The Films of Makoto Shinkai

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You may be unfamiliar with the name Makoto Shinkai, but now it’s time to take notice. For over a decade, Shinkai has written and directed five full-length films and over a half-dozen shorts (among numerous other projects), and his most recent film Your Name has exploded in Japan. The film is one of the top grossing Japanese films in the country’s history, second only to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and recently began airing in theaters across the States. Celebration Cinema, my local theater, featured Your Name with subtitles or English dub.

Your Name continues a theme present in each of Shinkai’s full-length films. “When I was young as a teenager, that was the biggest mystery in the world to me: Why don’t people connect?” said Shinkai in a New York Times article about Your Name. “Even now I have that kind of obsession. . . . It’s kind of a mystery, and I’m trying to search for an answer.”


Early Days

Over two decades after the Union occupied Hokkaido and built an impressively tall tower of unknown purpose, friends Hiroki and Takuya, joined by their classmate Sayuri, are slowly building a plane to cross the North/South divide and witness the tower up close. Progress stops and the boys head down separate paths when Sayuri disappears, unaware of her fate. Three years pass before they discover the truth.

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I admit to needing a second viewing to understand The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and not because it’s an overly complicated film, but because my attention wandered. The pacing isn’t quite as tight as hoped, providing enough moments of wanting the film to progress forward to push me into grabbing my phone and checking Twitter. And that’s a shame because my second viewing revealed that The Place Promised is a better film than my memories suggested. I mean, there isn’t much tension, and the penultimate moment where the fighting starts never feels as powerful as the film wants, but it’s a decent film. He’s just made much better stuff since..

Grab the Blu-ray version, by the way. I haven’t watched The Place Promised in that format, but it’s difficult to imagine it being worse than the DVD’s poor video quality. Damn shame because Shinkai’s films are always visually stunning.


5 Centimeters

Takaki became close friends with Akari during elementary school, continuing their friendship by writing letters after Akari moved away. Despite the distance, she stayed a constant presence in Takaki’s heart. Years later, Takaki is friends with Kanae, a classmate that’s hopelessly fallen for him, but cannot muster the courage to confess her feelings. She watches him often as he types messages to someone far away.

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5 Centimeters Per Second — the speed at which cherry blossoms petals descend — was my first Shinkai film. I came across the entire movie illegally uploaded onto YouTube, discovered at the same time I found Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Both films made an impact on me, but Shinkai’s proved the more experimental. 5 Centimeters Per Second splits the narrative into three distinct segments, each focusing on Takaki and his relationship with Akari on different points in his life.

It’s a bittersweet film often criticized for the ending — which isn’t bad, but doesn’t provide the happy ending that the audience wants. It’s a more realistic conclusion, providing only a small, easily missed glimpse at hope for Takaki. (The manga adaptation expands on the ending and provides better closure for the complainers). And despite being only an hour long, it’s a journey reaching the end because 5 Centimeters is slow, feeding into the theme of yearning that runs through the three acts. The same impatience felt by Takaki is passed to the audience, which might be a deal breaker for many viewers.

It’s almost surprising that 5 Centimeters isn’t more decisive, but maybe that’s because everything that happens feels so true to life. It’s the most grounded of Shinkai’s films, filled with emotions that everyone’s experienced.

There are two English dubs available. ADV Films did the first dubbing, and Bang Zoom! Entertainment re-translated and -dubbed the film with new actors. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of ADV’s version because I prefer the actors used in their version, but The Bang Zoom! version’s script is supposedly more faithful to the original Japanese script.


Children Who Chase

One day, Asune befriends a strange boy from the mythical, underground world of Agartha, where it’s said that the deceased can be brought back to life. The boy is found dead shortly after meeting her, and his brother Shin arrives and leaves as quickly. With her teacher Ryuji, who desires to revive his late wife, Asune enters this strange world beneath the planet’s surface, unsure of the dangers that await.

