Makoto Shinkai is being hailed by people who know what they are talking about as the future of animé, and as his latest film Journey to Agartha has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, it’s important to take a look at why exactly people are so excited about this director. I’m going to look at three of his films briefly as an introduction to this great talent, in the hope that you will seek out some of his work. Thanks to @elab49 and @PatrickJGamble for introducing me to his work.
5 Centimetres Per Second
These three vignettes tell the story of the emotional, sensitive teenager Takaki, and his various romantic adventures during different stages of his life. It’s a perfect introduction to Shinkai, as it has a lot of recurring themes and images also seen in Voices of Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days. Most noticeable is the way he attributes adolescent relationships as life changing events, full of universal significance. Takaki narrates the opening vignette with a passion that most teenage boys seem incapable of; all he’s doing is catching a train to see his childhood sweetheart, but he observes how time seems to stand still in those moments of waiting and longing. It’s all incredibly sincere, but Shinkai directs with such conviction that the audience buys into that sincerity. The animation matches this emotionally expressive approach, the images of the film taking on a lyrical look as the snowfall fills the screen with a slow, ethereal beauty. It’s the kind of short where one kiss is a moment of personal epiphany.
The second story is even grander in the scope of Shinkai’s ideas, as a college romance takes place under a space shuttle launch. Shinkai plays with light to wondrous effect, as the stars and galaxies shadow a very personal tale of unrequited love, as if in the grand scheme of things this one story about a boy and a girl is as important as space in its entirety. Again, there is nothing more to the short than the aches and pains of being in love whilst at school, a subject many would dismiss as trivial. Shinkai doesn’t see it that way, and your enjoyment of the story may well depend on how much you are prepared to accept high school angst as heartfelt poetry. The final section is the most impressionistic of them all, as it becomes a dazzling montage and leaves you to work out what has actually happened. It’s intelligent, emotional film making, somehow utterly charming in its sincerity.
The Place Promised In Our Early Days
This feature film, unlike 5 Centimetres Per Second, is just one story, an emotionally charged romance set in a complex sci-fi world. Just as how 5 Centimetres used the image of a space shuttle to mix the cosmic with the mundane, so here a love triangle is framed by a larger narrative of two rival powers exploring the concept of alternate universes. The science fiction elements don’t entirely work, but again Shinkai manages to make a coming-of-age love story seem like the entire world as it stake. By the powerful, uplifting finale of the film, it actually is. He is similar to Summer Wars director Mamoru Hosoda in the way he seamlessly blends high concepts with apparently trivial school stories, but there is something even more beautiful about Shinkai’s images. The characters animation does not differ much from the majority of anime, but the scenes the characters occupy are gorgeous, the light causing the whole world to glow. He loves to linger on frames without any people in, such as the insides of empty rooms, or vast landscapes of green and blue. The beauty is in the details, and Shinkai can make even a chair or a car look beautiful.
Voices of a Distant Star
This early short by Shinkai manages to tell a perfectly self-contained story within the space of half an hour, building a world with space battling robots and distant planets where all that matters is the distance between two sweethearts. This showcases all of the themes that become so prevalent in his later films, and shows the promise of a director who can create unforgettable images and can make us care about romance, adolescence, long distant relationships and galactic robot wars. He proves himself, once more, to be a singular talent that can find beauty in the simplest of stories, even whilst dazzling us with big ideas and traversing worlds and lightyears.
Makoto Shinkai, then, is a director that seems like a cross between Ghibli director Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday) and thoughtful French auteur Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum), yet he still retains a unique voice, mixing the cosmic with the quiet and infusing everything with a heartfelt beauty. There’s a poetry to the aesthetics of his films, but what really marks him as a talent to watch is that his language is equally lyrical. He treats adolescent romance as the most important thing in the world and, astonishingly, he makes the audience believe it, too.