Makoto Shinkai – A Retrospective
Approximately once every decade since the 1950s, a work of art comes out of Japan which takes the entire World by storm. It breaks through the cultural and language barriers and reintroduces a new generation of cinephiles to universal, timeless stories that speak to the ubiquity of the human condition. The first instance could arguably be Akira Kurosawa bursting onto the global scene with “Rashomon” in 1950. 1954 saw the release of “Gojira” (dir: Ishiro Honda), better known to the world audience as Godzilla as well as Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurais”. Recovering from the Second World War, the larger international film community had forgotten about the film industry in Japan, convinced that the tiny island nation had more pressing concerns. However, the release of these movies, made the World sit up and take note of Japanese cinema. The trend continued into each subsequent decade as well. The 1960s saw Kurosawa return with “Yojimbo”, and the 70s saw Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Without Honour and Humanity” series of Yakuza films, inspired by real events. However, a watershed moment happened in the 1980s which brought Anime, a Japanese style of animated film-making, front and centre to the global stage. At the time, animation was dominated by Disney and Amblin (“Land Before Time” series), both making family-friendly animated movies, aimed at children. It was in this setting that “Akira” (dir: Katsuhiro Otomo) burst through in 1988, redefining what was possible with the medium. The movie was extremely graphic in its depiction of body horror and the audience in the West, used to cute animals singing songs around princesses, was shocked by this new style and tone of animated filmmaking. The 90s saw a steady rise in the popularity of anime films produced by Studio Ghibli, usually directed by the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki. The 2000s were dominated by J-Horror, with many classic Japanese horror movies finding their way into American adaptations like Ringu (remade as The Ring, 2002, dir: Gore Verbinski) and Ju-On (remade as The Grudge, 2004, dir: Takashi Shimizu). However, the late 2000s and early 2010s were a bit of a slow period for Japanese cinema on the World stage. Serialised TV Anime very popular with the big three (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece) dominated the airwaves and the internet forums, but Japanese movies, especially those released theatrically, were non-existent in the mainstream. Korean cinema had been making rapid advances, making inroads into the popular culture zeitgeist and with the rise of K-Dramas and K-Pop, Japan seemed to languish. All of that changed with the arrival of Makoto Shinkai on the global stage in 2016.
Makoto Shinkai was born Makoto Niitsu in 1973 in the city of Koumi. He recalls “I was born and raised in the city of Koumi in Nagano Prefecture, which is situated on a plateau encircled by mountains. In the 70s, it was even more idyllic than it is now; my house was surrounded with nature. I was engrossed in this environment. I’d stare up at the sky every day, lost in my own little world. I’d say that I was more of an absent-minded child rather than a romantic.”  He credits the natural beauty of the town around him for the important place nature and man’s connection with it holds in much of his work. His father owned a construction company and Shinkai was expected to take over the business being the oldest son. However, he went to Tokyo and studied Japanese Literature and defying his father’s expectations of joining a construction firm to learn the business, joined a video game company. Shinkai, a lifelong artist, was however encouraged and supported by his mother, who was an artist herself.
He worked with Nihon Falcom for five years, working on video clips for games, web content and graphic design. Falcom, famous for its Ys and Legend of Heroes games, was the perfect training ground for Shinkai. It was during his time here that he met Atsushi Shirakawa, better known as Tenmon, a colleague and music producer at Falcom, who went on to become Shinkai’s long-time collaborator, scoring all of Shinkai’s movies till 2013.
Shinkai’s first independent work came in 1997’s, “Other Worlds”. It is a 90-second short which essentially is just a series of shots and moving frames set to music and a vague narrative. He followed it up with his first narrative film, “She and Her Cat”, a 5-minute monochrome animated short about the life of a cat with her owner, a young woman. The short film won numerous awards, earning Shinkai the prestigious Grand Prize at the 2000 12th DoGA CG Animation contest. Emboldened by the success, Shinkai started thinking of his follow-up and finally started to work on what would go on to become the OVA, “Voices of a Distant Star” in June 2000. The short was funded by Manga Zoo, which offered him a grant to work on an original idea that Manga Zoo would distribute. Shinkai quit his job with Falcom in 2001 and started focusing on his own productions. Voices of a Distant Star, the 25-minute short was released in 2002 and follows two childhood friends who are separated when the girl is sent to space to fight aliens. Despite being a sci-fi action short, the emotional core of the story is the narrative about the star-crossed lovers separated by space and time, quite literally. A lifelong Arthur C. Clarke fan, in a later blogpost, Shinkai admitted that he got the title for the movie from Clarke’s 1986 novel, “The Songs of Distant Earth”. 
