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  • Writer's pictureArya Kastwar

Life Through the Eyes of Makoto Shinkai

How beautiful can the mundanity in the little things be?

How much gravity can the little things hold?

How big are the little things, really?

Heating your coffee just the perfect temperature in the morning, playing with the cats in the neighbourhood on a cold winter morning, reaching the station right before it starts to pour, having some time after work to catch up with old friends on a Tuesday night, curling under the crisp, freshly laundered blanket after a long day- little things. Little things that bring a genuine smile on your face when looked back upon.

Living a life so fast-paced, one that spares no one the passage of time, we often look right through these little moments of pure joy, at something far away, something we cannot reach yet, a bigger picture; we forget to remind ourselves that it is the mundane that is the most profound.

Makoto Shinkai, one of the most gifted anime directors Japan has given us, realises the significance of detail, and the weight it holds not just in film but in our regular, everyday lives as well- how we absorb it and are shaped by it, knowingly or unknowingly.

Today we decode Makoto Shinkai’s filmography, understanding how he perceives the world around and beyond himself, and how he wishes it were in a more fantastical universe. From a broader picture of his art style to the extremely nuanced detail in each of his scenes, we understand the thicker plot as well as the more subtle, underlying message being relayed in the plots.

Often compared to Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai is considered to be among the best animation directors to have ever lived. However, there lies a key difference in the cornerstone of the works of these prodigious directors itself. While Miyazaki fabricates whole new universes, transporting you to experience a hundred different lives, Shinkai simply and firmly grounds you in reality, despite metaphysical elements and dreamlike animation.

Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Secret World of Arrietty

Tokyo Through the Eyes of Makoto Shinkai

How one sees the world outside and the human nature within is unique to every individual. Rain for some brings with itself misery, while for others- puddles to sail their paper boats in; the despair of a culprit elicits in some complete indifference, while in others sympathy, despite their crime. The same place, person, action, emotion, reasoning will mean one hundred different things to one hundred different people. The ways in which nature sustains life and the ways in which life flourishes are absorbed differently by everyone.

In the eyes of Makoto Shinkai, the world is a little brighter, the people, a little kinder. This is not unlike the world we live in but rather simply one that highlights more- the good in us than the bad. Despite animating a Tokyo with romanticised skyscrapers and torii, warmer daylight, happier cats, and brighter sakura, the beauty of Shinkai’s Japan does not seem exaggerated at all. His portrait of Japan is warm and welcoming, reminiscent of fond memories. Filtering out and enhancing the beauty in the little things we often do not get the time to admire, through his films we get another chance to vicariously live a slower, more peaceful life.

In his tiny Tokyo apartment, over the years, Shinkai has blurred the line between animation and reality in a way that leaves you transfixed, and the afterimage still lingering before your eyes long after you have looked away. His art alone makes one overwhelmed by unconfronted emotions, a sense of bittersweet longing for something that one does not even know of. He goes beyond artistic conventions and gives photorealistic details to every leaf in the frame, every dew drop, every pebble, every strand of hair. This explains how he keeps the beauty of the real world intact in his extraordinary rendition.

Recreating places in Tokyo that do, in fact, exist on the face of the Earth, Shinkai does not simply imitate them the way we see them but bases the entirety of the plot around the place, adding incredible layers to it. Shinkai brings to life Itomori, a small town in Japan- with the people living there, each having their own dreams; the convenience store, the shrine, and even the juice vending machine they visit; the traditions they embrace and the comet they survive together. Giving the town just as much life as the people dwelling in it, he evokes in the audience a sense of familiarity and warmth for Itomori.

Shinkai brings his films to life not only through his art but also by portraying the essence of life in Japan. Japan being a country with the richest of cultures, undying traditions, and folklore passed on from generations thousands of years ago, influences the lives of people heavily. Shinkai understands this perfectly and absorbs Japanese culture and traditions in his films, down to the often overlooked details in the plot.

