Introduction — A one-trick pony?
Despite worldwide success with films such as your name., Weathering With You, and most recently Suzume, Makoto Shinkai remains a divisive director amongst anime fans. I frequently read and hear the same accusation: “He just makes the same movie over and over again.” Is there any truth to this, or are the similarities between his movies only skin-deep?
When considering a typical Shinkai production, one central theme usually stands out — heartbroken teens with their romance frustrated by separation in either time, space, or both. A further Shinkai signature is his obsessive focus on stunningly beautiful land and cloudscapes, painstakingly depicted with eye-popping color in a kind of fantasy hyper-realism that evokes nostalgia and wonder. No one can argue that Shinkai’s movies don’t at least look magnificent — but his default melancholy tone, languid pacing, and painfully detailed introspection can alienate viewers who value action or plot above internalized emotional anguish.
Shinkai’s commercial directorial debut was 1999’s five-minute short She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points, made almost entirely by himself in his spare time (while working for games company Falcom), with his hand drawings and Adobe After Effects for 3D CG. It’s a minimalist black and white short about the life of a small white cat and his troubled female human. Shinkai recorded the voice lines for Chobi the cat, while his at-the-time girlfriend voiced the unnamed “She.” Incredibly, She and Her Cat eventually spawned a 2013 novel, a 2016 manga adaptation, and a 2016 four-episode short prequel anime, She and Her Cat — Everything Flows. Not bad for what amounts to an extremely short yet evocative little confection.
With 2002’s Voices of a Distant Star, the anime world began to sit up and take notice of Shinkai. Once again, he produced this 25-minute film almost single-handedly. He quit his job at Falcom and spent seven solid months using the same hardware and 3D imaging software he’d used for games like The Legend of Heroes III and Ys II. This would be our first taste of Shinkai’s twin obsessions of frustrated teen romance and pretty skies.
Voices is a two-handed character mood piece featuring alternating monologues from fifteen-year-old Noboru, stuck on earth pining, and his middle school crush Mikako, traversing the galaxy in her mech, fighting aliens. Schoolgirls in enormous mecha-engaging monsters are very anime—yet Voices’ slow pace (even for a 25-minute short) and atmosphere of desperate, melancholy yearning sets it apart. Noboru and Mikako’s alternating emotional monologues juxtaposed with vibrantly detailed background paintings set a holding pattern for tone and structure that informs and influences Shinkai’s later work.
Shinkai often utilizes well-known classic SF tropes in his works, and Voices most notably homages Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Hideaki Anno‘s anime masterpiece Gunbuster in its central conceit of general-relativity-delayed messages taking ever longer to arrive the further Mikako travels from Earth. Compared to his later blockbusters, Voices looks dated now—and with such a short runtime to explore them, the characters are passive ciphers, powerless to change their fate. As an amateur production, though, it remains extremely impressive.
First crack at the mainstream
In 2004, Shinkai partnered with CoMix Wave Inc. and, with a small team, directed his first full-length feature, the 90-minute The Place Promised in Our Early Days. Unfortunately, Shinkai stretching out Voices’ melancholia to more than three times the length leads to pacing issues and constant, leaden narration for which no overload of gorgeous background art and lens flare can compensate.
Of course, Place Promised looks beautiful, and perhaps the scenes where the sleek, white, rotary-bladed airship Velaciela takes to the beautifully-painted skies are the genesis of the media’s persistent and exhausting (to Shinkai himself, who disagrees), Hayao Miyazaki comparisons.
An alternate history tale set against a backdrop of international tensions between the Japanese mainland and Russian-occupied Hokkaido, Hiroki and Takuya, two middle school friends, build an airplane together. Unfortunately, when their mutual female friend Sayori disappears, their friendship crumbles. Years later, events draw them back together in an attempt to save Sayori from a strange illness where her consciousness has wandered off to another alternate universe…
This time, the central male-female couple separated by SF-related complications are teenagers Sayori and Hiroki, though they share little screen time or interaction. Sayori wanders hopelessly through empty worlds while Hiroki dreams of her. Despite the extra time afforded to Shinkai by the feature-length format, we don’t get a great insight into either Sayori or Hiroki’s characters or their relationship because there really isn’t one. It’s a sterile non-romance with an ambiguous resolution.