Voices again won several awards and was critically acclaimed for its plot, animation and music. Shinkai also adapted the OVA into a Manga, which expanded the story and explored some key ideas he felt he had been unable to devote enough time to in the OVA. The combined success of the OVA and the Manga, catapulted Shinkai to the forefront of the Japanese animation scene and before long Shinkai had funding for a feature film he was slated to write and direct.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) was Shinkai’s first movie as a director leading a team of animators and other technicians, instead of being almost a one-man show as had been the case with his previous movies. The additional funding made its presence felt in the more fluid animation and feature-length running time of 90 minutes. This is the movie where we see a lot of recurrent themes in Shinkai’s work start to emerge. Shinkai draws a lot of inspiration from Japanese literature and culture and this is the first time we see him leaning heavily into his Japanese heritage to draw themes and recurring motifs for his films. The movie follows, once again, childhood friends who drift apart after the disappearance of one of their friends. Building on science fiction concepts and alternative history, Shinkai delivers a movie built on an epic scale, spanning decades, continuing his run of critical and commercial successes. The movie was also his first nationwide theatrical release and the hardcore anime fans from around the World, started to take note of this upcoming director.
Theatrical Features – 2007 to 2013
After cementing himself as a dependable director with Place, Shinkai was looking to move away from his focus on Science Fiction and fantasy and wanted to tell a story more grounded in the human experience. As a result, his 2007 movie “5 Centimeters per Second” was a stark departure from Shinkai’s existing body of work. Spanning nearly two decades, it tells three related stories following the protagonist, Takaki Tono, as he grows up from a schoolboy to a being a programmer in Tokyo in the present day. The focus of each story is his relationship with a woman in his life at the time, and how that affects his outlook towards life. It is a brilliant, understated yet poignant look at human relationships and was a major success in Japan. It won several awards for its animation and special effects and was even listed as “Best Anime Film not by Hayao Miyazaki” by Mania.com.
After “5 Centimeters” Shinkai took a break and went to London for a year for personal reasons. He said he wanted to improve his English and live in a place he was unfamiliar with. It feels like it was his time in London that inspired the ideas that ended up in his 2019 film “Weathering With You”, set in a universe where it never stops raining! However, he returned to Japan in 2009 and started work on his next feature.
Having truly given up his science fiction roots, 2011’s “Children Who Chase Lost Voices” finds him leaning into magical realism and fantasy that would go on to dominate much of his later work. The movie follows the adventure of Asuna, a young girl who gets embroiled in a fantastical world of mythical creatures. Despite being a movie much grander in scale and with several action set pieces, it is essentially a movie about loss. Shinkai admitted in interviews that all his movies so far had been about losing loved ones, and with Children he wanted to take the idea further and explore how humans cope with losing loved ones, a universal experience that everyone must go through. It was also the first time, we see Shinkai getting inspired by ideas from Japanese mythology, another hallmark feature of his later work. The movie was again well received but did not match the wide acclaim of 5 Centimeters.
His next project was, in his own opinion (and mine too), his best and possibly most introspective work, “The Garden of Words”. Released theatrically in 2013, and with a short runtime of only 46 minutes, it follows the friendship between a teenage shoemaker and a young working woman, as they both help each other “learn how to walk”. The movie draws heavily from Japanese culture and literature, showing off Shinkai’s academic background beautifully while adapting old Japanese poems for a modern audience. The movie marked the departure of longtime music collaborator Tenmon, with Daishuka Kashiwa taking on the scoring responsibilities. Despite being half the length of a conventional feature, Shinkai’s reputation as a director led to a theatrical release, something even Shinkai had not planned. The movie again did well both domestically and internationally, winning awards on many stages.
A quick side note about Shinkai’s body of work is warranted here. The focus of this essay has been on his theatrical and feature work, but that does not mean that is all Shinkai worked on. He kept busy in the interstitial spaces of these expansive projects, working as a director on several short films and advertisements. The Japanese premier of Garden was screened with Someone’s Gaze, a 7-minute Shinkai written and directed short about growing up and family relationships which was very well received. He also has written novel adaptations of all his movies. The novels often expand on the movie, giving more detailed backstories to the characters, and expanding under-explored subplots from the movies.
Your Name – 2016 to Present
Shinkai, even though a very well-celebrated director in Japan, was still not widely famous on the Global stage. Even though his movies often found their way on anime-dedicated slots like Toonami on Western Television, and DVD releases, he was recognized only within the more serious anime communities the World over. All of that changed with 2016’s Your Name.
