Will J. J.

Day-to-day musings and occasional short stories for your delight.

The Films of Makoto Shinkai

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A couple of months ago, I published a post about the wonderful film Your Name., also known as Kimi no Na wa. You can find that post here, but suffice it to say, Your Name had an enormous impact on me. I happened to catch the film on a flight heading back from New York, not realizing that it hadn’t been released in the United States. I raved about it for another two months before it hit theaters here. Between then and now, I’ve watched every film that Your Name’s director, Makoto Shinkai, has ever made, and I’ve gained a great appreciation for his work.

Your Name actually wasn’t the first Shinkai film I had seen. A few years ago, a friend showed me The Place Promised in Our Early Days, a feature length Shinkai movie from 2004. Ironically, having now seen all of Shinkai’s works to date, I can honestly say that The Place Promised is his weakest film. Something about the emotions in The Place Promised just didn’t ring true to me, and they didn’t draw me in or affect me, an unusual issue given that emotional resonance is normally Shinkai’s strong suit.

The Place Promised pic

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

At the time, I felt strangely disappointed watching it, and I might never have watched another Shinkai film had I not happened to catch Your Name on that plane. Interestingly, as I sat on that flight back from New York, scanning through the in-flight movie options, I chose Your Name because I was familiar with Shinkai, remembering his name from The Place Promised, and I had also heard that Your Name was a massive hit in Japan. If that first ingredient had been missing, I probably never would have seen Your Name, and I wouldn’t be excitedly telling you now that Makoto Shinkai is one of my favorite directors.

When I first watched The Place Promised in Our Early Days, my friend really overhyped it for me, excitedly proclaiming that Shinkai was “the next Miyazaki”. I’ve heard many fans and columnists give Shinkai that label, and I don’t think it’s fair or true. Shinkai himself doesn’t like being compared to Miyazaki, and I can see why. Hayao Miyazaki is a legend, someone who can never be replaced, and those expectations will only be met with disappointment. His films were intensely imaginative, coming of age stories, brimming with magic and meaning. Makoto Shinkai’s films, while packed with emotion and depth in their own right, don’t have much in common with Miyazaki’s, other than the fact that both feature gorgeous animation.

People often tend to mistake animation for a genre, when it’s actually a medium. Just like live-action movies, comic books, or simple, printed words, animation can be used to tell a broad spectrum of stories with ranging tones, themes, and characters. In America, people often associate animation with childish themes, but it’s capable of so much more. Shinkai’s films are often affecting, emotional affairs that examine the longing in the human soul juxtaposed with an almost surreal beauty in the world all around. He focuses heavily on the everyday aesthetics and actions that most of us take for granted. With the exception of Journey to Agartha, he has refrained from constructing exotic, fantasy worlds, and instead focuses on ordinary settings, sometimes adding a single, sci-fi element.

Makoto Shinkai’s first big hit was the 20 minute short, Voices of a Distant Star, which he made almost single-handedly, handling storyboarding, animating, editing, and even some voice acting. The film centers around a near-future where a 15 year old girl is sent into deep space to fight in a war against aliens, while her childhood friend and crush remains on earth. The two exchange text messages to remain in touch, but as the girl treads deeper and deeper into space, her messages take longer to reach her friend on earth, until those messages take nearly a full decade to arrive. The film is maximized for emotional impact, as if someone tapped into the saddest thought possible, and then twisted the knife even more. It was an astounding, breakout hit, and garnered him a ton of worthy attention. Voices also provided a blueprint for Shinkai’s recurring themes and style.

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Voices of a Distant Star

Shinkai’s film reputation to date is comprised of two qualities: intensely gorgeous, prettier-than-real-life animation, and deep, tragic sadness. The former is well-deserved, but the latter is grossly inaccurate. So many have characterized Shinkai’s films as simply depressing, but I suspect that anyone who makes that claim has only seen his earlier works, or none at all. Admittedly, his early films fit that melancholy mold quite well, and I’m quite certain that his “master of sadness” reputation stems heavily from one film in particular: Five Centimeters per Second. Memories of that film have fueled this perception for a full decade now.

