Will J. J.

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


Leave a comment

The Films of Makoto Shinkai

your name gif

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.

The_Voices_of_a_Distant_Star

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.

5-centimeters-per-second_-train

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.

journey to agartha run

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.

garden of words

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’.

Your Name Mitsuha bike

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.

Your Name comet

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.


1 Comment

Car Window

Car Window

 

Hey guys,

 

Today I wanted to share a poem I’ve been working on. I had a thought recently about the very essence of riding in a car, and how much that has changed for me since I was a little boy. This poem is a translation of that thought’s conclusion. Hope you enjoy it 🙂

 

Car Window

 

Gazing through to the world beyond,

The glass window, ever beside you,

Cruising down the winding asphalt,

Hills and plains rolling gently past.

 

Shifting focus to sights nearby,

A patch of grass, by the roadside,

A branching tree, atop the green.

At last, you draw them into view,

Out of the constant blur of speed,

Reaching out to them with your eyes,

A lone moment of clarity,

Before they’re gone, swept behind you.

 

Your gaze drifts into the distance,

Houses clustered, etching the bluffs,

Faraway mountains, standing tall,

Massive cities, sprawling and bright.

Passing slowly, distant landmarks,

As if you were barely moving.

 

Riding up familiar roadways,

Fingers tracing along the glass,

On the cold, wintry weather days.

Every bump and turn, routine,

The daily trip you know so well.

New, unknown routes still excite you,

Concrete webbed for thousands of miles,

Skirting peaks and dodging water.

 

Years pass, your position changes,

Passenger to watchful driver,

Your gaze forward, the road ahead,

Fewer moments to peer aside,

Allowing your mind to wander,

And take in the beautiful view.

 

But when you do, so seldom now,

You recall that soothing feeling,

The world passing, both fast and slow.


Leave a comment

Remembering Me

remember-who-you-are-simba

For the past month and a half, I’ve been feeling revived, through and through, as if I’ve awakened from a stupor I wasn’t aware of until now. Early last month, one of my closest friends, Leah, surprised me with a visit. It was wonderful to see her, and during her visit, we had a profound and honest discussion about certain events of several years ago that changed the courses of both our lives. These were memories I had not explored in years, and ones she and I had never discussed in such depth. That conversation may have been the most meaningful talk I’ve ever had, and it reawakened me to my dreams.

The following day, I pulled out one of my old journals and read through my entries from the years Leah and I had discussed the night before. I’m a diligent journaler, and my thoughts and feelings from those days were detailed across the pages in crystal clarity. Between our conversation and my journey through old journal entries, I relived the entirety of a several year span in the course of a few hours.

Every joy and every despair came rushing back to me in full force. Quite frankly, it was overwhelming, experiencing that many conflicting emotions and memories simultaneously. It felt as if I had been thrust back into the mind of my old self, except I could see both forward and backward in time from that point. I could trace the path my life would take for years to come, knowing every twist and turn in that span. Most of all, I remembered my dreams for my self and what I cared about most at that point in my life, and that’s what shook me so deeply.

For the past several years, I’ve allowed a haze to fall over my life. It’s been so gradual that I didn’t notice it happening. I’ve felt trapped within myself, slowly buried beneath a perpetual wave of monotony and routine. Day after day, week after week, month after month. It wore on me, and no matter how hard I resisted, I couldn’t fight it, because the change was too slow for me to pinpoint.

When Leah and I revisited those olden days, I realized just how much I had changed, just how much I had deviated from the person I had wanted to become. In fact, I had forgotten who I wanted to be, and that surprised me most. It felt very much like visiting a friend or relative for the first time in years, and realizing how drastically they’ve changed over the course of your absence, except that person was me.

Earlier this very week, Timehop reminded me of a thought I posted on Facebook three years ago, and it was eerily prophetic and relevant to the feelings I had been grappling with since Leah’s visit.

quote-pic-2

 

Seeing that post made me realize that I knew, even then, what could happen, I just didn’t think it would happen to me. I underestimated the mind-numbing effects of time and relentless tedium. The constant grind can erode your dreams to nothing. I kept telling myself that who I really was and what I really cared about lay in my passions: Writing. Bringing to life new and interesting creations. Exploring the beauty of the universe. Expanding my mind and challenging others to do the same. Creating a better world, with whatever tools available to me. We are what we repeatedly do, and if you do not devote time to your passions, you may lose those passions. That is precisely what happened to me.

