Will J. J.

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


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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.

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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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The Last Day Of Childhood: 10 Years Later

Day 3245

 

Around the time I turned ten years old, my parents began the process of divorce, setting in motion events that would forever change me and my outlook. The brutal custody battle lasted nearly three long years full of pain and struggle and culminated in my father disowning me completely because I chose to love my mother also. That fateful day was exactly ten years ago, on October 22, 2004.

Ten years. Ten years ago, I stood up for myself, and my father decided that he no longer wanted to be my father. It’s difficult to measure exactly what ten years means. I could tell you about how much I’ve changed, from a young boy to a man, or how my perspective on those days has evolved, from someone struggling to comprehend events swirling around them to someone peacefully recalling the wounds as they were inflicted. I feel like I’ve come so far, and I’ve tried to make sure my life had meaning and stood for something, in large part because I remember so clearly a time when I wasn’t sure how much more life I had to live. When you have no one to trust, nowhere to turn, and you’re faced with issues far beyond your understanding, you’re forced to grow up far quicker than anyone should have to. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like that life could possibly be part of the same life I live now. Recalling those memories feels akin to reading a book whose ending is already too familiar.

I remember soon after the madness ended, I was obsessed with remembering. Everyone around me seemed content to let it all simply fade away, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I felt this sense of duty to preserve and document the tragedy, because if I didn’t, no one would. I didn’t want to change, and I fought every attempt to alter my personality. It wasn’t until several years went by that I understood; change is inevitable, your only choice is how you change.

For a long time, I missed my father. He had been my closest, and for much of my life, my only friend, and I mourned his departure from my life. I thought back on all the joyous moments we had shared, a stay-at-home dad and his only son, who looked like mirror images of each other from different generations. As a child, your memories tend to be very one-dimensional, and as I grew older, I began to discover new meaning in my own memories. My father had kept me so isolated for so much of my childhood that I, of course, thought of that life and his ways as the standard. I just didn’t know any different. After several years without him, I began to realize that my father was not the man I had pictured him to be.

People ask me all the time if I miss my father or if I think our relationship will ever be repaired, and I’m never sure what kind of answer they are searching for. The truth is that, while I used to miss the man I thought my father was, there is little left for me to miss of the man he actually was. To this day, I still struggle to reconcile those two conflicting visions of him. The father who cared so deeply for me and watched over me like no other, and the man whose hatred and anger consumed him until they meant more to him than his only son, inflicting upon me the greatest and most ceaseless pain I have ever known. Do I long for him to call me up, apologize from the bottom of his heart, and beg me to forgive him? No. There was a time when I wanted nothing more, but I could not go through my life basing my happiness upon the slight chance of his change of heart. That is no way to live. In truth, what stung the worst, then and now, is knowing that he continues to live out his life with a new family and new children, while I am dead to him, or perhaps never existed.

My father never understood, or perhaps simply lost sight of the fact, that when you have a child, your life ceases to simply be about yourself. You cannot live as selfishly as you once could because you are no longer living for yourself only but for another who is looking to you for their every cue on what it means to be a good human. Using as a child as a bargaining chip and a weapon for vengeance is not only selfish but downright cruel.

Ten years beyond that fateful day, I don’t think it or about him nearly as much as I used to, and when I do, the pain is less sharp, the stab replaced with a dull ache. The memories have never faded; they remain every bit as vivid as the moments they record. I can recall them anytime I desire, but I don’t desire to very often. My life no longer faces backward but forward. Those moments and agonies forever changed my course, but I have not let them define my character. Bitterness accomplishes nothing, neither does dwelling or self-loathing. You can only carry so much baggage before it weighs you down completely, and when that moment comes, you must choose whether to remain in the mire of your anguish or free yourself from its bondage and move forward. Circumstances don’t have to define you. Take the good, learn from the bad, and let go of the poison. Ten years later, that is what guides me.