I remember thinking that Voices of a Distant Star was heartbreaking. The following day, I watched Five Centimeters per Second, and I had no idea what I was in for. Five Centimeters made Voices feel like a trip to Disney Land. It was soul-crushingly sad, and it emotionally rocked me, as if I’d been hit by a freight train of hopelessness. That’s not to say that Five Centimeters is a bad movie, as it’s an absolutely fantastic film, but it’s certainly not light fare. Before seeing Five Centimeters, I had been on such a roll with Shinkai’s films, moving through them in chronological order, and I had planned to finish the rest the following weekend. Instead, I took a full month off, and I almost didn’t continue at all, because I wasn’t sure if I could stomach any more sadness. I’m extremely glad that I did continue, however, because his films after that were much more complex and emotionally rewarding.

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Five Centimeters per Second

The common thread through all of Shinkai’s films is a deep sense of longing, often in youth, but the themes he explores with that longing vary wildly and have evolved in interesting ways throughout his career. His first feature following Five Centimeters was Journey to Agartha, and it remains his largest stylistic and thematic departure to date. Rather than his usual aesthetics and settings, Journey is a coming-of-age fantasy epic with a rich, magical world. This is the one film which I feel could fairly be compared to Miyazaki’s. It feels like a Miyazaki film in so many ways that I actually found myself, halfway in, wondering if Shinkai really directed it. It’s a fun, sometimes dark, adventure, and while there are emotional low points, they’re not the focal point of the story. It was a nice surprise to see something so different from Shinkai after several films reflecting similar themes.

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Journey to Agartha

Shinkai followed Journey to Agartha with The Garden of Words, a 45 minute film that might just feature the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. Garden really surprised me, as well, particularly because it starts off the way some of Shinkai’s earlier films did, focusing on a poetic beauty in the mundane and two characters who yearn for something more. Unlike his early films, however, Garden takes some remarkable twists and turns, becoming something beautiful without remaining mired in sorrow. Garden might feel, at first glance, like Shinkai leaning back into his wheelhouse, but it’s actually an examination of that same sense of longing from a fresh angle, one that treads lightly on sensitive themes and takes risks simultaneously. I was deeply impressed with The Garden of Words.

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The Garden of Words

And then you have Your Name, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. Your Name manages to seamlessly transition between drama and comedy, and from lighthearted to dire. This is Shinkai’s first film with more than a small dose of humor, and it really works. The emotional heft is still there, but it’s about the highs and the lows in harmony. Your Name also features Shinkai’s most well-rounded and well-written characters to date, and they’re placed within his most ingenious and clever plot yet. The one aspect that struck me after finishing all of Shinkai’s filmography was how different Your Name’s music is from all his other films’.

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Mitsuha, Sayaka, and Tessie in Your Name

Most of his other works feature somber piano pieces or solemn, orchestral works. Your Name’s soundtrack, on the other hand, features three pop songs with lyrics, in addition to instrumental pieces ranging from heartfelt to spirited. The scoring throughout the film perfectly matches the plot’s emotional roller coaster, guiding the viewer through the journey. When the scene requires visual attention or character focus, the music accentuates, but remains unobtrusive. When a moment calls for a dramatic swell or climactic punctuation, the music takes the foreground, building brilliantly. Your Name would not work nearly as well without this music. In an age when music in American blockbusters is increasingly an afterthought, it impressed me to see just how in-tune these pieces were with the plot and timing in Your Name. I read a great deal afterward about the band responsible for the music, Radwimps, and how Shinkai involved them so heavily in the film’s production from the outset that their music actually drove changes to the script. Furthermore, Shinkai demanded such a level of excellence and precision that melodies had to shift at extremely specific moments in order for entire scenes to function. There’s a reason this music is perfect, and all that hard work is showcased in a way that goes far beyond any of Shinkai’s previous films.

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Your Name

Your Name is a brilliant work of art, and after seeing the rest of Shinkai’s films, it feels less like an aberration, and more like a natural evolution in his work. It’s his most ambitious and innovative film by far. I’m excited to see what he does next, because he’s doing things no one else is, and looking at things no one else seems to be paying attention to. His films are thoughtful, emotional, and beautiful. The animation is always a wonder, with landscapes sparkling like photographers’ dreams, but his films are at their best when they feature fully-developed characters and emotional range. His last few films have seen a dramatic improvement in both areas, and I’m eagerly awaiting his next film 🙂

Makoto Shinkai Films

P.S. Your Name is still in theaters in some areas, and I’d highly recommend checking it out. It’s being shown in both dubbed and subtitled versions, and while the dubbed version is quite good, I still preferred the original, subtitled version.

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