At least Place Promised adds the theme of strained, then broken male friendship, which is unique in Shinkai’s films. The relationship between former friends Hiroki and Takuya is the movie’s true emotional core, and its resolution is also left on an ambiguous note. Like teenage romances, friendships sometimes have an expiration date, and Shinkai is brave enough to explore that. Sometimes, it seems Shinkai’s characters’ relationships are made to be deliberately unsatisfying, something that crops up again in his next film.
A return to a shorter length
There are few anime films that I claim to actively despise, but Shinkai’s sixty-minutes-of-pointless-ennui 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) is the one I dislike the most. Perhaps such a negative reaction was what Shinkai intended; after all, his purpose in creating it was to explore “the speed at which people drift apart,” a potentially frustrating narrative concept.
The film is split into three short vignettes following the life of aggravatingly passive protagonist Takaki. In the first, he travels to meet his elementary school crush, Akari, for the last time before they move to opposite ends of Japan and are separated forever. In the second, he’s in high school and ignoring the blatantly obvious attention from his female classmate Kanae to obsess over Akari, to whom he constantly types emails, then deletes, and never sends. In the final segment, he’s an adult in Tokyo, ignoring phone calls from his girlfriend Risa while still emotionally paralyzed by his long-dormant aborted relationship with Akari. I hate Takaki’s passivity, inability to move on, and callous disregard for the emotions of those around him. The entire film is an exercise in fingernails-down-a-chalkboard exasperation for me.
I suppose it elicits such a visceral reaction in this viewer and could be viewed as some kind of success — at least it’s not boring and certainly memorable. Shinkai doubles down on the unsatisfactory nature of ambiguous and fleeting teenage relationships, and it’s a special kind of director who deliberately sets out to commit such blatant emotional violence to poor viewers like me who prefer central characters with agency and drive. Perhaps Takaki’s frustratingly hopeless passivity is realistic — at least the final scene leaves us with some hope that he can finally move on with his life. Similarly, following this, Shinkai also attempted to move on with his career.
Shinkai attempts a Miyazaki
2011 brought Shinkai to his most blatant attempt at mainstream acceptance — a Studio Ghibli movie in all but name. Although a decent film, it demonstrates that fantasy adventure journey movies aren’t his specific calling. Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below feels generic, like almost any semi-competent anime director could have produced something of similar quality. As usual, the background art looks lovely, but surprisingly, for a movie set in a fantasy world, its visuals are nowhere near as striking as in Shinkai’s early Voices of a Distant Star. Even the art of his more grounded 5 Centimeters Per Second looks more otherwordly at times.
For Lost Voices, Shinkai’s chosen method of separation between characters is with death rather than merely distance or parallel universes. It’s a morality tale, with the adult character Morisaki obsessed with resurrecting his dead wife (portrayed as a bad thing). At the same time, 11-year-old Asuna has already suffered her father’s death when she suddenly loses her new friend, Shun. Asuna is a directionless lead who doesn’t know what she wants, leaving nominal and conflicted antagonist Morisaki to carry the plot. This is a mistake in this genre of movie, where the protagonist should have clearly defined goals that encourage the viewer to root for them.
She’s not quite as passive as 5 Centimeters‘ Takaki, but besides the semi-parental interactions with the older Morisaki, Asuna’s primary relationship is with a boy she barely knows. For once, there’s barely any romance — Shun and Asuna are only on screen together for a few scenes before he shuffles off this mortal coil. His role is filled by his younger brother Shin, with whom Asuna has a much more combative relationship. Is this another example of Shinkai’s deliberately unsatisfactory relationship portrayals? If so, it seems out of place in a movie of this genre.
With its Ghibli-like focus on adventure and exploration, Lost Voices stands out amongst Shinkai’s films as the least “Shinkai-like.” I wonder if there were external pressures on him to produce something “mainstream” or to emulate Ghibli. Ironically, his first attempt to “direct outside the box” looks destined to be relegated to almost forgotten status compared to his other works.
A return to Shinkai-ness
I admit it; I’ve been relatively guarded with praise and even mostly critical up to this point. Why even write about Shinkai if I don’t like his stuff that much? Well, this all changes with The Garden of Words. I adore this 46-minute short movie. Not so long that it outstays its welcome, nor slow-paced enough to become soporific, The Garden of Words is one of my favorite Shinkai films. It’s romantic without being twee, the characters interact and emote like real human beings. Hell, the fact that the characters are even able to interact and aren’t randomly separated by some plot contrivance matters. No, the separation between protagonist Takao and the object of his affection, Ms. Yukino, is age.