A perfect example is my writing. I told myself that I was going to write more. I kept saying it, for weeks and months, never quite taking that leap into action. I had put my head down and dedicated myself to my career, because I had so much to learn and I needed to succeed, but at the end of each day, I had no spirit left for the creative goals that kept me excited about life. Gradually, that voice reminding me to write more spoke less and less, and eventually, it left my mind completely. The one passion I held above all else, reduced to a distant memory of a forgotten goal that I stumbled upon from time to time, simply because of inaction. I didn’t work hard enough to make those passions into habits. What you make a habit becomes part of your routine, but it’s that act of finding the time on a regular basis and integrating something into your routine, that’s the hard part.

Time creeps up on you. It is both deceptively stagnant and impossibly swift. Ever since Leah came to visit, I’ve felt awake for the first time in a long time. I don’t want to go back to sleep. I want to fight for the part of myself that really means something, my passion and my excitement. It’s so easy to get comfortable, settle in, and coast. I don’t want that. Life is too short for coasting.

I want to be the man I always saw in myself, and I’m fighting to make him real. I don’t want to wake up one day and realize that I’ve become a mindless drone, that I’ve spent my life scrolling through my newsfeed instead of living. I demanded more from myself then, and it’s time I did so again. I need to be the best combination of dreamer and doer, the person who bursts with ideas and makes them reality, because I know that’s what I’m capable of. Time will pass no matter what I do, so I’m fighting for the future I dreamed of.

Thank you for this gift, Leah, for reminding me of my dreams and giving me the opportunity to change course before it’s too late. Second chances don’t come often, and I won’t waste this one. 🙂

leah-pic-2


Leave a comment

Inspiration and Struan!

Day 3475

photo (37)

Hello friends! In my last entry, I detailed the experience of opening a present Emily had given me for our six month-iversary, and waiting to open her card because of the infinite possibility it represented. Today, I’d like to tell you about the card and the story it led me to write 🙂

Remember, this package was labeled “open when you need some inspiration”. Once I finally opened the card within, I found an invitation to take the Emily McKeown writing challenge! Uh, heck yes! There were 10 separate challenges included in the card, each labeled a number from 1 to 10. The card told me to pick a number from 1 to 10, read the instructions for that challenge only, and take no more than two minutes to brainstorm before writing, once I had my inspiration.  I picked the second challenge.

Challenge two told me to 1) go to a baby name generator online and pick a name at random, 2) look up the meaning of that name, and 3) write about a character perfectly suited to that name.

The first name that popped out was “Struan” (I had never heard of it either). When I looked up the name, I found that it meant “the flow at the point where a spring appears.” I interpreted that to mean the origin point for something that grows from there. My mind took off from there. What is the struan the origin of? What does it grow into? Two minutes later, I wrote the following story. Hope you like it! Thanks for the inspiration Emily 🙂

 

 

     Struan

     Struan left school that Friday afternoon, daydreaming down the sidewalk. Her eyes were glued to the page of a novel. Why can’t I be like one of those characters, she wondered, so adventurous, brave, and bold? She felt like none of those adjectives described her, and she’d have settled for one. It came to her then, an idea, grander and more radiant than anything she had ever known, an explosion of possibility.

Her walk may have ended when she reached her bedroom, but her mind continued to race, like an uncontrollable freight train. She liked it. Struan started jotting down her thoughts at length, none complete, but each catching a new facet of her idea before it fluttered away. Later that evening, her mom knocked on the door to let her know that dinner was ready. She found Struan scribbling away at the pages, her hand cramping, but showing no signs of slowing down. Spotting her mom, Struan’s idea came tumbling out of her like raging rapids. Her mom was excited, but anxious at the same time, for she knew her daughter had dreamed up something big. She cautioned Struan against sharing her idea until she fully understood it, but Struan’s excitement would not be contained.

