Will J. J.

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


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The Last Toy

 

Have you ever longed to return to a specific moment from your childhood, and change something? I can’t go back, but today it feels like I’ve finally done right by the little boy inside me, and I can’t help but smile.

 

Growing up, my family was very poor. My toys were few, mostly ragged trinkets from the goodwill. Every Sunday, my mom read the newspaper, and I would scour the toy ads, knowing that we couldn’t afford any of them. I would cut out the pictures of the toys and save them, playing with those pictures as if they were the toys themselves. I had an entire fleet of Star Wars ship pictures, and they were far more portable than most toys, because I could slip them all into a folder and take them anywhere. Still, any time one of my pictures was ripped or got wet, I was reminded of just how little I had.

kraft mac and cheese

In 1998, Kraft ran a promotion with their macaroni and cheese products for DC superheroes. If you mailed in a certain number of box tops from these kraft boxes, Kraft would mail back one of three toys: a Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman figure from the cartoons running at the time. As a kid, superheroes were the one fandom I was a part of, and seeing this promotion lit up my eyes. I had my sights set on the Superman balancing toy, because it portrayed him in flight, and I thought that was incredibly cool. We already ate mac and cheese on a regular basis, so all I had to do was collect the box tops and mail them in.

 

For the next couple of months, I carefully collected and stored the labels, until I had enough. I still recall the day I licked the stamp and mailed the envelope, specifying that I wanted the Superman toy. After that, I waited. Weeks went by, then months. In my naivete, I assumed that Kraft was simply slow with their response, and it would arrive any day. After over 6 months, I finally asked my mom, who had forgotten about the matter entirely. We called Kraft and explained that we had mailed in the box tops but never received anything back.The representative apologized, but said that they no longer had that toy line in stock. They offered me a Rugrats toy instead. A RUGRATS toy??? Are you kidding me? Rugrats cannot compare with the joy of imagining a hero flying over buildings and beating bad guys. Through tears, I told them not to send the Rugrats toy.

 

It might seem like a small matter, but to a 6 year old boy, it was devastating. I did everything I was supposed to. I collected the box tops. I mailed them in, following the instructions. I waited patiently for months, and I received nothing. When you’re a kid, your world is much smaller. You focus on the few things you’re aware of, and they are your everything. My view was even more narrow than most kids, so I invested a great deal of hope on that toy.

 

In the months and years to come, my life moved in other directions, but I never forgot about that Superman toy and that experience. I think it was the feeling of sorrow and injustice that stuck with me. Obviously I wanted the toy, but had I received it, I doubt I’d still be thinking about it years later. The lesson seemed to be that, no matter what you do, the world doesn’t always respond fairly, and that lesson stung. From that moment on, the toy represented far more to me than just play value.

 

When I reached my teenage years, I started intermittently combing through the internet, searching for the toy. It was years before I found any mention of the toy line or promotion, and I never found any for sale. After over a decade of looking, I had little hope of finding the toy, but I’d check every now and then, just in case. I never found any for sale until last week.

 

Emily and I were discussing a package UPS had shipped my way. There were issues with the shipment, and I was thinking through the steps I would need to take to get my package or a refund. Something about that thought reminded me of this toy, once again, and I offhandedly searched for it, the first time in a few months. Lo and behold, I found a man selling the exact toy on ebay, and I hastily bought the item, more excited than I would have thought possible.

superman toy

The toy came in yesterday, and I unboxed it in a fury. The man had never opened it, as the toy was still wrapped in the sealed plastic bag, as it would have in 1998. It felt like I was a 6 year old boy again, and all the expectation and sadness came rushing back to me, this time capped with a warm blanket of satisfaction, made all the more fulfilling because of the extremely protracted wait. I can’t go back and give this toy to that 6 year old boy, but even now, 19 years later, this is something worth celebrating 🙂

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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.

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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.

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.


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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.


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Friends and Siblings

friends_main

Several weeks ago, a close friendship crumbled in my life. It devastated me, and it’s taken quite a bit of time for me to reach any level of normalcy since then. In the time following the collapse, I detailed the situation to several of my friends, and one of them asked me something that really got me thinking.

“Are you an only child?”, he asked me. Why would that matter, I wondered.

“Yes,” I responded, hesitantly.

“I thought so.” As my friend explained to me, he had a theory that siblings and friends are linked. If you grew up with siblings, you may have grown up with strong, family ties, such that you consider friends less permanent and the bonds less binding. If you grew up an only child, you may consider your friends to be your family, and fight harder for those friendships, because you didn’t have siblings to bond with.