Age-gap romance has the potential for squickiness, regardless of the medium. Anime especially has a bad habit of featuring two-hundred-year-old (honest) loli elf/vampire/oni/whatever girls who look like children, interacting lewdly with adult (or at least teenage) men. The Garden of Words is not creepy. It is not exploitative. Ms. Yukino does not act inappropriately with Takao and shuts him down as soon as the subtext becomes text when Takao blurts out his feelings.
The Garden of Words is an emotionally complex exploration of a mutually beneficial friendship between two troubled people, separated by age and social status, who help one another to move on with their lives. It’s beautiful not only in its spectacular, rain-soaked visuals but in its soul as a work of emotionally validating art. I heartily recommend reading Shinkai’s novelization of his movie, which vastly expands on the characters and setting and provides a greater sense of closure than the open-ended movie conclusion. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Shinkai explodes into mainstream success
I doubt even Shinkai was prepared for the incredible success of his major breakout hit, 2016’s your name. Finally perfecting his formula, honing and sculpting a practically perfect two-hour movie that resonated with audiences worldwide, his entire career built towards this. There’s an adorable central teenage “couple” who gradually develops feelings for one another throughout the film before becoming cruelly separated. Sounds familiar?
Shinkai painstakingly depicts Tokyo’s bustling, exhausting, sprawling, train-filled cityscape while contrasting it against the bucolic, open landscapes, forests, and fields of rural Itomori. Including a plot-integral comet allows him to indulge his predilection for incandescent night skies streaked with shooting stars and phantasmagorical light shows. All of these features can be found in some form in his previous works, so what makes your name. such a perfect synthesis?
Humor and urgency — two facets missing almost entirely from his earlier, solemn, and slow-moving work. The addition of these elements turbocharges Shinkai’s skill as a filmmaker. Suddenly, stakes matter to more than just the central couple, with thousands of lives at risk. Male protagonist Taki is about as far from a limp dishrag of a man as 5 Centimeters‘ Takaki as it’s possible to get. Taki desperately tries everything in his power to save the girl he loves, plus her family and her entire community. Also, don’t disregard the power of a good, old-fashioned body-swap comedy to engage the audience. Taki’s repeated, bewildered (and definitely teenage-boy-horny) explorations of female protagonist Mitsuha’s breasts will never not be funny — especially little sister Yotsuha’s hilarious reactions.
your name. holds up as one of the best anime movies of all time, beloved even by those who either dislike or have never seen Shinkai’s earlier works. What changed? What inspired Shinkai’s evolution from introspective art-house movie director to international name-recognition blockbuster box-office draw? The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami was one of the worst natural disasters on worldwide record. His following two films would continue to develop as a theme ever more explicitly.
How to (try to) follow up on success
2019’s Weathering With You seems to come in for a lot of criticism for either not being your name. or being too much like your name. I don’t think Shinkai was ever going to win this one. I like this movie for the record, and although its themes stray a little too close to their predecessor for comfort, I think we can chalk this up to Shinkai’s producers demanding “more of the same.” It’s also got one hell of a gutsy ending, which, in a way, is like the ideological polar opposite of your name., so Shinkai deserves respect for that.
While your name. revolves around celestial catastrophe, Weathering With You is Shinkai’s big “climate change disaster” movie… sort of. It doesn’t have anything specific to say about climate change other than Shinkai’s belief that it’s far too big a problem to burden individuals with, hence the reason for (MASSIVE ENDING SPOILER) Hodaka’s climactic choice to drown Tokyo in exchange for Hina’s life. Society does not deserve the sacrifice of individuals to maintain its status quo, is what Shinkai appears to say here, which is a fascinating counterpoint to typical Japanese social ideology where cohesion and conformity are prioritized over individuality. Shinkai received a lot of backlash for this ending, but I think it’s fascinating.
Otherwise, Weathering With You can be boiled down to yet another teenage romance where the couple is separated by supernatural means. Like in your name., the main male character must move Heaven and Earth to save the girl he loves. I do adore the climactic scenes in the sky, depicting the magical ecosystem above the clouds, plus I like the undercurrent of social danger due to Hodaka’s status as a physically abused runaway (it’s confirmed in Shinkai’s novel that his father beat him on at least one occasion) and orphan Hina’s underage carer status for her little brother. That’s an additional substance not directly related to romance or visuals, so to call this a rehash of your name. or his other films is a little disingenuous. It’s clear that Shinkai is trying new things in Weathering With You while under strict commercial restraints.
