the odd genius of Makoto Shinkai

by Kai San Oh

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

What distinguishes Makoto Shinkai’s work from his contemporaries is his embrace of the open-ended. His plots meander and wander where they want. He concentrates on the mundane. He’s a realist interested in exploring odd connections and relationships. Strangest of all, his films provoke an interest in learning, not morals, but actual activities and skills. He possesses an appreciation of and the details of everyday objects. We see this in the way Shinkai is a master of technique, from his use of live cameras in 2D space, extreme color tones, and ambient sound effects. Taken as a whole, we can see bits and pieces of Buddhist thinking embedded in his films, which is quite unusual for animated films.

Embrace of the Open Ending

Exploring the realm where the real world meets dreams, Shinkai’s films leave many things untold. He embraces the long process of living day to day. Voices of A Distant Star (2002) ends without revealing Mikako’s (the female protagonist) fate. Similarly, The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) ends with Sayuri’s dream, another of his female protagonists. The male protagonist, Hiroki, finishes the battle while promising to Sayuri that their story will begin anew, though we never know what happens. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)’s ending is also vague, as the two main characters part their separate ways.

5 Centimeters Per Second
Garden of Words (2013) follows the Shinkai style. Here, he slowly builds a relationship between Takao and Yukino that concentrates on what happens between the two rather than the ending. On the other hand, the ending of She and Her Cat: Everything Flows (2016) is not interested in either the ending or the middle of the story, but focuses on the beginning. Daru, the main character, is reborn as a white cat. One of the funniest lines is “although I forgot a lot of things, but one thing I can faintly remember is the scent of Miyu.” Daru died but he still carries the memories of Miyu. The ending is just another chapter in their relationship, retold in an unusual way. It is also a reincarnation story, an aspect of Bhuddist philosophy.

Emotional Resonance, Lingering Feelings

Shinkai loves what we might call “lingering feelings” The slow pace of his stories allow for emotions we normally cast aside to take on a much greater importance. The main theme of The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) is separation. Shinkai uses a fictional or theoretical separation of Japan into two countries as a way of addressing the separation of three people, Takuya, Hiroki, and Sayuri. All three of them are looking for a way to reunite, but none of them knows how to deal with how they feel: not necessarily big emotions, but emotions that are difficult to access and understand.

In The Garden of Words (2013), we watch the slow progress of a relationship, starting with two strangers, then casual acquaintances, then lunchbox friends, and finally, a romantic relationship. However, the solitude that Yukino, the young woman at the center of the story, feels throughout the film is not expressed until the climax. After the romance reaches its high point, with the two parted and longing for each other, the story ends. It is not exactly satisfying in a conventional sense, but it is satisfying in how the story unfolds.

The Garden of Words
The Voices of A Distant Star (2002) captures the anxiety of waiting and the devastating effects of distance and time can have on a relationship. Mikako and Noboru exchange text messages from Mars to Earth, which in the physics of the movie is eight light years away. When Noboru receives Mikako’s text message, many years have past. Shinkai explores the pain that Noboru feels in being so far away and using a mode of communication so inadequate to his desires. When Noboru decides to live in his own time frame, it’s not a question of science fiction, but one of incredible emotional pain.

The retrospective narration of 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) shows an even more extreme eagerness for answers. The first act is about longing. Takaki decides to meet Akari for one last time before they part forever. As he rides the train to her, a storm impedes his travels. We feel his agony as he looks at his watch and the announcement from every station of further delays. All he can do is wonder if she will still be waiting for him. When they finally meet, their breakup is painful. Whereas in the second act, they no longer see each other and it is the audience that’s left desolate and destitute. It’s a strange way to tell a love story and typical of Shinkai’s odd concerns.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices
The emotion of Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) is skeletal, opting for a more experimental exploration of the characters and subject matter. The main teaching of Buddhism is to end the suffering of humanity. In this film, to end suffering is to release the strong attachment we carry for loved ones who have died and learn to live on without them. The three protagonists are isolated by deaths in their families and they have to learn not to let those deaths overcome their lives. It might be the defining philosophy of Shinkai.

Learning and Care

Shinkai’s more famous contemporary, Miyazaki, was deeply invested in learning and skills. From the dye-maker in Only Yesterday (1991), the weapon maker in Princess Mononoke (1997), the baker in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) to the hat maker in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), almost all of his films go into an extreme amount of detail exploring the specifics of a particular profession. Shinkai has a similar interest in work, almost as if he wishes the audiences would go out and learn the very profession the films depict.

Sharing Miyazaki’s interest in planes, The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) focuses on the actual science and physics of plane building and parallel universes. In Shinkai’s film, two young friends, Hiroki and Takuya, decide to build a plane that will fly them to the top of a mysterious tower. The story goes deep into the manufacturing process of assembling and programming the plane. The plane’s production takes years and we begin to get caught up in its actual design, right down to a rather unique set of rotor blades. It’s as if we are suddenly immersed into a world of flying, whether it is a plane, a helicopter, spaceships, or missiles. Shinkai presents learning as an all encompassing act, much like his depiction of love as well as the fear of and eventual embrace of death.

In The Garden of Words (2013), Shinkai opts for shoes instead of planes. Takao works on his shoe design day after day, sketching, sculpting, measuring and sewing, all done in the traditional way of hand made shoe making. Most of the characters are introduced shoe first, which is really amusing and beautiful when you think about it. How else would a shoemaker think of the world?

Shoes are special
For instance, the dangling shoe and swaying feet catch the carefree lifestyle of Yukari. But it’s not just her shoes, but how she wears them and the way she positions her legs. We realize how much our shoes say about our souls. Takao wants to make a shoe for Yukari: “I’ve decided to create shoes that’ll make her want to get up and walk”. The shoe itself symbolizes the crystallization of their mutual admiration. From measuring her foot size, choosing the leather, sanding the shoe dummy and finally stitching the shoe, we see the intimate relationship between craftsmanship and care.

There is no end
Again, here is a shining example of Shinkai’s Buddhism: only by concentrating on the minute can we understand the vast world around us.

©Kai San Oh and the CCA Arts Review

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