that he wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world, even if it’d free him from his past. For better or for worse, they are a fundamental part of his identity. Without his short-lived relationship with Akari, he wouldn’t be Takaki.
Beauty inevitably comes with pain, because it is, by definition, contrasted against an unforgiving reality. If you turned to veganism expecting overwhelming beauty and nothing but that, I’m sorry to say this but you will give up in the long run. I would like more people to go vegan, but I’m not a salesperson, and I don’t want to portray veganism as something it’s not.
However, just as Takaki needs to accept that the beauty of his romance with Akari is a thing of the past, yet continue to treasure it as Akari has done, we need the ideals of veganism, and we need the romance, even as we grapple with their limitations. We need the moments in which we feel that we are truly connected to all life on this planet. We need the moments in which we feel the cynicism of urban life seep from our tired bones. They allow us to continue to fight where others would have long given up. These moments are what makes us more than streams of consciousness; they are what makes us human.