In Your Name, Mitsuha performs a very elaborate Shinto ritual as part of the family tradition. Reluctant to be seen as a reflection of her father who left the religion after his wife died of an illness, Mitsuha carries out the ritual to please her grandmother.

The very essence of the film is Musubi. A term in Japanese culture, a Shinto belief that everything is interconnected.

“The braided cords that we make are the god’s art and represent the flow of time itself. They converge and take shape. They twist, tangle, unravel now and then, break, and reconnect.”

The power of Musubi transcends space, time, and even death. Taki and Mitsuha are separated by all of these factors, and yet, inexplicably connected with each other. After saving the townspeople of Itomori, they forget their dreams and each other. It is a sombre portrayal of loss, a yearning for something we cannot tell. However, the thread that still holds them together, pulls them closer and they meet once again, overcome with catharsis.

In Weathering With You, we see teru teru bōzu (shine shine monk) in every house when it is raining. These handmade dolls are a talisman hung in the balcony to make it stop raining. In a world where it is always pouring in Japan, every time Hina uses her power to stop the rain, she loses a little of herself, quite literally starting to fade away.

Waiting with Makoto Shinkai

Alfred Hitchcock famously said,

“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”

But are we not taking away from life the process, the very passage of time that leads us to the things we want and the places we want to be? A part of life we dread that Shinkai finds meaning in is the wait. Moments when there is nowhere to go, the time between what we want and when we get it. Waiting at the bus stop, waiting for the dough in the oven to rise, waiting for a friend at a café, or even waiting to grow up.

Shinkai uses the drama in waiting to explore isolation. The subtle peace and lack of immediacy with moments of restlessness and impatience in the waiting arc define the characters he writes.

In 5 Centimeters per Second, Takaki takes several connecting trains to meet his friend, Akari. All of these trains were delayed by hours because of a snowstorm. Akari, at the other end of the town, was waiting at the station all the while.

“Each minute felt like an eternity. With clear malice towards me, time continued to drift slowly forwards around me.”

Every moment passes in desperation and with every passing second, both Takaki and Akari lose a piece of their hope, questioning if the other will be there. In an era of little technological development, they are both stranded with their thoughts alone, with nothing to serve as a distraction. All Takaki can do is check his watch every now and then, while Akira sits in the waiting room at the station, waiting.

In a parallel arc, another of Takaki’s friends who is in love with him, waits for him everyday after school so they can walk back home together. Although she looks forward to the little time they share together, her wait is all but romantic. She is nervous, sad, forlorn, even. Waiting for Takaki holds for her nothing but bleak, if any at all, hope that he will ever reciprocate. In a sad twist of fate, they are both waiting for someone they know they cannot have. In ten years’ time, one of them will have been married, one depressed, and one happier than ever.

In The Garden of Words, Shinkai masterfully shows how every individual grows at a different pace.

Takao is a fifteen year old student and aspiring shoemaker who is impatient to grow up, and Yukari is a twenty seven year old highschool English teacher who does not feel like an adult at all. In the mornings when it pours, Takao skips his lectures and Yukari skips work, and meet each other in a gazebo in a garden. The plot revolves around their encounters and what they ultimately lead to.

“She exists in a world of working adults, so very far away from me. To me she represents nothing less than the secrets of the world.”

In the eyes of Takao, Yukari is a woman living a life on an entirely different plane of reality from his. She is where he wishes to be, which makes him impatient to grow older. He falls in love with her because she is to him, everything he is not.

“I am twenty seven but I do not feel any smarter than I did twelve years ago.”

For Yukari, Takao’s life is easier. He has a goal and is driven, while Yukari skips work to sit in the garden every morning and drink beer. Having been a victim of bullying at work, she is no longer ambitious about her profession. Yukari has mental breakdowns and moments of vulnerability where she questions herself. With Takao in her life, she finds both comfort as well as guilt in confiding in him.

