“Your Name” Director Hits the Anime Big TimeCulture
Since opening this summer, director Shinkai Makoto’s anime movie Kimi no na wa (Your Name) continues to set new records. It has now been seen by more than 15 million people and brought in box office of over ¥20 billion, second only to director Miyazaki Hayao’s Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) on the list of top grossing Japanese movies in Japan.
The film has also topped weekend box office rankings in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand. It opened in China in December, showed in Los Angeles in the same month, and has already been nominated for the 89th Academy Awards in the Animated Feature Film category.
The New Miyazaki?
INTERVIEWER From early on you’ve attracted international press attention as the “next Miyazaki Hayao.”
SHINKAI MAKOTO My debut was back in 2002, whenVoices of a Distant Star was screened at the Tollywood mini-theater in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district. It was just a short, self-produced twenty-five-minute movie, but it was issued on DVD and sold overseas as well. I think the first time I was actually invited to speak abroad was at Comicon in San Diego. Since then I’ve been invited to events in various countries every time I release a new work. I’ve been called “the new Miyazaki” or “Japan’s next-generation anime creator” overseas for the last decade, but I think that’s mostly because people in other countries think of Japanese animation as being just Miyazaki-san and then everybody else.
And one more thing. The Miyazaki works that people know abroad and my own works are very different in style. I depict the local world of Japan. My backgrounds are full of Japanese traffic lights, Japanese vending machines, commuter train lines like the Saikyō Line, everyday buildings around Tokyo. I think it’s because my “touch” is so different from the worldview and imagery you see in Studio Ghibli works that I’ve been lucky enough to register as a “next-generation” director.
Even today, though, I think I’m still perceived overseas as something of a cult figure that people who are into niche or relatively unknown works can enjoy. So for instance, even if Your Name is a hit overseas and pushes up my audience figures, the core essence of my work is not going to change. That’s why I personally don’t think my works are going to reach a different kind of audience in the future than they have already.
INTERVIEWER Are you always consciously trying to create something “local”?
SHINKAI I can’t draw anything with a sense of reality if it doesn’t come from a place I’m connected to with my own two feet. I can show Tokyo, this city that’s the stage for my own daily life, in a way that is just slightly different from the Tokyo that the 30 million people living in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area know themselves. Or to take another example, the little mountain town in Your Name where Mitsuha, the heroine, has grown up is fictional, but I can imbue it with the reality of the landscapes of Koumi in Nagano Prefecture, the town where I grew up.
I was born and raised in a place 1,000 meters above sea level. It’s surrounded by towering mountains like Yatsugatake, the winds are strong, and the skies are wonderfully expressive. The Nobeyama Radio Observatory is close by, and the stars are gorgeous. Since there was nothing else to look at in the countryside where I grew up, I used to spend an hour or two almost every day just looking at the sky and trying to capture it in watercolor. So the skies in my movies have been shaped by those in the mountain country of Shinshū.
INTERVIEWER What kind of anime influenced you when you were a boy?
SHINKAI Since we lived in the country, when I was a child we could only pick up three TV channels, the NHK [Japan Broadcasting Corporation] general channel, the NHK educational channel, and one commercial station. I watched Sekai meisaku gekijō [World Masterpiece Theater; a 1960s anime series both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli director Takahata Isao worked on early in their careers] and NHK shows like Nirusu no fushigi na tabi [The Wonderful Adventures of Nils] and Miyazaki’s Mirai shōnen Konan [Future Boy Conan]. When I was in high school I really loved director Anno Hideaki’s Fushigi no umi no Nadia [Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water]. I’d say Nadia influenced me a lot.
But the movie that affected me the most was Miyazaki’s Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta [Castle in the Sky]. Back when I was in my first or second year of junior high school, Castle in the Sky was the first movie for which I traveled more than two hours on the train to Ueda and paid with my own money to see at the theater. I was entranced. I was amazed that there could be anything in the world as interesting as that movie.
Searching for Purpose
INTERVIEWER You studied Japanese literature in Tokyo at Chūō University, and your first job was with a video game company. At what point did you decide to become an anime director?
SHINKAI Throughout my student life I kept on searching for something that I wanted to do in the future, but nothing came up, and I was starting to get antsy. I took the employment exams at several companies, just groping around, and in the end I joined Nihon Falcom. Ever since I was little I’d liked to draw pictures, think up stories, things like that. It seemed like video games was creative work, and I thought that could be interesting.
