Makoto Shinkai: could the anime director be cinema's ‘new Miyazaki’?

Body-swap drama Your Name has became Japan’s first post-Studio Ghibli smash, its themes resonating with a nation still affected by the 2011 earthquake. ‘I want to make people happy,’ says its creator

When it comes to anime, there’s always an elephant in the room, or a radish spirit in the lift, as Spirited Away fans might say. Hayao Miyazaki looms over Japanese animation from such a great height, no new animator can avoid the “new Miyazaki” label. It’s only become worse since the old Miyazaki retired three years ago. Now, though, for the first time, somebody genuinely merits the comparison. Your Name, a new anime by Makoto Shinkai, has become a Miyazaki-sized phenomenon in Japan. It was the top movie at the box office for nine weeks until just recently, and has taken more than twice as much any other film released this year. It has knocked one of Miyazaki’s films out of the country’s all-time top 10 (Spirited Away is still No 1). Fans have even been making pilgrimages to the mountain town of Hida, in central Japan, to visit locations depicted in it.

Shinkai is as bewildered as anyone. His previous film made 100 times less. “I feel it’s wrong, in a funny way. It’s too much,” he says when we meet in London. In fact, he practically rubs his eyes in astonishment. “It feels weird, like I’ve gone into another world. Somewhere completely different.”

We have to edge around the radish spirit before we can move on. “Miyazaki is a genius. He is the legend,” Shinkai says. He grew up on Studio Ghibli movies and Laputa: Castle In The Sky is his favourite film. “You don’t want to be imitating his style. You’ve got to create something different, something that he hasn’t done. But I do want to trigger emotions like his movies triggered our emotions.”

If anything, Your Name is closer to novelist Haruki Murakami than Miyazaki. It starts out, innocuously enough, as a perky gender-swap comedy: a Tokyo boy, Taki, and a country girl, Mitsuha, work out they’re inhabiting each other’s bodies in their dreams. They start messing with each other’s lives. Taki becomes more successful with a girl he fancies when Mitsuha’s being him, for example. There’s a running gag of Taki waking up as Mitsuha each morning and groping his/her breasts. They write messages to each other on their hands or on their phones, but they don’t meet.

Just when Your Name is shaping up to be a Japanese Freaky Friday-meets-Being John Malkovich, though, the story takes an unexpected new direction. Best not to reveal too much but it involves theoretical physics, ancient folklore, a cataclysmic natural disaster, a historical investigation, a race against time and a sweeping romance. Pretty much every genre rolled into one, in other words, but it blends them all into something unique, affecting and epic.

Shinkai still struggles to explain the film’s success. It could be that there was a gap in the market for “a basic boy-meets-girl story”, he suggests, rather feebly. It’s a teen-oriented movie (the poppy score by local band Radwimps won’t win over many foreign listeners) but it’s clearly reaching a broader audience. More convincing is Shinkai’s theory that Your Name’s natural-disaster element has struck a chord. It was only five years ago that Japan suffered the most powerful earthquake in its recorded history, causing the Fukushima nuclear disaster and a devastating tsunami. Shinkai was in Tokyo at the time, working. “We had to evacuate for a couple of days. After that, there were still tremors going on while we were finishing our movie [Journey To Agartha].”

Your Name director Makoto Shinkai.
Your Name director Makoto Shinkai. Photograph: Eli Gorostegi/AFP/Getty

The event changed Japan, Shinkai says. “People still have huge regret about 2011. Everybody was praying for everyone. It affected all of us, including me. So I really wanted to create something like a miracle. OK, it might be a fiction, it might be a lie, but we still want to have hope. That’s what I was thinking when I was making this film.”

From an outsider’s perspective, there could be another reason for the phenomenon: Your Name mixes modernity and tradition in a way that feels quintessentially Japanese. Kumihimo, the art of braiding coloured silk cords, is elegantly used to explain the flow of time itself, for example – a metaphor that came to Shinkai when he was reading about superstring theory. One moment, the film is casually dropping references to Everett’s multiverse theory, the next Mitsuha is performing a shrine ceremony involving chewing up rice then spitting it into a receptacle to make kuchikami sake, a pure drink to offer to the gods. Who knew that was even a thing? “It did exist,” says Shinkai, who’s well-versed in Japanese literature and folklore. “Probably not any more, but various shrines used to have that kind of tradition. Is there something similar in the UK?” He wonders. Er, somebody gobbing in your pint in Wetherspoons?

There’s a similar modern/trad dynamic going on with the film’s animation. The characters look classically hand-animated, but the world around them is hyperreal in its vividness: impossibly gorgeous skies, extreme lens flares, vertiginous flights through lush, 3D landscapes, even time-lapse sequences. Shinkai is also fond of using little snapshots to suggest mood: construction cranes silhouetted against the sky, rain falling on a plastic bottle, leaves in the wind. As one reviewer observed, he has a knack for “piercing the veil of the everyday to reveal a poignant, evanescent beauty most of us notice only in rare moments. Or maybe not so rare if you are … a sensitive adolescent in love.”

A meteor storm strikes in Your Name.
A meteor storm strikes in Your Name. Photograph: Toho Co

Shinkai doesn’t really draw, himself. Most of the animation is done by computer, though the technique still involves scanning hand-drawn images. “People who draw tend to think they’re craftsmen so they really want to hang onto their pens and papers, but it’s not terribly productive. To be honest with you, it’s faster and easier to start with the computer.” He estimates Your Name cost about one tenth as much as a Hollywood animation.Unsurprisingly, Shinkai came into animation via videogames. He started out designing fantasy role-playing games then, aged 30 (he’s 43 now), he quit his job to create a 25-minute film called Voices Of A Distant Star. He basically made it by himself, at home on his Mac G4. “For eight months I worked, ate, slept a bit – that was it. It was great but I don’t think I want to do it again.”

Sound familiar? The “new Miyazaki” comparisons began with his feature debut, 2004’s The Place Promised In Our Early Days, and they haven’t stopped since. Looking back, though, Shinkai’s stories are rarely sunny and cheerful. They often involve tragic relationships cut short by separation or disconnection. Your Name’s predecessor, The Garden Of Words, focused on a 15-year-old aspiring shoemaker who becomes close to a depressed woman he meets in the park. It’s tender and gorgeous but a laugh riot it ain’t. “My life has had a lot of fun moments but I tend to feel sadness more often,” he says, somewhat morosely.

Surely he’s happy now?

“Yes, I’m happy, But I still feel very uncomfortable about how big this movie’s become.”

He has no idea what he’ll do next – “I’ve got a blank piece of paper in front of me” – but he plans to have a film ready in three years’ time. “With this one, I want to make something entertaining. I want to make people laugh, make people happy.” And he laughs. “Not like my other movies.” More like a Miyazaki movie? I think it, but don’t say it.

Anime magic: three more contenders to fill Miyazaki’s shoes

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Photograph: Tokikake Film Partners/AP

Mamoru Hosoda
A Studio Ghibli exile with a string of hits to his name: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (pictured above), Summer Wars, Wolf Children. 2015’s The Boy And The Beast (think The Jungle Book meets The Karate Kid) was his biggest yet.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Miyazaki’s semi-official successor at Studio Ghibli, having made Arietty and When Marnie Was There. Post-Ghibli, he’s working on a new family-friendly fantasy.

Keiichi Hara
His recent Miss Hokusai, on the artist’s daughter, was an imaginative mix of history and artistry; his earlier Colourful (a teen suicide story) and Summer Days With Coo (a Ghibli-esque fantasy) show a fertile mind.

  • Your Name is in cinemas from 18 November


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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