The Works of Makoto Shinkai

When I first saw Your Name, I was immediately enamored. It didn’t become my favorite movie overnight, though. It wasn’t until the third or fourth viewing that it took that spot. I evangelized the movie to anyone who would listen, and devoured any internet coverage I could find of it. In doing so, I learned about its creator Makoto Shinkai and his previous works. Most agreed they were beautifully drawn, good movies, but the occasional hardcore Shinkai fan claimed that they were superior to Your Name. (This came across much like a hardcore fan of a band telling you they were better before they went commercial.) Delighted as I was with Your Name, I decided to track a few of these down. The two that were mentioned the most were the Garden of Words (largely due to its cameos and references in Your Name) and 5 Centimeters Per Second, which some claimed as Shinkai’s true masterpiece. That one was relatively easy to find, so one night I watched it.

This set me on a journey to watch all of Shinkai’s movies, but the journey didn’t proceed as planned. I only just finished them over the past weekend. This is the story of that journey. I’ll try to avoid specific spoilers, but I can’t help but touch on themes and things like which movies had a happy ending, so if you want to watch these movies without any idea what you’re in for, skip this post.

That is not what happened. I did watch 5 Centimeters Per Second, and I have to admit it was a very well-made movie. It’s beautiful, and its story really hits you in the gut. Too much so, in my view. Watching that movie didn’t make me depressed, exactly, but it did make me want to kind of lay there and wait for death. The movie doesn’t hide its themes, with the narrator and main character telling you up front how things will play out. This is a movie about a missed connection with someone special, and it is heart-wrenching.

I had seen some comments to the effect of that Your Name was Shinkai’s breakout hit because it was the first time he made a movie with a happy ending, so I naturally concluded that all of his movies ended like 5 Centimeters Per Second. Indeed, if you cut the last three minutes off of Your Name, the tenor of the ending would have been completely different, leaving a bittersweet feeling rather than a satisfied and hopeful one. I assumed that’s what he’d always done before, and given how well he’d done it this time, I thought maybe I’d pass on his other movies.

That was all in 2017, after Your Name’s wide U.S. release. Aside from watching Your Name forty-odd more times, I didn’t think about Shinkai’s other works much until I saw the trailer for Weathering With You. I saw that one trailer and immediately decided I needed to see it, a fan reaction stronger than any I remember having for anything. Indeed, I sought no other media or even reviews of the movie before seeing it during the fan previews. But I did decide to finally go back and watch Shinkai’s other movies in preparation for its release. Sadly I didn’t plan this well, so the only one I actually did watch in that period was the Garden of Words (which was also the easiest one to find a copy of).

Garden of Words is a great movie that restored my faith in Shinkai’s old works. It’s very short, but manages to pack an emotional punch like the other movies of his I had seen. The movie is about an overly mature teenage student who develops feelings for an older woman who seems to not really have her life in order. In its short runtime, there’s not much to the story except their relationship, but the way it develops is fascinating. And the ending is fantastic, performing one of Shinkai’s favorite tricks: revealing that the theme of the movie wasn’t what you assumed. It certainly wasn’t a depressing ending like 5 Centimeters Per Second, either.

At that point, I had three movies left to watch. His first two, Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days, as well as the one between 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words, Children Who Chase Lost Voices. (As a side note, I’m glad he’s shortened up his titles a bit over his career!) I knew the first two had similar themes to his other movies, but all I knew about Children Who Chase Lost Voices was that it was Shinkai’s effort to make a Studio Ghibli-style movie. Since I don’t particularly like Studio Ghibli movies (blasphemy, I know), and because that movie is out of print and crazy expensive, I put it off for the moment.

But before I actually watched anything else, Weathering With You came out. And while I really like that movie, it did bother me that it seemed to be trying so hard (and failing) to recapture the magic of Your Name. Indeed, my feelings on Weathering With You colored the rest of my Shinkai watching, and also paused it for a week or so. (To be clear, it’s a really good movie, and I’ve seen it twice. I highly recommend it. But I wanted something different.)

Next up was Shinkai’s first movie, Voices of a Distant Star. This could hardly be called a movie, as it was just over 20 minutes, and it suffered for its length. It’s essentially a romance at heart, but all the romance happened before the movie started, and the movie is about a girl who joins the sci-fi space force to fight off an aggressive alien species and how the cosmic distances prevent her from communicating from her partner back home. It’s not as pretty as Shinkai’s later movies, though it’s still visually impressive considering he made it entirely by himself, and you can see aspects of his style (like a focus on backgrounds) emerging even here. And while the story works to get across the theme it wants to, there’s no real emotional punch because we didn’t see what the couple had that they are now losing. Also, the movie was way more sci-fi than I was expecting, with mecha battles and everything. Apparently Shinkai was a huge sci-fi nerd as a kid, and I imagine an alternate reality where he’s making the most beautifully drawn mecha anime in 2020.

At any rate, I was definitely beginning to worry that Shinkai only had one story in him, that of star-crossed lovers divided by whatever crazy idea he could come up with. His second movie, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, did not contradict this. This too had a sci-fi element, combined with an alternate history aspect where the Soviet Union took over the north island of Japan in the ’70s. The story centers around two high school boys and their friend, a girl who mysteriously falls asleep for three years. One eventually decides to try to save her, while the other takes a different path, and themes are explored. It’s a good movie, a significant improvement over Voices of a Distant Star narratively, but it’s still in the same vein of Shinkai’s other movies. There are even a few scenes that were reproduced or referenced very closely in Your Name. My biggest issue, though, is that I can’t figure out what the bad guys were trying to do with the impossibly tall tower the movie’s plot centers on. Or at least why they’d want to do it. I could definitely use some director’s commentary here.

At this point, my feelings on Shinkai had reached a nadir. Not that they were particularly low, but where once I assumed he was a visionary director who could craft a nearly perfect movie, now I saw him as a guy who took all the good ideas from his previous movies and combined them into something uniquely special. But even that wasn’t really true, because while every one of his movies shared aspects with others, I felt that the parts of Your Name that allowed it to be so special were unique to that movie. Maybe his one big idea wasn’t even the key to his success, and in that case, what were the chances he’d reproduce it? Or even try to do something different?

So it was with pretty low expectations that I finally completed the set and watched Children who Chase Lost Voices. And, well, to skip to the end, my faith has been fully restored. Finally, a movie that didn’t feel like a shadow of Your Name. Sure, the plot is ostensibly about a boy and a girl who are split apart and then she tries to bring him back, but the actual movie has an entirely different structure than his other ones. It’s an adventure story. It’s very hard to make a movie that explores themes entirely through one relationship, and while Shinkai has succeeded at that several times to varying degrees, Children who Chase Lost Voices explores its themes in its own way. The brilliance of that movie is that it takes a pretty formulaic “young girl goes on adventure to fantasy realm” plot and applies the craftsmanship I so admired in Your Name to it. The result is a movie that really worked for me like movies of that type never do. I generally find Ghibli movies and the like a bit incoherent or unjustified, and this was not that at all. Shinkai’s strength is his attention to detail, and he made a fantasy adventure that seemed grounded somehow. Internal consistency is one of the main things I look for in a great story, and this movie has it.

At the end of the day, I am left with a massive appreciation of Makoto Shinkai and the hope that he uses his gifts to branch out a bit instead of chasing his biggest success. The guy is a legit genius and I hope we get to see a whole lot more from him in the years to come.

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