Your Name is a fantasy romance set in modern-day Japan, following the lives of two characters, Taki and Mitsuha. Both of them wake up one day to find they have switched bodies and the big city boy Taki is now living in a small rural town, while Mitsuha gets to live her dream of being a Tokyo boy. They continue to switch bodies back and forth, communicating through notes and messages scribbled to each other, until one day it all stops. Taki then goes on a journey to find Mitsuha and finds out the mystery behind the entire thing. The movie was an immense success and is to this day the second-highest-grossing animated film in Japan, behind only Miyazaki’s 2001 magnum opus “Spirited Away”. The reception was just as enthusiastic all over the World and the movie became the highest-grossing non-local language movie in many countries like the UK and China for the year.
Your Name’s success even took Shinkai by surprise and he has since then often gone on record saying that he does not think it is that good a film and he wanted more time with it. The creator’s detractions have not however discouraged the wide fan following the movie has garnered over the years.
Following Your Name, Shinkai returned to the studio to work on his next feature. He took inspiration from his time in London, which he has often written about as being dreary and depressing because of the incessant rain, and created 2019’s Weathering With You. The movie follows Hodoka and Amina, two teenagers who run into each other in Tokyo. When Hodoka finds out Amina is a “Sunshine girl” and has the power to control the weather, the two children start a business promising sunshine to customers on important days like weddings and when a father wants to spend the day with his estranged daughter at the park. The rest of the movie follows as tragedy strikes and both of them make sacrifices for their love for each other. The movie follows a lot of the similar themes as Shinkai’s previous movie, with a focus on Natural disasters, and a fantasy setting inspired by Japanese culture. This would go on to become a major recurring theme in Shinkai’s work.
Shinkai’s most recent work is 2022’s Suzume. It follows Suzume, a teenage girl who stumbles upon a mysterious door in the middle of the ruins of an old city and is pulled into an adventure as she strives to save the World from destruction with an unlikely ally. The movie was again a major hit all over the World. The movie surpassed Shinkai’s previous movie to become the fourth highest-grossing anime movie of all time, behind his own Your Name, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Demon Slayer: Mugen Train. The movie also found significant success in India, seeing a wide theatrical release in India along with a Makoto Shinkai film festival organised to celebrate 70 years of Indo-Japan diplomatic relations.
Makoto Shinkai – The Auteur
To understand what makes Makoto Shinkai an auteur director, we have to look deeply into his career trajectory.
The standard career path of most directors, especially in animation, is starting off as an animator on a character, then doing second-unit, keyframes, organisation and background action, then directing Anime openings, OVAs and music videos, before finally getting to helm a movie on their own. If you look at Miyazaki, the legendary Ghibli director, he did not get to direct his first feature-length film till he was 38 and even that was an existing IP production (1979’s Lupin III) and not an original work. Contrast that with Shinkai, who directed his first feature film at the age of 31. He broke into the industry early and with aplomb with his original movies, created almost entirely single-handedly and on very strict timelines, and that gave him creative freedom and trust from production houses to make bigger projects with little oversight. Even to this day, Shinkai has written all of his feature and short films and has done very limited work on material written by others. This has led to him discovering and perfecting his own distinctive style, which is rather difficult for a lot of directors starting their careers doing essentially commissioned work.
Shinkai’s career so far can be roughly divided into three phases. In each of these three phases, there is a clear through line in his work and watching it all in order, you can very clearly see his evolution as a director. In addition, across all of his phases, there are certain things that he does consistently across all of them, even though his choice of narratives changes. He retains a lot of his principles across his body of work, improving on them with each successive work, while holding on to the soul of his storytelling, the quality which makes a Shinkai movie, a Shinkai movie. In fact, the phrase “Shinkai work” often gets used in the animation community to denote a certain kind of animation style.
The first, and possibly the most important feature of Shinkai’s animation, is his background art. Backgrounds in animation can be divided into two schools of thought roughly. The Disney school focuses on realistic backgrounds, drawing characters on cels over the still background frames crafted diligently for their realism. The other school was the one pushed ahead by directors of animated comedy shorts like Looney Tunes with very simplistic, almost single-line background art, keeping the focus strictly on the foreground. The Disney school does suffer however because, despite their best efforts, the background art only represents a director or animator’s ideas of what a city or a forest should look like. Shinkai, on the other hand, approaches the entire issue of background art with a very unique perspective, bringing in photorealism. His backgrounds are taken directly from the copious amounts of pictures Shinkai and his team take of the location where the movie is set and then set about recreating them painstakingly, right down to every line and curve of the scene. Movies set in a particular city often face logistical troubles when trying to shoot on location. Most Hollywood movies, no matter where they claim to be set, are all shot in Vancouver or on some set built in a studio backlot. But with Shinkai’s technique, he achieves something that can only be achieved with such precision in animation. Hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures, can be found on the internet taken at spots that form the locations of scenes in Shinkai’s movies.