This theory really resonated with me, despite being overly-simplistic. It’s a connection I had never considered before, and it rings true, at least for me. I grew up an only child. I didn’t have any siblings until I was almost a teenager, and even then, there were none that I saw on a regular basis. The closest other relatives I had were my two cousins, that I saw on school breaks every few months. I’ve always fought for my friendships above all else, often to the bitter end and my own detriment, because I do consider my close friends to be my family. I’ve been willing to go above and beyond, and it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve considered them my surrogate brothers and sisters all these years. I can’t be certain that I would value or fight for my friendships less if I’d had siblings growing up, but I also can’t deny that I value my friends higher than almost anything else.

None of this is to say that all siblings are close, or that strong families lead to weaker friendships, because those are clearly not true. I think the point my friend was driving at is simply the nature of familial bonds. For some, those bonds are formed in the household, while for others, they must be built in alternate ways, and those bonds can shape peoples’ perspectives on their relationships.

What do you guys think? Does being an only child make you more likely to value friendships highly?  I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂


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Your Name – Kimi No Na Wa.

your-name-movie-poster

You guys might not know this about me, but I love movies. They are, hands down, my favorite form of media. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a flight back from New York City with Emily, and I found a Japanese movie called Your Name (also known as Kimi No Na Wa.) on the in-flight screen on the seat in front of me. The title immediately rang a bell because I’m a fan of anime and had heard that this one was insanely popular in Japan, breaking all kinds of box office records, and I had seen other films by the director, Makoto Shinkai.

 

I started the movie, expecting to watch it casually, because, let’s be honest, you don’t usually watch a movie on a plane expecting to be the most engaged. I was dead wrong. From the very first scene, I was sucked right in, and I was just praying the flight wouldn’t end before I finished the movie. At one point, I was actually crying and clutching the seat in front of me with both hands. It was an intense experience, an incredible movie, and it finished just before we landed. What I didn’t realize is that it won’t be released in the U.S. until April 7th, so no one I know has seen it yet. It has been KILLING me not having anyone to talk about this movie with, because it’s downright amazing.

 

Your Name is a fantasy, drama, romance story about two high schoolers in Japan who begin waking up in each other’s bodies at random, and the two must adapt their lives around each other while building an unlikely connection. The two are bound by fate, but kept apart by more than just distance. The premise might sound silly or overly sentimental, but instead, the result is genius. I don’t dare divulge more of the plot, because the film reveals itself in such beautiful ways that it would be a crime to spoil. What I can say is that the characters are equal parts hilarious and authentic, the animation is astonishing, and the story is heartbreaking, thrilling, and satisfying. Even saying that, though, doesn’t really capture the essence of what makes it great. This is so much more than just a romance, and it would be a shame to try and cram it into that category alone. 

 

Your Name is a special movie. It’s ambitious, original, honest, and vivid. This movie tapped into so many of the themes I cherish most, including love, time, and dreams. It explored love in such a pure yet genuine state that I have never seen portrayed nearly so well. Quite frankly, this movie reminded me of some of my deepest beliefs that I hadn’t really thought about in ages.

 

Your Name is my new favorite movie, and I haven’t had a new favorite movie in over a decade. I take favorites very seriously. Rest assured, when it comes to the U.S. on April 7th, I will be the first in line to see it again. I recommend you check it out too 🙂


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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.

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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


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Friday

friday-celebration

Hey everybody! I know it’s been a while. This is a little something I’ve been working on this week, a poem about the wonder of Friday. Hope you enjoy it 🙂

Friday

You spend your week, slaving away,
Fighting and driving and toiling, all day,
Waiting for the moment when you can rest,
Free of the work that’s had you so stressed.

The week passes slowly, each moment a grind,
Every minute dragging, exhaustion combined.
You claw toward the weekend, so eager to send
Those troubles away, replaced with your friends,
And become that person you are on the weekend.

At long last it comes, the wondrous Friday,
One day of work, all that stands in your way.
Your eyes light up, giddy with joy,
Flooding your mind with the times you’ll enjoy.

Remember how it was when you were a child,
Waiting for the bell so you could run wild,
Dashing away, your face a bright smile,
Knowing the teachers couldn’t catch you for a while.
All the effort and stress of five long days,
Releasing it all, that’s the magic of Friday.

So pick up a brew, go out with the crew,
Open a book, settle in your nook,
Run through the grass, catch a prize bass,
Start a game, bring glory to your screen name,
Go for a hike, break out your bike,
Catch up on tv, steep yourself some tea,
Whatever your choice, dive in and rejoice.

Embrace the cheer you seek,
For you’ve survived another week.
You’ve lived through many, with many to come,
But the struggles of life aren’t easily overcome.
Don’t lightly forget them. No, celebrate, and praise!
For we measure life in years, but live it in days.