originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/645381...
Spinning the auteur director of the week roulette once more, and this week we’re landing on… Makoto Shinkai! This dude:
There’s a pretty good chance that if you have even the mildest weeb-nature, you have heard of this guy, because he’s become one of the most popular anime directors around - among the candidates hailed for the rather reductive category of ‘next Miyazaki’. Presently, he’s best known for the m/f bodyswap epic Your Name (Kimi no Na wa), but he’s got a loooong list of films stretching back to 2004 (and short films before that).
What makes Shinkai such a hot ticket? Lots of things, but the most distinctive is perhaps the innovations he’s made in the final visual render (‘photography’ in industry parlance). Much like Kyoto Animation’s Naoko Yamada, whose work we first saw back on Animation Night 13, Shinkai puts a huge amount of effort into light falling softly through a scene, reflections and water droplets, lens flares, and backgrounds that are lush to the point of hyperreality…
As Sakuga Blog write about Your Name, Shinkai’s best-known trait is his “pursuit of static beauty”:
While as a young indie artist he did animation work, it was more out of necessity as a one-man army creator than out of desire to focus on that. He quickly dropped out of any animation roles, while his hands-on work when it came to other aspects continued; he kept on commanding the backgrounds as art director until 5 Centimenters per Second, handled the color design until Garden of Words, and as of Your Name he still has a direct hand on matters like editing and the composite that most directors wouldn’t do themselves. The elements that define his aesthetic almost entirely relate to the pursue of static beauty, so as you can imagine, animation isn’t high in his list of priorities. It’s always been the lavish, shiny sceneries that made many people hold Shinkai’s work as visual accomplishments. Even this film, which is his strongest character piece as far as I’m concerned, might have been nothing more, nothing less, than a beautiful view. Presenting gorgeous if perhaps still worlds has always been more of a priority for Shinkai than populating them with life, as shown not only by the results but the tasks he chooses to undertake himself.
And people really eat this up. There’s something breathtaking about Shinkai’s films, feeling almost ‘realer than real’: every surface is so sharp and perfect, every shot meticulously lit and composed. This is the result of a very elaborate compositing process - here’s a breakdown of a shot from Your Name with all of its effects layers. And it’s really paid off: I’d say the ‘look’ of late-2010s and early-2020s anime seems to increasingly be taking after the lavish digital rendering of Shinkai and Yamada.
So where’d this guy come from? Shinkai got his start as a ‘one man army’ indie short film creator, finding a wide audience with films like She and Her Cat (1999) which he originally distributed on CD-R and the web while working a day job as a graphic designer at an RPG company. This film, shot in black and white, shows a number of elements of his later style already: it’s mostly static shots of meticulously drawn backgrounds with voiceover, with After Effects pans and very brief animations, but these simple elements are put together into a calming, touching atmosphere; there’s a clear emotional arc, and a lot of carefully illustrated simple moments like cutting nails and tying hair.
Also the cat is cute! Here’s a youtube version (sadly without good subs):
This short film managed to catch quite a bit of attention, though it would be a little while before Shinkai would leave the game industry to become a full-time film director. His next major project came as the sci-fi project Voices of a Distant Star (ほしのこえ Hoshi no Koe), about a boyfriend and girlfriend separated by an interstellar space war, connected only by a phone. (This theme of lost romantic connections and forced separation is one that recurs constantly through Shinkai’s work as we’ll see!)
Voices is another one produced nigh singlehandedly by Shinkai over the course of seven months in vfx software. Initially voiced just by Shinkai and his girlfriend Mika Shinohara, it was picked up by a company called CoMix Wave Inc. and given a new dub for a DVD release. This company would soon go on to spawn a film studio, CoMix Wave Films - one not quite as tied to the work of a specific director as Anno’s Studio Khara or Hosoda’s Studio Chizu, but definitely primiarly a Shinkai outfit.
Well. Now equipped with a studio, Shinkai’s productions could really kick into gear. His first full-length film, in 2004, was The Place Promised in Our Early Days (雲のむこう、約束の場所, Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho, literally Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place). Like most of Shinkai’s films, it’s a character drama with a sci-fi twist: in this case, three school friends are separated by the fact that 1. half of Japan is occupied by the USSR and 2. a mysterious tower is swapping matter into other universes.
Though he had a full art team supporting him now, Shinkai would still take a pretty heavy personal hand in the film’s photography, keeping that characteristic Shinkai look. The same would go for his next few films, such as Five Centimetres Per Second (2007)- a romantic drama, developing the themes of passing relationships and separation in Voices in a more mundane setting, named after the speed of falling cherry blossoms; and then in contrast the extremely fantastical Children who Chase Lost Voices (2011) (星を追う子ども, Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, lit. Children who Chase Stars) about a girl who pursues a supernatural boy into a strange mythological realm [a delightful film I need to see again honestly].