With the seamless integration of 3-D computer animation in his movies, Shinkai manages to recreate scenes from the actual cities and towns of Japan like no other director has managed to before. The use of computers also allows Shinkai to use lighting in ways that are just not possible in hand-drawn animation. Weathering With You uses light almost as a narrative tool, with a single spot of sunshine across the entire city leading the protagonist to his final destination. Shinkai also uses techniques like Time Lapse and Lens Flares, something that is not typically seen in animated movies. His background working with software on his own crafting films in his free time as a young man truly shines through in his understanding of how to combine the two art forms. His attention to detail has been rewarded generously by the fans, even giving rise to the phenomenon of “Anime Expeditions”, where dedicated fans go around the city of Tokyo and the other locations of Shinkai’s films, looking for the spots that have inspired the backgrounds in his works.
Another important feature of Shinkai’s work, especially in recent years, is his focus on nature and human beings’ place within it. Nature has always been an important part of Shinkai’s work, inspired by his childhood spent in a small mountain town, surrounded by forests and valleys. However, starting with Your Name, Shinkai has doubled down on his focus on nature and natural disasters in his work. Your Name deals with the aftermath of a meteor strike, and Weathering With You makes overt references to climate change and how people in our arrogance assume that nature exists to make our life easier. Suzume follows a mythical creature that causes earthquakes and lightning storms all through Japan. Japan, a country that has always struggled with natural disasters, feels like such a natural setting for these stories that I am sure many directors were left smacking their heads when they realised what could be done with it. Nature is amoral, there is no malice behind the destruction. This allows Shinkai to focus on his lead characters more, exploring them in greater depth without having to veer away from the narrative to set up an antagonist. An earthquake just is, there is no motivation behind its outcomes, nor can it be reasoned with.
Another recurring theme in Shinkai’s work is loss. In his first phase as a director, his works focused on the feelings of loss that his characters experienced. In his initial movies like Voices, and The Place Promised, the characters are ripped away from their loved ones due to the circumstances and there is very little they can do about it. It is an emotion that is briefly explored in his first ever short as well, “Other Worlds”. 5 Centimeters is his swan song exploring the theme of lost love and longing and the movie beautifully explores the ideas through following a single character as he loses the people he loves over and over again, at different points in his life.
However, as Shinkai matures as a writer and starts to enter his second phase as a director, he moves away from simply expressing the loss and longing of his characters and starts to focus on what follows. With Children, he goes beyond just expressing the feeling of loss and starts to talk more about how one continues to move on with life even in the face of loss. In his interviews promoting the film, he often talked about how losing loved ones is a truly universal experience and one that binds everyone who has ever lived on this Earth. He continued with the theme of dealing with loss in Garden of Words, following two characters that help each other get back on their feet, literally in one case, and deal with the difficult times they are facing in their life.
As Shinkai enters his third phase as a director, he still keeps his focus on loss but also starts to explore people fighting back against it. If so far his characters have dealt with the loss, now his protagonists rebel against it and do everything in their power to hold on to the ones they love. Be it smashing through the boundaries of time, or condemning the entire World to a never-ending downpour, Shinkai’s protagonists are now done being victims and refuse to wordlessly accept whatever fate metes out to them. Now they fight back, accepting consequences that come with their choices, as long as they get to keep their loved ones with them. This is what makes the protagonists in his later works so much more memorable and exciting.
The last theme I want to talk about that dominates Shinkai’s work is his relationship with Japan, both its culture and its literature. Now, it is no secret that Japanese media has always been very entrenched in Japanese culture. Shinkai’s work is not an exception to this either. But the way Shinkai approaches this is very interesting and unique. His first few films were science fiction movies, which can be argued to be universal, distant from the unique cultural and local sensibilities of the setting of the movie. However, Shinkai manages to hold on to the Japanese identity even in those movies. A Place Promised, though a resolutely Science Fiction story, still uses locations and cultures to tell a story that despite being universal in appeal, is still very strongly Japanese in nature. This only intensifies as he moves away from his Sci-Fi beginnings and starts to tell slice-of-life stories set in modern-day Japanese cities. 5 Centimeters Per Second takes its name from the supposed speed at which cherry blossom petals, decidedly Japanese imagery, fall from the trees. Garden of Words derives a lot of inspiration from classical Japanese poetry from the eighth century and Japanese Gardens. His experience adapting myths from many cultures for Children Who Chase Lost Voices shines through marvellously in his later work. Your Name onwards, as he leans into the fantasy elements as a storyteller, he borrows heavily from Japanese folktales and mythology.
