Can Makoto Shinkai Only Make One Movie? – This Week in Anime

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Can Makoto Shinkai Only Make One Movie? – This Week in Anime

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.

These movies are available to purchase on Blu-ray and are streaming on digital platforms, including Crunchyroll, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
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 still remember the pure disbelief I felt when I saw the numbers your name. made at the Japanese box offices. As one of the highest-grossing anime films within milliseconds of its release, I knew it had a surefire trajectory to becoming a huge international hit. However, it’s still hard to believe one movie could be such an overnight smash.

It took basically everyone by surprise. It was as if the latest Terrence Malick movie came out and started out-grossing Avatar. Looking back on Shinkai’s whole career, it’s even crazier, considering one of his earliest projects of note was one he made on a Power Mac G4 at the turn of the century. It was so god damn indie that the initial release didn’t even have professional voice actors, with the two characters voiced by Shinkai and his girlfriend at the time.

Yeah, having knowledge of his humble beginnings as a guy who just quit his job to make anime by himself was a big factor to my surprise. Yet, somehow it also wasn’t shocking? Shinkai’s previous films are often short, but they already had the ingredients for mass appeal. All his films focus on the burden of being an emotional youth. Even his solo work has a strong aesthetic with a somewhat sense of realism, using a technique where he draws over photos for backgrounds. At his best, his work captures simple and sincere emotional tones aimed to pluck the heartstrings of young folk and folk still young at heart.

That is his biggest appeal, but it’s also such a laser focus that (most of) his work can also feel easy to dismiss. If you don’t have a taste for melodramatic love stories about teenagers crying at sunset, you could throw 90% of Shinkai’s work into the trash without a second thought.

I’m not even going to tell you which movie that’s from. Guess. I dare you.
His lens-flare use gives JJ Abram’s a run for his money. You can even see him reuse shots and techniques repeatedly throughout his works. While recycling sounds like lazy filmmaking, it’s a sign of a well-honed style. While Shinkai’s stories might be too basic for some people, it’s worth watching his films at least once to get a sense of his visuals. Working with the hands at CoMix Wave Films, his most robust storytelling tool has always been these vibrant environments. The everyday can feel nostalgic, melancholy, and even oppressive. You get the same sense of beauty from his urban environments as an entirely natural landscape.

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.

Hell, even regular fast food looks Instagrammable.

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.

Don’t believe their propaganda. Canada is a barren wasteland fit only for survival games where you see which of your friend group can fail to outrun a moose.

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!

I’ll note that while Ghibli had not shut down, it had entered a state of “hiatus.” They still haven’t produced a big feature since. Miyazaki’s current film is still in the works, but since Ghibli is such an industry touchstone, this gap in production also creates a gap in interest for anime films both domestically and internationally. There’s no anime studio more widely beloved than Studio Ghibli. They are a significant cultural export; it’s hard to imagine that any other studio could compete. Even Shinkai cites Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky as one of his big inspirations, and you can see it with his occasional dips into sci-fi and the supernatural.

At the time, your name. managed to cozy itself up right under Spirited Away in terms of gross numbers.
You can also see a lot of Ghibli inspiration in Shinkai’s The Children Who Chase Lost Voices, which is not coincidentally his worst film.

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.
Yeah, there’s no shortage of Ghibli imitators or ex-Ghibli people trying to make a name for themselves. Studio Ponoc made their whole brand off of that. Shinkai is very much at best when he stays in his wheelhouse. He’s not versatile and pretty much has one movie he can make. He’s also inconsistent since his vague storytelling sense can slog harder than the train in 5 Centimeters Per Second. I wouldn’t call him the best filmmaker, but it’s certainly better that he stays as the only Makoto Shinkai than another Miyazaki.

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.

I harp on your name. a lot because it feels like his most refined version of what he’s good at. His stuff is most effective at selling you the “moments.” He can do compelling stuff, even in commercials or shorts, because all stories are compromised of moments. Though ideally, you’d still want a story to tie it together. I actually prefer something like Garden of Words or his early Voices of a Distant Star over something like Weathering With You, which was a follow-up I found underwhelming because its overall story was less tight than your name.

Funny thing, I never actually watched Garden of Words until now but came away feeling like it was the best of his oeuvre. I didn’t expect that when everything I’d heard about it was that it was also a foot fetishist’s dream project.

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.
It’s bizarre to say that, actually, yes, I like the foot fetish story with an extremely problematic, somewhat uncritical romance between a teenager and an adult that fortunately never goes anywhere, but it’s pretty underrated. It’s one of his most mature works. You can easily slot Shinkai’s work as inspiration porn from the glossy art and heavy catharsis. Still, he’s good at capturing sadness and cynicism imbrued throughout life as much as the kind of hallmark brand front used to get eyeballs.

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.

Personally, what impressed me the most was how balanced the relationship was, narratively speaking. Like many dude-written romances, Shinkai’s love stories often turn the female cast into objects of longing more than characters in their own right. The heroine from The Place Promised in Our Early Days spends the back half of the story unconscious, dragged around by the male leads, waiting for them to save her from the Ghost Dimension.

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.

Having your male and female lead be equally rounded characters is vital to its universal success. It might be a result of being a much more modern movie than The Place Promised, but it shows that drama is more effective when you can humanize all your factors in the equation, meaning your characters. Why shouldn’t you try to appeal to as many audience members as possible? Especially if your audience is compromised mainly of young people (on dates).

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.

I mean, that’s for sure. It’s already made as big a pile of money as its predecessor. Regardless of our opinions, Shinkai and his style are here to stay for the long-foreseeable future. I’m just hoping it doesn’t involve any hilariously dumb armed standoffs.

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.

Granted, I’d like this new landscape to start supporting a wider variety of films. I’ve seen enough lovestruck teenagers in front of sweeping blue horizons to last a lifetime. Also, for the love of god, please give me an update on Mari Okada‘s Horny Apocalypse Movie.

It’d be nice if we started getting films that weren’t just about copying whatever other people’s greatest successes were, but something I noticed since your name. is just a lot more anime films in general. This might be related to the same overall industry bloat I mentioned in our last column, but my optimistic side wants me to believe this is more of a good thing.

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.

Not to mention the increase in “movies” that are extra-long episodes of established TV franchises, complete with wonky production. No matter what I end up thinking of Suzume, I can guarantee it’ll be constructed like an actual feature film rather than stitched-together TV episodes with no sense of cinematic pacing. Lookin’ at you, Demon Slayer.
True, but we’ve seen some non-series related movies from TV studios as well, like Josee, The Tiger and the Fish or Masashi Ando‘s (who was also your name.‘s animation director) actual attempt at making a “Ghibli film” with Production I.G, The Deer King. Though, this doesn’t substitute the need for healthy feature-exclusive studios since many people choose to work in features for their stability compared to TV anime.

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.

If nothing else, they can put out consistent, genuinely cinematic work in an era where TV productions are struggling to be completed. The other biggest film of the year is three episodes of Demon Slayer stapled together. So by God, I hope they keep getting to do what they’re doing, even if it’s not always to my tastes.

Though, money’s tight this month, so I hope the theater will accept alternative forms of payment.

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