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Why I Write

Day 3071    

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      I get asked a lot about what inspires me to write and why I started writing in the first place. Especially since Darkness Reflected was published, I’ve heard those two questions more than ever, but to be perfectly honest, they weren’t questions I had ever put much thought into. Funny how others have the power to pinpoint something you never realized about yourself. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about why I started writing and what the process of writing is like for me, and this is the product of those thoughts.
     Ever since I was a little boy, I remember having a rather expressive vocabulary. I recall helping my father study for the GRE before he applied to graduate school, and I loved adding all those fancy words to my personal dictionary. Just because I knew many words, however, did not mean that I liked writing or that I felt I was any good at it. In fact, perhaps because I knew so many words, I felt that I fumbled and misused them far more than the average person. Every once in a while, I was able to string together a few words that I was proud of, but overall, I was less than confident in my abilities. It was not until eighth grade that my perspective toward writing would change.
     Every student in a Texas public grade school has to take a series of annual standardized exams. These tests seem to change every few years, from the TAAS, to the TAKS, to the current STAAR, but when I was in middle school, it was the TAKS tests that I was required to pass. To prepare for these exams, we would take a benchmark every 6 weeks or so, and these benchmarks were essentially mock versions of the real tests meant to prepare us under real conditions. On the writing exam, our essays were based on a 1 to 4 point scale with 1 being the lowest, 4 being the highest. The TAKS tests were always a breeze, and the actual testing days were little more than snoozefests.
     I had never received anything below a 4 on my TAKS writing essays, and as I said before, I did not consider myself anything better than an average writer. I can’t recall the prompt we had for the writing exam in eighth grade, but I do remember thinking that I could write something truly awesome if I infused my story with more detail and introspection than usual. Much to my dismay, my English teacher did not agree with my vision, and for the first time in my life, I scored a 3. This might not seem like a big deal, but it definitely was for me. What did I do wrong? I felt that I had created something far greater than any of my previous essays, yet I was punished instead of being rewarded. I pleaded my case to the teacher, with no success. Despite her criticism, I knew that I was onto something, that the way I had chosen to write for that essay held greater potential.
     To an outsider, that single TAKS essay would probably seem like an insignificant event, but life is made up of many seemingly minor details that subtly chart a person’s course. When I think back on my path as a writer, I think of the day I wrote that essay as the first of my writing career. I wanted to prove my teacher wrong. While I hardly thought that essay was earth shattering, I felt deep inside my mind that the tools and style I had utilized in its creation were capable of greatness. It was a rare instance when I knew exactly which path to take.
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     Writing does not come easily to me. That’s a common misconception that many people make about writers, that because someone chooses to write, it must come naturally to them. Quite the opposite is the case for me. I do not write because it is easy for me but precisely because it is hard. Words are so malleable and fluid. Even writing a single sentence, you may create something that no one else has ever thought of. It is that sort of freedom that inspires me, but it is that same freedom that can be so frightening. The rules of grammar and spelling are the only ones that apply, and even those can be bent for effect. I’ve spent hours just trying to piece together a single sentence, not to mention the difficulty every writer finds in an attempt to describe something that seemingly cannot be put into words. Writing is not easy. It is an excruciating task.
     I wrote my first short story when I was 15. It was called “The Fire.” The story followed a man who rushes to salvage his possessions from a burning apartment, only to relinquish them at the final moment. Why did I choose to write that story? Because it was an idea that refused to be forgotten. It had been lingering on the fringes of my mind for weeks, and I felt a need to release it. That’s how many of my stories have come to fruition, by waiting until they reach the boiling point, only a moment away from bursting free on its own. I find that inspiration is all around, and I am assaulted by an excess of possibilities, but the only stories that I usually end up writing are the ones that stick despite the everlasting tide of new ideas. Sometimes, even when an idea has been simmering within my mind for quite some time and I try to sit down and dedicate it to paper, I find that the idea isn’t ready. The time is not yet right.
     In order to create a story, I have to place myself in a very specific state of mind, and that state differs depending on the content of the story. Writing can be a highly emotional experience for me. My greatest resources are my imagination and my own experiences, and whenever I combine the two, the result can flush a great deal out of me, in terms of both emotion and energy. I find that writing fiction is a fantastic way to release, but that release comes at the price of my own internal barriers because I draw from topics and feelings that I’m not always prepared to explore. Facing those demons can be torturous, and I don’t always win. I like to think that writing anything worthwhile comes with a certain degree of pain, and that the pain is what grants the writing a sense of humanity.
     If someone was to ask me what I love most about writing, this is what I would tell them: Writing itself is not an enjoyable task, in fact, it is one of the most uncomfortably agonizing experiences I know of, but the result is worth the effort for me. The juice is worth the squeeze, and the rewards are two fold. First off, without fail, I have always discovered something new about myself in the process of writing, as if the stories themselves were whispering me secrets as I penned them into existence. Second and equally intense is the euphoria of having created something new, something that is the product of you yet exists independently of you. Despite all the challenges of translating a complex scene or emotion into words and the unnerving sensation of dissecting my own inner demons for examination, nothing compares to the utter bliss of completion.