Another interesting feature of Shinkai’s work is his keen understanding of not just Japanese folklore, but also Japanese society and the country itself. Suzume focuses on the very Japanese problem of ghost towns; cities and settlements abandoned now because of the rapidly declining population of the country. A key scene at the end of Weathering For You talks about how a few hundred years ago, the entire region of where Tokyo stands today was covered in water and how because of the incessant rains it drowns, It is not nature taking revenge on humans, but simply reclaiming what was once a part of its domain. Such a sharp and keen-eyed observation of observations of Japan is very characteristic of Shinkai’s work.
Every time a movie made by a non-Western director blows up on the World stage, the team behind it takes all the wrong lessons from it. Where it is their own uniqueness as a culture that helped them gather a following, the subsequent projects often try to become more Westernised or generic to speak to the now global audience the filmmaker has. This is a trap Shinkai has sidestepped extremely well. This could in part be due to his disbelief over how well Your Name did, something he still hasn’t processed apparently, often asking people to not watch it. Possibly because of the collectivist Japanese culture, or his own personal humility, Shinkai still does not see himself as a Global Director with millions of fans across the World. In his head, he is still a small filmmaker in Japan, earning a living by making films for an audience in his country. This is why he has not fallen into the pitfall of trying to speak to a global audience. If anything, he has dug his heels in with the passage of time, with Suzume being much more entrenched in Japanese folklore than Your Name or Weathering With You. This lends a very unique flavour to his films, which draw heavily from the Japanese culture, and expose his audience to a new way of life. He mixes actual folklore brilliantly with his own creations and by the time he is done creating his story, it is very difficult to tell the two apart.
And on a parting note, as we conclude discussing Shinkai’s body of work and recurring themes, cats. Lots and lots of cats.
Shinkai has carved out a very interesting place for himself in the cultural zeitgeist. He is a director making movies for his own country’s audience, speaking to them in a language they understand, not just linguistically but also visually and narratively. At the same time, he is also a world-renowned director who is hailed for his imagination, originality, creativity and the universal nature of the stories he is telling. Somehow, he is both a very culture-specific as well as a universal director. Even though his work is often steeped in his Japanese heritage in so many ways that only a native Japanese person would be able to understand and appreciate all the easter eggs, he still has a very wide following as a director across the World. Even though all of his reference, intertextuality and symbolism might go missing on a global audience, the emotional core and the soul of his stories never does. As he goes deeper and deeper into his directorial style, his stories transcend the boundaries placed on them and speak to everyone who stumbles upon his work.
In 2023, during the run-up to the release of Suzume Makoto Shinkai had visited India as a part of the promotional efforts. The movie was being distributed by PVR in the original Japanese with subtitles, a very rare occurrence indeed. Movie distribution is a very paranoid business and taking chances as these is not very characteristic of the business. Yet, the theatre chain took the plunge. Suzume ended up earning more than 10 crores. It might not look like much when amounts to ten times as much gets thrown around so commonly in the film industry, but it is an animated film, made in another language, not backed by any stars or even familiar faces. Since then I have seen many anime movies become a regular feature at the multiplexes near me. And not even the ones known for showing the esoteric or exotic films, the one next to my house. I watched “Psycho-Pass: Providence” and “Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani” on the same day, in shows 10 minutes apart. To me, all of that has been made possible by Makoto Shinkai than any other Japanese director.
In an interview during a film festival showing his movies as a part of a festival celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Japan, Shinkai recounted an incident where he had gone to a theatre in India where “Weathering With You” was playing back in 2019. He was surprised to see that the audience was singing along with the movie’s theme. He heard carefully and realised that none of the audience members knew Japanese, they were simply singing along phonetically. He remembered the incident fondly, stressing how much of an equaliser cinema is. It is able to bring two countries and cultures together, even when they are divided by language. I would take his argument even further that it is not just that. His movies have made it possible for me, an Indian young man, to appreciate the struggles and the way of life of a Japanese teenage girl. It has shown me the horrors of natural disasters and the beauty of love. All of these have been brought about only because of the vision of one man. For a career spanning just about twenty years, and many more years ahead of him, I am incredibly excited to see what else Makoto San has in store for us.