Director Makoto Shinkai reached worldwide recognition with his film your name., one of the biggest box office successes in Japan’s history. With his new movie Suzume on the horizon, Nick and Nicky discuss the director’s thematic fixations.
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Well, Nicky, since our cohorts got to cover a storied director’s new film, it’s only fair that we do the same. With the US debut of Suzume right around the corner, I’ve already got our tickets ordered, our seats reserved, and cool matching t-shirts for us to wear to the premiere!
The man called Makoto Shinkai is an interesting figure. He’s been a notable name in a small pantheon of anime filmmakers despite having no film background. He was working at a video game studio doing all sorts of product management when he distributed his five-minute short animation on CDs via mail. The next thing you know, he’s a candidate to be “The Next Miyazaki.”
That’s skipping a bit of history, which we’ll get into, but yeah. It’s been a surreal experience to see Shinkai, a creator mostly treated as an idiosyncratic indie darling for over a decade, suddenly catapult into one of the biggest blockbuster money-makers in feature-length animation.
I’m not even going to tell you which movie that’s from. Guess. I dare you.
Having sat through a Makoto Marathon, it’s certainly a striking aesthetic and interesting to watch him hone across two decades of films. Though I’d be lying if I said it didn’t start blurring together at points.
Unsurprisingly, Shinkai would also go on to direct a lot of commercials.
CoMix Wave is basically the source code for those meme-ified ads that tell a whole heartrending story in 90 seconds, exclusively to sell you on KFC or life insurance. It’s one of many ways that Shinkai and the studio have come to define a big chunk of the landscape outside of TV.
ComixWave themselves even did a spotlight on Canadian tourism, of all things.
Really though, for as surprising as Shinkai’s sudden rise is from a historical perspective, the ripple effect your name. had on anime films in the years since has been pretty inescapable. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a story about straight teenagers crying at sunset over some supernatural metaphor for adolescence!
Yeah, I mention advertising since every ad company imitates ComixWave’s art style. You get mini-Shinkai films in the form of Cup Noodle ads. Beyond that, your name. opened the idea that there was still money to be made in original anime films even if your name. isn’t Ghibli.
Speaking of, how much your name. benefitted from good timing is wild. Back in 2014, Ghibli announced they were drastically restructuring and more or less bowing out of feature-length production outside of whatever Miyazaki was going to make after his second un-retirement. That left a ton of animators and artists accustomed to working on films suddenly looking for jobs. As it would happen, that was just around the time pre-pro on your name. was getting underway, and wouldn’t you know it, they sure could use a bunch of seasoned animators already familiar with making movies!
At the time, your name. managed to cozy itself up right under Spirited Away in terms of gross numbers.
I don’t have a larger point from that. It’s just that I had to sit through that boring piece of crap, and I want everyone else to have to deal with it. I don’t know if Shinkai ever took that “next Miyazaki” thing seriously, but I thank the heavens he didn’t try to ape that style again.
While that style can get repetitive if you, say, watch half a dozen films in 48 hours, it’s also a setup that can work. Shinkai’s films take a central emotion – longing for love, freedom, or a place to belong – and construct everything else out from there. At their best, they can build that emotion into a showstopping explosion that feels both relatable and cathartic. Lost Voices suffers because it doesn’t ever settle on a specific emotion and instead gets bogged down in nebulous world-building and adventure tropes that he clearly isn’t invested in.
Yet it works because it strips away all the big metaphorical action and supernatural elements to tell a small, human story. Instead of space wars or interdimensional dreams keeping the central couple apart, it’s the much more insurmountable gap in their age and stations in life as a student and a teacher. Combined with the most fully rendered version of Shinkai’s aesthetic fixations, it becomes a concentrated blast of his most effective filmmaking.
The Garden of Words is my favorite version of that because it’s just two people resting from being worn out, and the real sense of weariness makes the conclusion to get back up feel sincere.
But with GoW’s Yukari has her own interiority, to the point where we understand her just as much as the ennui-inundated male lead. That’s also a big reason why your name. works so well, honestly.
It’s also that romances are way more resonant when both characters feel real. It means you can imagine them together, making you want to see them reunite across time and space. It certainly helps that the bodyswap hook facilitates Taki and Mitsuha learning about each other and growing closer despite only being on-screen together for five minutes.
Yeah, drama has to be believable to work. I like some stuff in WWY, but I never really felt as attached as I did seeing Mitsuha struggle with her life in her hometown and some dramatic turns that just don’t work (like the GUN or any way that it relates to climate change). However, parts of that film are done well, too, and Hana still gets a lot of focus as a complex metaphor for someone struggling to hold back grief. Still not so sure how Shinkai will get me to “relate” to a chair, though.
That doesn’t mean I’m not up for it; I just want to know how.
Yeahhhhh, Weathering With You is frustrating. On paper, it’s almost identical to your name. Still, it takes way longer to center on its core emotion, and the supernatural metaphors surrounding that get tangled up as the movie presents different perspectives on self-sacrifice for the “greater good” to muddled results.
Weathering With You is not awful, but it almost makes your name. feel like a fluke. I’m not sure how Suzume will hold up since a lot can go wrong as Shinkai continues to delve into even more abstract and fantastical premises, but I’m interested to see him try. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s not like I want Shinkai, and subsequently, CoMix Wave Films, to stop making movies.
At the moment, Suzume is already topping Japan’s box office, and if it turns out to be a lavish dud, it’s still overall a net positive when the artists get to keep their jobs. I mentioned Ghibli before because I’d rather have more unique and successful anime films than a monopoly. The films don’t have to be the greatest; they don’t need to be created by the next Miyazaki; they need to be made. That’s really what Shinkai’s path has proven to me.
I’ve brought it up several times, but now I will answer. Why does everyone want to see some auteur director pop up out of nowhere? Well, that’s because the anime film industry’s high turnover is a bad environment for raising capable artists. Ghibli was notorious for chasing people away from the industry. Even people who were proven to be good and competent artists, like Mamoru Hosoda, were chased out of the kingdom of dreams and madness. With few alternatives for stable employment, even those capable of recovering from the experience might’ve had no choice but to leave the industry entirely, as plenty did. I hope the current trend can keep those who remain from being completely stuck.
Given this information, the fact that a relatively independent studio like CoMix Wave can rise up and grow is inspiring. I can’t speak about what the work environment is like there, but I have heard plenty of bad things about the conditions of other studios to know that any competition is welcome. While it’ll take more than one director or studio to change the state of the industry, if someone like Shinkai could go from being a nobody to an industry trendsetter, anything is possible.
Though, money’s tight this month, so I hope the theater will accept alternative forms of payment.