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The 5 Best Places To Find Quotes

Day 2997

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Art by Tang Yau Hoong 

Quotes have been a big part of my life for many years. Growing up, whenever I felt especially emotional, I would seek guidance in quotes. The way I saw it, no matter my emotional state or particular circumstances, there must have been others before me who had experienced the same feeling. I would search for quotes that resonated with my sentiments in the moment to better understand what it was going through and perhaps gain a new perspective.

Great quotes can be short, memorable, and easily digestible, a perfect recipe in our fast-paced world. So, whether you are searching for comforting words to help you through hard times, want to sound smart and cultured, or just enjoy reading well-worded thoughts, here are the 5 best places to find quotes.

 

1. thinkexist.com

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If you’re looking for something meaningful, but you don’t know exactly what that meaning is, this is where I would start. This site is awesome. It focuses on quotes from celebrities and historical figures, and the homepage features quotes from popular personalities who were born on the same day that you access the site. If you click on the date just below the quotes, you will be redirected to even more birthday quotes along with some from people who died on that day. The search functionality by author and keyword is great and the database on this site is massive. I still look here first when I am searching for inspiration.

 

2. quotegarden.com 

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Quotegarden is an old school site, and it certainly shows in the site’s design, but don’t let that put you off. There is a lot to admire here. Every quote on the site is organized into one of 100+ categories listed, and those categories group quotes based on theme and content rather than keyword. That’s what makes this site a gem. By staying so old-fashioned, it actually manages to provide something fresh. I have found a ton of quotes here that I would never have found or thought to look for elsewhere.

 

3. robertbrault.com

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You wouldn’t think that a collection of quotes written by a single person would be expansive enough to warrant inclusion on this list, but this site deserves it. Robertbrault.com is also pretty basic looking, but the man’s thoughts are quirky, insightful, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking. Any lover of words will appreciate his writing style as well.

 

4. goodreads.com/quotes

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Goodreads is a social network for anyone who likes books, from the occasional reader to the diehard bookworm. You can rate, review, catalog books you’ve read, list others you’d like to read, and much more. One of my favorite parts of this site, however, is the quotes page, and you can access it without needing an account. You’ll find a massive list of quotes added by Goodreads members. You can also search by keyword and author or use the tabs to scan through quotes recently added to the catalog and liked. The site is much prettier and easier to navigate than those listed above, and the best part is that Goodreads users are constantly expanding the collection of quotes.

 

5. stumbleupon.com/interest/quotes

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If you haven’t heard of StumbleUpon, you are missing out. This is one of my absolute favorite sites and has been for a number of years. StumbleUpon allows you to set up a profile based on your interests, and the site finds and recommends various pages based on the interests you selected. You don’t need an account to access the quotes page, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention everything else this wonderful site does. The quotes interest has thousands of pages linked to it, and many include not only the quotes themselves but also awesome graphic designs and photographs to emphasize those quotes. On StumbleUpon, any user can add any website to an interest, so the number of quotes along with the site as a whole are always growing. If you don’t have an account, I would highly recommend signing up. I’ve found all sorts of fascinating pages through this site.