While I was working at Falcom I was drawn more and more to actually making up my own stories, and creating the video imagery myself. After five years I quit and produced Voices of a Distant Star on my own. It was incredibly fun and some people watched it, so I thought to myself, “maybe I can make a living doing this.”
Yet even after I’d made my next movie, the feature-length The Place Promised to Us in Our Early Days, and even after the shorter 5 Centimeters Per Second, I still wasn’t fully convinced that directing anime was the work I was most suited for. It was around that time that I was contacted by the Japan Foundation about taking part in a workshop in the Middle East on digital animation production, so I accepted. And then I figured, well, if I’m going to the Middle East I might as well try living overseas for a bit, so after the workshop was over I enrolled in a language school in London. I’d only intended to spend half a year there, but it turned into a year and a half.
INTERVIEWER Was that first experience living abroad a turning point?
SHINKAI While I was in London I met lots of people who knew my movies. There were people who knew them at the school itself, and there were other times when people would just start talking to me about them in coffee shops. One time when I went to the barbershop, the barber himself said, “I know you!” and told me he’d bought DVDs of my anime. Everyone told me how much they liked my work. I’d been to get-togethers for fans at film festivals before then, but this was the first time I really learned first hand that there were people out there who were just watching my movies as they went about their daily lives.
But at the same time, I was also feeling, “here I am, I’m 35 years old, I’m not a Londoner, I don’t have any work, I’m not married, I’m nobody.” I was incredibly free, but at the same time I had this uneasy feeling that there was nothing under my feet. It was in the midst of this state of mind, feeling that I just had to grab on to something, anything, that the first contours of the feeling that I wanted to write stories began to solidify. So while I was still living in London I started writing the screenplay for my next movie, and when I finished it I came back home. That was the screenplay for Children Who Chase Lost Voices. I think that that was the point when I clearly decided that I would make my living as an anime director.
Why Do We Fall in Love?
INTERVIEWER Your Name puts more emphasis on entertainment than your previous works. Was it a very different production environment from what you were used to?
SHINKAI I produced my debut work, Voices of a Distant Star, entirely on my own. For all my other works since that, I’d been working in my own studio with my own small staff. With Your Name, however, more people were involved than ever before, and some had plenty of star power of their own. It was my first experience working with, for instance, a popular band like Radwimps, in a way that was very close to being a collaboration.
Our team of animators was also first class. I think any fan of Japanese anime will be stunned when they see the credits. Our character designer, Tanaka Masayoshi, works mainly in TV anime, and has a solid fan base of his own. Our animation director, Andō Masashi, is one of the great figures in the anime world. At Studio Ghibli he was supervising animator for both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Other people with different roots were good enough to join in as well, people from animation companies like Production I.G. and Shaft.
INTERVIEWER One thing all of your works have in common, from the very first up through Your Name, is the way in which—at the same time that they’re depicting the painful longings and separation between people—they are imbued with an almost cosmic breadth.
SHINKAI The nature of relationships between individuals, the relationship of feelings, was the single biggest theme of my adolescence. Why do we fall in love with someone? Why doesn’t that person we love love us back? They were these totally commonplace concerns, but to my adolescent self they were a vast mystery, like the mystery of the very cosmos itself.
Even today, when I’m married and have a child of my own, there are still moments when I suddenly feel that same bewilderment I felt when I was an adolescent. I think that this distance, this gap between people’s feelings, is something I will keep on depicting as one of my themes in the future.
And one more thing. Back in my youth I used to muse about why I was born, and what was the one role that only I could play. I wanted to feel that my own life was not just emptiness, that—even if it was only for an instant in the great current of time—my life was connected to a greater destiny. I don’t believe in any specific religion, but that feeling may be a sensation close to believing in a god. So given all that, I do have a desire to write stories that can bind together that tiny scale of one individual’s feelings and the vast scale of the cosmos and the stars.
INTERVIEWER You’ve also written some novels. Do you want to put your energy into writing more fiction in the future?
SHINKAI At this point in time I’m just writing novelizations of my own movies, and I’ve never once thought that I have any intrinsic value as a novelist. I think people have been good enough to read my books just because I made the anime. But I do like to read and write fiction. In fact, I spend more time reading fiction than I do watching films or anime. So I do want to someday write a novel for its own sake. But I also have a stronger feeling that I have to create works that my audience truly wants. Maybe what I am needed for, right here and now, really is animation after all.(Originally published in Japanese on December 5, 2016. Interview and text by Itakura Kimie and Katō Megumi of Nippon.com. Photos by Ōtani Kiyohide.)