Last year, headlines had been made about Makoto Shinkai, praising the anime director on his latest film, Your Name. The movie was an international success, winning numerous awards and receiving positive ratings among critics for its amazing plot and visually-stunning artwork. However, Your Name is not Shinkai’s first film that captivated his audience. His style of animation and storytelling has touched viewers through a few other titles; playing on themes of damaged interest in life, holding on to the past, and overcoming challenges during youth. The storylines which explore these themes are beautifully illustrated through Shinkai’s art, for he manages to stretch the boundaries of realistic anime. From reproducing Japan’s cityscapes to its rural villages, we see how every fine detail is taken to account. The realism of Shinkai’s work is often inspired by actual locations in Japan, many of which were incorporated into his films.
In 2007 Shinkai released 5 Centimetres Per Second, a romantic drama about a boy and a girl who become close friends in elementary school, but slowly drift apart as they transfer to different schools in different towns. During a time when mobile and online communication was not so popular (1990s), the two friends attempted to stay connected through letters. But as the years go by, their relationship diminishes, for every letter is sent later than the last. The boy struggles with the fact that he is drifting apart from the girl, so he decides to take a trip to the countryside and visit her. He planned to deliver a letter he wrote, confessing romantic feelings, but the letter gets lost, and the two friends promise to continue writing to each other. The story focuses on the effect of losing a connection with someone important, and how such a loss can drive someone to the brink of misery. It also illustrates the necessity of moving on in life; to treasure the memories of previous relationships rather than to dwell on the past. Aside from depicting the relatable circumstance of loss, the film’s animation beautifully portrays various settings in Japan, such as smoky railway-stations in the winter, and the brightly-blossomed trees in the suburbs during the summer. 5 Centimetres Per Second is not Shinkai’s first film, but it’s the first that properly defined his style of art.
The Garden of Words is another one of Shinkai’s young-adult drama animations, and it was released in 2013. The story revolves around Takao, a teenager who aspires to become a shoemaker. Despite the lack of support from his family, Takao invests his time and money into designing and making shoes. He establishes a rule that he would skip school on rainy days, and spend time designing shoes in a park shelter. Takao ends up sharing this space with a young woman, Yukari, who appeared to be using the shelter as a refuge to avoid commitments in life. The two develop a friendship as they slowly reveal to each other about how they feel alone in their own lives. On some level, this film feels like a strange romance, for Takao has a crush on Yukari. However, an intimate relationship is not pursued; instead, a friendship is formed that helps them both through their personal struggles. This film explores the importance of finding support in times of loneliness and despair. The friendship helped them to continue living their lives with courage and hope, with Yukari going back to work, and Takao making shoes. Aside from the emotionally-stirring narrative, the film’s animation was beautifully realistic, captivating the enchantment of Japan’s urban structures, parks and seasons. The weather played a crucial role in the anime, for the rain served as a catalyst for the friendship in the park, until at the end when the sun comes out, as Yukari and Takao properly open up to each other. While The Garden of Words is not Shinkai’s greatest work, it certainly earned the critical acclaim it deserved for artistic merit.
Shinkai’s latest work, Your Name, quaked the anime industry, for it became the highest-grossing anime film of all time in January 2017. This new film focuses on two teenagers, Taki and Mitsuha, whose path’s cross in the most unusual way; they wake up in the other one’s life every second day, and return back in their own bodies the next morning. Despite living in different parts of Japan, a hilarious bond is created between the two, for they learn to live by and respect the rules of each other’s life, and in doing so, develop a personal connection. When Mitsuha’s town is hit by a meteor that kills all its residents, Taki somehow struggles to remember her existence. When he travels to the destroyed town, he discovers a portal that leads him to the town stuck in a time-loop prior to the disaster. He finds Mitsuha alive, and convinces her to evacuate the people before the meteor hits, but he is separated from her before she does so, and he forgets her existence again. The film concludes with a heart-warming scene that strongly resonates with its title. Just like his previous films, Shinkai maintains the style of realistic animation depicting emotional struggles during youth. The storyline portrays the theme of experiencing a dynamic other than the one we belong in. Furthermore, it depicts how people develop connections by learning about each other’s life, as similarly shown in The Garden of Words. The stunning artwork of the film illustrates Japan’s urban and rural settings, along with the difference in culture and traditions. Your Name is arguably Shinkai’s greatest work yet, mostly because the dilemma in narrative ends with more closure than in other films.
While Makoto Shinkai is responsible for a few other great productions, the films mentioned in this piece represent the best of the artist. Just like other famous animators, he developed a distinct style in storytelling and animation, one that is beautifully mixed with a romantic and realistic portrayal of Japan. According to an article by Crunchyroll, Shinkai announced that we could expect to see his next film within the next three years.