It was supposed to be about two girls this time
Weathering With You didn’t quite match the megabucks takings of its predecessor, but it still earned so much money that you’d think Shinkai would be allowed to make pretty much whatever the hell he wants now, right? Apparently not. Although he wanted to make his latest film, Suzume (2022), into a kind of sisterhood road trip without a male love interest, Shinkai’s producers felt otherwise. So, in what I like to think of as an act of petty yet brilliant revenge, Shinkai magically transforms said unwelcome male interloper character into a three-legged kiddie chair in the first few moments of the film, and he stays that way for most of it.
Suzume is Shinkai’s most starkly obvious examination yet of the impact of 2011’s Tohoku disaster on the Japanese collective psyche — going so far as to make titular heroine Suzume an orphaned survivor of the tsunami. The movie’s frequent, unsettling instances of loud disaster warnings shrieking forth from the characters’ smartphones invoke a realistic sense of what it must be like to live in a society at the edge of the Pacific continental plate, where death and destruction can unexpectedly erupt from beneath the ground at any time.
Shinkai continues to explore and integrate traditional Japanese Shinto and Buddhist concepts into his movies, especially with the inclusion of the unpredictable, mischievous, and capricious deity/spirit Daijin. The theme of supernatural spirits untethered from human concerns and morality lurks in the background of all three of Shinkai’s latest films, but it’s only in Suzume that one is given voice. Apart from the arguable inclusion of Morisaki in Lost Voices, Daijin is probably the closest that any of Shinkai’s films come to featuring a definitive antagonist (though arguably this is subverted later.) This alone gives Suzume a different vibe from anything Shinkai made before.
Suzume‘s romance aspect is deliberately undercooked, mostly because Shinkai didn’t want to include it in the first place. The movie would have worked just as well with platonic friendship (or non-heterosexual romance) as it would have done with the frankly unconvincing romance between Suzume and a small yellow chair, whom she is then supernaturally separated from.
Visually, Suzume is frankly astonishing, particularly in the incredibly kinetic and tense action sequences. Shinkai’s artistry is at the absolute top of his game here, as he conjures a palpable sense of place in every location Suzume visits, whether it’s a Tokyo threatened by ominous red, swirling spirals or the subdued emptiness of a destroyed village.
Conclusion — Where next?
After the loose thematic trilogy of your name., Weathering With You, and Suzume, I wonder if Makoto Shinkai has perhaps said everything he wants to say about natural disasters. I also get the feeling he’s sick of introspective romance, too. It’s clear that recently, he’s been straining against his obsessions like he’s desperate to escape the box he’s built for himself. Although most of his films fit with a certain “vibe,” there’s so much more to them. When watching each of his films in turn, one witnesses the development of a fantastic filmmaker who gradually hones his skills, makes mistakes, corrects them, introduces new themes, and pushes onwards.
Shinkai’s first few films featured cipher-like characters who barely interacted with one another, speaking in dull monologues about romance and longing — but this changed significantly with The Garden of Words. His characterization evolved even further with his most recent disaster movies, adding real stakes, humor, and actual human interaction.
I take it as given that any new movie from Shinkai will look beautiful. Few directors can match his eye for color and his juxtaposition of the cosmic with the mundane. From starry nebula-filled skies to the glint of sunlight through raindrops on drooping leaves, Shinkai’s achingly beautiful visuals complement the complex emotions his characters evoke — no longer confined to his early predilection for melancholia. I hope his producers now grant him the trust he so obviously deserves and allow him to let loose on something truly different, with whatever his next project turns out to be. I know I’ll be there in the front row, tears glistening, eagerly cheering him on.
Postscript: Where to watch Makoto Shinkai‘s films
UK: Every film listed above (except Suzume) is available on Blu-ray from Anime Limited. She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points are included on The voices of a distant star/The Place Promised in Our Early Days Blu-ray.
US: The GKIDS 5 Centimeters Per Second Blu-ray includes She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points and Voices of a Distant Star. GKIDS also distributes Blu-rays for The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, and Weathering With You. The Garden of Words is available on Sentai Filmworks Blu-ray. your name. is available on Crunchyroll Blu-ray.
Suzume was recently distributed theatrically by Crunchyroll. UK and US home media releases are yet to be announced at the time of writing.
Kevin Cormack is a Scottish medical doctor, husband, father, and lifelong anime obsessive. He writes as Doctorkev at https://medium.com/anitay-official and appears regularly on The Official AniTAY podcast. You can also find him on Twitter @Herrdoktorkev. His accent is real.