The next day, despite her mother’s warnings, Struan told everyone she could about her idea, and it soon spread like wildfire. Before she knew it, acquaintances were stopping her in the hall to tell her abut this crazy, revolutionary idea they had heard, not realizing she was its mother. Like a runaway train, it matters little where it began, and far more where it is headed.

Upon arrival at school on the third day, Struan’s excitement had abated, giving way to clear minded observation. What she witnessed was sobering. This idea, so pure and hopeful in its infancy, had grown beyond her power to control, and in its expansion, the purity had been lost. What once was clear and shining had become murky and twisted. The whispers she heard on that day were different than those relayed only a day before, malignant. Like a grand case of telephone, the idea had been changed from person to person, both out of misunderstanding and self-interest, and what remained was only a shade of what she had originally hoped.

No, she cried, and she struck back defiantly, struggling to clarify and reshape. She grabbed her classmates by the arms and screamed, striving valiantly to fight the tide, but she quickly realized that it was too late. Her idea was not hers any longer. She could only watch as the idea ran its course, part of her hoping it would die, but another part longing to watch it grow. She was reminded of Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite as an instrument of peace, only to see it used as a means to further war.

On the walk home from school that day, Struan’s focus was flooded by thoughts once again, unable to distract herself from the idea she had unleashed. Only when she tripped off a curb did she realize how mindlessly she had been striding. Picking herself up, she found herself in the middle of an empty intersection. A swift breeze pushed at her back. She looked in all four directions, each one taking her down a different path. It occurred to her suddenly that, while her dream had failed, she had succeeded. She had become adventurous, brave, and even bold, but at what cost? What would her idea lead to?


1 Comment

Mystery and Possibility

Day 3471

Hello my friends 🙂 Today I want to talk with you about my favorite thing in the world: the power of mysteries.

What is a mystery? Anything that is kept secret, is unknown, or unexplained, is a mystery. Mysteries are all around us. Anything that you don’t know can be a mystery. How big is the universe? What will the weather be like tomorrow? My favorite sorts of mysteries are the ones that enable us to wonder and test the limits of our imagination.

In mid-April, my girlfriend, Emily, and I celebrated six months together, and we traded gifts. Her present was one of the most thoughtful and incredible gifts I have ever received. Rather than giving me a single gift to unwrap right then and there, she gave me 10 individual gifts, each within a small, manila envelope marked with instructions detailing when to open it. Instructions like “open when you need a good laugh”, “open when you’re bored out of your skull”, and “open when you’re feeling down”.

Over the last month and a half, I’ve gradually been opening each envelope, as the situations have presented themselves, and three days ago I opened the envelope that read, “open when you need some inspiration”. I reached inside the manila envelope and found a smaller, blue envelope with a card inside.

 

photo (36)

Tearing open the blue envelope, I slipped the card out, and nearly opened that too, but I waited, holding the card in my hand.

 

photo (35)

Sitting there at my desk, I was excited and giddy, but I didn’t open the card right away. I set it on my desk and took a step back. I wanted to savor the moment. You see, I realized that no matter what was inside the card (more on that next journal entry), Emily had already given me the greatest gift possible. My mind raced, picturing what could have been inside. As long as I left the card unopened, it could have contained anything, and that possibility is what was so precious to me.

Looking at that card, I was reminded of my favorite TED talk, given by J.J. Abrams. In his talk, the writer/director spoke about a box he bought from a magic store when he was a child and had kept, unopened, all the way to the present day. J.J. showed the box to the crowd, and he said that the reason he had kept that box all those years, and never opened it, was because that box represented infinite possibility, hope, and potential. The actual contents of the box mattered far less than the potential for the box to carry anything he imagined, as long as it remained a mystery. So long as mystery is present, possibility is endless.

I’ve always found that thought powerful, and sitting at my desk with Emily’s card in hand, I could only smile, because she had invigorated me without me even having to open the card. Mysteries have been a big part of my life, ever since I was a child, and they’ve never failed to inspire me. The power in a mystery lies in its ability to get you asking questions. Imagination is built on questions, and a single question can redefine everything. Maybe you won’t ask the right questions at first, but if you never ask any questions, you’ll also never find the right ones.

You can check out J.J.’s talk here! I highly recommend it.