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Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a strange film because it’s the one of Shinkai’s films that reminds me of a Studio Ghibli project, a comparison I never made with any of his other films. We’re introduced to a young heroine with an adorable creature obediently at her side. She’s eventually brought into a mystical world lacking modern technology, and the closest thing to an antagonist is a relatable, older person. How many Ghibli films could that description be applied to? Lost Voices gives off such a Ghibli vibe, it’s difficult to shake the comparisons, which isn’t good because Shinkai’s film isn’t anywhere as strong.

As with The Place Promised in Our Early Days, I’m not a fan of the pacing in Lost Voices. It goes for these sweeping shots to signify the passage of time when I’d rather the film continue with the story. Worse is how little I invested in these characters, especially Asune. What reason compelled her to enter Agartha? That question feeds into her character arc, but I still couldn’t connect with this heroine and her adventure.


The Garden of

On rainy days, Takao skips his early high school classes and instead travels to the nearby park to work on his dream of being a shoemaker. On rainy days, a mysterious older woman named Yukari arrives at the same park to drink and eat junk food. In a world where neither felt they belonged, these two find a shared understanding and form an unusual relationship where they only see each other in the park on rainy days.

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For his fourth film, Shinkai drops the fantasy elements once more for a more grounded story about two people who don’t quite feel comfortable in society. Running at only 46 minutes, The Garden of Words doesn’t bother with unnecessary scenes or subplots, but is also rather lean. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a novella, barely stretching across the imaginary minimum length to be called a full-length film.

Presented as a simple love story, The Garden of Words is more a story of two people finding companionship and understanding together, having grown isolated by those around them. The message is more complex than initially revealed, and might take a second viewing to better understand what the film is trying to say. The short run-time should make re-watching less of an obstacle, but it also makes the film feel less importance. I’m not saying that film length equates to quality, but when we’re used to viewing films that routinely meet or exceed two hours, there’s the incorrect assumption that anything shorter isn’t as substantial.

The Garden of Words isn’t groundbreaking in story or premise, but it’s a charming film about people trying to leave their isolation behind and step forward.


Your Name

Mitsuha, a girl living in the country, and Taki, a boy in Tokyo, suddenly start switching bodies every handful of days, leaving them with only a vague, dream-like memory of what transpired. Realizing their strange situation, they record what transpires during these switches. What is happening, and more importantly, what should they do once these occurrences stop?

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I’m a fan of Shinkai’s previous films, but they’re a tad too ponderous to attract a mainstream audience. 5 Centimeters Per Second, for instance, was my favorite of his projects, but the slow pacing is a killer. I’d sooner recommend movies by Mamoru Hosoda, a similarly creative director better able to appeal to wider audiences. That changed with Your Name, which exploded with such popularity Shinkai desired that people should stop watching his new film.

Your Name doesn’t always feel like a Shinkai film. His ever-present focus on human connection is unscathed, but the pacing is tighter. Then there’s the mid-story story beat that ratchets up the drama and adds further weight to the question of whether these two teenagers will ever meet face-to-face. Everything about the film — including the handful of J-pop tracks sprinkled throughout — makes for a more approachable and memorable film than you’d expect from Makoto Shinkai.

music video contains spoilers

It’s also the only of his films with content that parents should be aware of. I mean, his films contain the occasional curse, but Your Name starts with a character groping her own breasts, something that’s repeated a few times for laughs. It’s innocuous stuff, but worth mentioning.

Never have I watched one of Shinkai’s films and felt such a desire to immediately re-watch it. 5 Centimeters Per Second filled me with a quiet sadness that I couldn’t shake, but Your Name was the opposite. The director might feel that the film is incomplete because of budget issues, but I believe that he’s never made a better, more beautiful film. If only I had an idea of when it’ll be released on Blu-ray, but in the meantime, I’m heading to the theater tomorrow to view it again.


April 21, 2017: Edited a handful of sentences for clarity.
April 30, 2017: Added a Read More tag.

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3 thoughts on “The Films of Makoto Shinkai

  1. Pingback: The Films of Mamoru Hosoda | namevah

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