The anime of Makoto Shinkai: beautiful, somber, with moments of humor
September 17, 2014 10:48 PM   Subscribe

"If I had been born 10 years earlier, I don’t think I would be an animator," wrote Makoto Shinkai. Despite the fact that even his earliest animations were completed with a Mac and a tablet, his style is influenced by the works of prior Japanese animators, even earning him the title "the next Miyazaki," which he says is an honor, but overstating his skills. From his earliest short, Other Worlds, he set some of the tone and pacing featured in his subsequent works, which are discussed in the lead up to an interview Shinkai did with Tested.

Shinkai's second work, She and Her Cat, was another casually paced piece in black and white, but with much more detail in the animation and in the audio. He created the less than 5 minute long piece in the course of 5 months, doing everything except for the music himself, even recording his own vocals in his living room. It's a quiet story of a cat coming into the life of a lady, and their friendship, as told from the point of view of the cat.

The animation was improved from lessons learned at his day job at Nihon Falcom, where he worked on graphic design for the company and animation clips for their games, including Bittersweet Fools, Wind: A Breath of Heart, Footstep Of Spring, and Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two.

The first of his longer works was Voices of a Distant Star (Japanese audio, Chinese subtitles; trailer with English subs; Wikipedia page with full plot). Created by himself, Shinkai even provided the voices for the first dub with his girlfriend at that time, though the final version featured professional voice actors. Though the film is broadly about a young girl who is recruited by the UN Space Army to fight aliens, at its core it is about how technology shapes relationships, another general theme to follow through his a number of works.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (English dub) was the first feature-length film by Shinkai, who also had an animation team to work with him, resulting an a much more polished product. The story is again about strained efforts to communicate, this time between friends who are split by a war that divides Japan, in something of an alternate universe where the southern islands are occupied by U.S. forces and the north by the mysterious "Union," who build a giant tower for unknown reason(s).

5 Centimeters Per Second (Japanese audio, English subs) doesn't include any science fiction, but includes something of nostalgia for the recent past, starting in the time before widespread use of cell phones and email, and Shinkai focuses on the various implications of trains as a mode of transportation, something that can bring strangers together and as something that can create a barrier.

Children who Chase Lost Voices (trailer, Japanese audio, English subs; full film in English with Arabic subs) is a visually stunning meditation on death, love, and loneliness, this story of a girl's journey to a mystical underworld doesn't shy away from the harsh things encountered in life, and that review also likens the film to what might happen if there were a collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

The Garden of Words (trailer, Japanese with English subs; full movie, dubbed in English) is designed to be an homage to the beauty of Tokyo, and Makoto Shinkai made the film shorter to be something that people could enjoy in their spare time for a bit of relaxation. The story is a simple one about love, with solitude and sadness as ingredients, which shouldn't surprise you by now, given Shinkai's past works.

But don't let this sound like Makoto Shinkai is a man to only make somber works. He has also produced shorter, lighter works, such as the music video for Hiromi Iwasaki's "Egao (The Smile)", the two shorts "A Gathering of Cats" and "Someone's Gaze," and "Z-Kai: Cross Road", a short commercial (all clips feature Japanese audio with English subtitles).
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I have watched several of these, and have to concur with his own self-critique... he's not as good as Miyazaki yet.

His most beautiful work, arguably, is The Garden of Words, but it also showed his weaknesses. He's not as good of a storyteller as Miyazaki.

That said, I love his animation style, which is interestingly diverse, doing a wonderful, sometimes detailed, sometimes sparse, job of defining the essential nature of things, of feelings, and moments.

No doubt, he is masterfully capable of using his anime to tell a story. I just don't see him on the same level of an actual storyteller as Miyazaki, or arguably Miyazaki's best candidate for an heir who died tragically, Satoshi Kon... who was utterly brilliant.
posted by markkraft at 1:10 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd about agree with markkraft -- of course, it doesn't take being at the absolute master level to make good work! Even leaving aside the pretty astounding work ethic/accomplishment of doing it all alone or with such a small crew, above all I'll take anyone I can get who is trying to tell a story, rather than just show off their character designs and/or push merch. Paging through Crunchyroll is pretty damned depressing anymore.
posted by Drexen at 2:45 AM on September 18, 2014

Even Miyazaki wasn't Miyazaki in his earliest work. It takes time to perfect a craft. Lovely stuff.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:54 AM on September 18, 2014

I think Mamoru Hosoda is a better candidate as an heir to Miyazaki especially since Wolf Children, which is even thematically Miyazakian.
He was also supposed to direct Howl's Moving Castle at first.
Shinkai is on a league of its own.
posted by SageLeVoid at 4:13 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

i remember being incredibly disappointed with 5 centimeters per second. I look forward to checking out more that this guy did but, honestly, miyazaki he isn't.
posted by rebent at 8:43 AM on September 18, 2014

I feel he gets the Miyazaki association not because his work is a copy or imitation of Miyazaki's storytelling, and more about Shinka's style and pace of action being rather sedate, and the gorgeous, quiet visuals like Miyazaki's works, which puts them both outside the scope of much of the other major anime being produced today, but I could be wrong.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:38 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Paging through Crunchyroll is pretty damned depressing..."

My advice would be to follow the directors who you like best. I would check out Shinichirō Watanabe's recent work, such as "Kids on the Slope" or his new anime, "Terror in Resonance", which has been quite a ride thus far.

I would also pay attention to the work of Hiroshi Nagahama, whose work has a strange beauty, even at its most controversial and disturbing.
posted by markkraft at 10:22 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the post, I'm sure to hit some of these touchstones later.

I would check out Shinichirō Watanabe's recent work

Ohh, I really enjoyed Samurai Champloo (well most of it). I may look into his newer stuff and this may serve as a reminder to finally give Bebop a run through.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:54 AM on September 18, 2014

finally give Bebop a run through

Join us, joooiiiin ussss, and by us I mean the quiet few who comment in the Cowboy Bebop FanFare threads. We're only up to #8, and Radical Ed shows up in #9!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:18 AM on September 18, 2014

> "Terror in Resonance", which has been quite a ride thus far.

I was finding it quite interesting - loved the OP song - and then it went downhill fast once a certain character showed up. That character's appearance seemed to make the series lose its way. I haven't felt compelled to return to the series since stopping at ep. 7.
posted by needled at 3:13 PM on September 18, 2014

What I find amusing is that Watanabe-san also helped create Space Dandy, which is kind of a turbocharged, oftentimes surreal parody of the whole genre he helped create with Bebop.
posted by markkraft at 5:19 PM on September 19, 2014

"then it went downhill fast once a certain character showed up. That character's appearance seemed to make the series lose its way"

My advice... stick it out.

Yes, when they add a rather out-of-control, irrational nemesis in the middle of the series who you haven't even had a chance to feel anything for, whether hate or love... that can feel a bit jolting.

All I can say -- without giving too much away -- is that structurally, I completely see why they added her. She carves a divide between the two lead characters, and brings in important concepts into the mix that need to be there to get to the ending they want, I suspect... and they have since both humanized her and pulled her away from the spotlight.
posted by markkraft at 5:44 PM on September 19, 2014

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