The Garden of Words (2014) took Shinkai back to character drama, mundane settings, and melancholy mood… and it was also the point where that photography I was talking about went from ‘gorgeous’ to ‘absolutely goddamn bananas’. The film’s ability to capture the feeling of wet surfaces, the beauty of rim-lit raindrops, the ripples in water… it’s a film about a teenaged boy and an older woman who meet at a park and form a tenuous, ephemeral connection… and it’s also a film about incredibly beautiful water. Look at this stuff:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that better captures the beauty of a rainy day, I just sit there captivated…
Shinkai is not Oshii; while some of his films are slow and melancholy, he can also make one that’s incredibly lively when the moment calls. And that brings us to Your Name, the one that took him from ‘major director’ to ‘one of the biggest in the industry’. It’s a tense story about the connection between a boy and a girl (mm hmm, that theme again) who unexpectedly find themselves swapping into each others’ bodies. But that’s just the initial premise, so much keeps happening. (Apparently the film’s pacing was in part to create a flow that would stop modern audiences looking away at their phones, and it works lol.)
With Your Name, Shinkai got really lucky: Studio Ghibli, which for a long time had been a world apart from the rest of the anime industry (with animators working long term careers on Ghibli projects instead of the industry’s usual pattern of hiring on people for a specific project), was no longer able to sustain that kind of exclusive system. Which meant suddenly there were a lot of Ghibli alumni looking for new jobs on other animated films. Shinkai got Masashi Ando on board, and Masashi Ando knew a lot of Ghibli people; the whole thing snowballed as kVin describes:
His mere presence enabled the arrival of dozens of animators who used to work exclusively with Ghibli, as well as artists simply linked to the studio like himself; the aforementioned Megumi Kagawa, Takeshi Inamura, Atsuko Tanaka, Hideki Hamasu, Hiroko Minowa, Shunsuke Hirota, Naoko Kawahara, the list goes on and on. This congregation of skilled people also caused another well-known industry development – if you want a term for it, let’s call it the talent magnet. As long as it’s open to freelancers, any project that accumulates enough high-profile names becomes exponentially more attractive to their similarly skilled peers; directors and animators talk amongst themselves constantly, so industry members are always fairly up-to-date when it comes to succulent opportunities. And so new waves of excellent animators kept on arriving to Your Name. Some of them could still be traced back to Ando – like the master of realistic animation Hiroyuki Okiura – but plenty of them were simply industry celebrities like Norio Matsumoto, Kazuchika Kise, Takashi Hashimoto, Naoki Kobayashi or even Atsushi “goripon” Nishigori. What started with an ex-Ghibli animator joining the project led to a veritable avalanche of talent. This is the true Post-Ghibli Industry effect.
The result of all these Ghibli-associated animators piling on was, well, suddenly Shinkai’s meticulous backgrounds and photography was fleshed out in the character animation department, which was absolutely vital for a film about multiple people occupying the same bodies. The result was a film that was lavish in just about every respect, from the recurring low shots of opening doors to the meticulously semi-rotoscoped dance sequence and the spectacular climactic effects sequence. Not to mention multiple great songs, complicated language stuff, some of the best anime food (which takes some doing)…
In terms of plot, though, it’s also an absolutely delightful film - so packed with dramatic tension and charming character moments, teasing us with resolution so many times that you might feel rather wrung out by the end, but hey, I like that.
And last, a little over a year ago, Shinkai came back with another incredible-sounding film, Weathering With You (天気の子 Tenki no Ko, lit. Child of the Weather): a girl has weather control powers and a boy (I know, I know, they are all the same boy in more or less the same relationship) runs away from home to join her. I have not learned much about this film because, though I missed a chance to see it in the theatre, I still want to remain unspoiled; what I have heard though is that it faced a rather tight production schedule, and touches more explicitly on climate change themes than some of Shinkai’s other films. And the clips I have seen suggest that both Shinkai’s usual standbys (gorgeous water etc.) and the character animation are going to be a treat.
Look at this.. 🤤
and look at that! a classic ‘running out of breath’ scene in the manner of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. and honestly the film looks like it will be absolutely packed with gorgeous character animation much as with Your Name.
So! Tonight for Animation Night, here’s the plan: I’m going to show some of Shinkai’s really early short films, and then I’m going to hit you with the late-Shinkai Your Name/Weathering With You combo: the classic, and the one I’m most eager to see. But I definitely plan to show more of the older Shinkai projects down the line.
Animation Night 44 will roll in like a beautifully rendered cloud at 7pm UK time (1h40m from this post), over at twitch.tv/canmom - and I’d love to see you there!