Takao’s and Yukari’s rendezvous in the garden only when it rains gives their relationship more intimacy and transparency. In The Garden of Words, rain speaks when they do not. The pouring fills the silence between Takao and Yukari while they wait at the mercy of circumstance, lingering between where they are and where they want to be- meeting in the middle when it rains, never acting upon their love for each other because of the difference in their age. A little impatient as they may seem in the beginning, slowly but steadily, they are still learning to walk the path of their own lives through each other.

In Your Name, where Taki and Mitsuha are separated by both time and space, temporality is a heavy theme. They wake up, switch bodies, live each other’s life, and experience the intimacy of home, family, and friendship. Living in a timeline three years apart, they are always waiting for each other, trying to meet halfway.

On his quest to Itomori to meet Mitsuha before the comet strikes, Taki is anxious. His friends, unlike him, have a field trip they would not have any other way. Time passes differently for them. For Taki, time passes painfully slowly, as if enjoying his helplessness. Every moment for Taki is bleak contemplation, doubt, and the sickening thought of what he will find upon reaching the town. For his friends tagging along, time passes like an autumn leaf falls, unhindered and savoured the sight of. For them, their trip to Itomori is one they will look back upon with contentment.

Only when Shinkai’s characters are left grounded, waiting in isolation, in body or in thought, do we see the depth of the character. Shinkai has, with utter genius, found his niche in using the dull wait to portray brilliant metamorphosis in both character and plot.

Love at a Distance

Another recurring theme we see in all of Shinkai’s films is distant love. He shows us that distance is not only physical but can also transcend time and space, life and death. Just how Miyazaki ingrains wonder and hope through his art, Shinkai renders a deeper understanding of what love is and what it stands for.

Shinkai uses this distance to explain the discord and struggle that love truly is. By yarning both heartbreaking and heartwarming tales of fulfilled as well as unrequited love, he portrays separation in a way that draws us closer to the characters, and sometimes, the characters to each other.

In Your Name, Taki and Mitsuha are separated by time and space- Taki, living in Tokyo in a temporal plane three years in the future from that of Mitsuha’s, who lives in the town of Itomori. Despite the distance, throughout the entirety of the film, they are physically and emotionally connected as they switch bodies. After these episodes, however, they wake up to each other's names forgotten, but the lingering feeling remains. The brilliant manipulation of distance between them symbolises not only their altered, faraway realities but a deeper, transcendental bond they share.

In The Garden of Words, Takao and Yukari are separated by their age- Takao, a fifteen year old boy, and Yukari, a twenty seven year old woman. Having run into each other in a time of vulnerability, uncertainty and discontentment in their lives, they find peace and solace in each other’s company. This makes us wonder if they had really fallen in love with each other or if they had simply mistaken their platonic admiration for each other for love. Despite not having acted upon their fanciful impulses, both Takao and Yukari teach each other, in their own way, how to walk on their feet and live a life a little more at ease.

In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Morisaki and his wife, Lisa, are separated by life and death- leading Morisaki to travel to Agartha, the land of the dead, to resurrect his dead wife. In Agartha, despite Lisa’s absence in person, there is a perpetual feeling of her presence in spirit. The distance between Morisaki and Lisa is that of a lifetime, but feels ever so close because of Shinkai’s perfectly deliberate timing and circumstance.

Before Lisa’s spirit leaves the human vessel, she tells Morisaki to find happiness without her. Morasaki, unwilling to live anymore, asks to be freed of life. The burden of a deceased love was a curse he could not carry any further. Although still alive, Morasaki decides to stay back in Agartha to feel even a little closer to Lisa. Shinkai ever so beautifully reminds us how short and precious life is, and how it loses every meaning to it when the ones you love most are taken away from you.

In Voices of a Distant Star, Mikako and Noboru are separated by the universe, quite literally- while Mikako is recruited in the space army to fight in a galactic war, her friend, Noboru remains on Earth. As she travels deeper into space, her emails start taking longer to reach Noboru- from a few days, to months, to a year, to eight long years. Noboru’s patience and persistence is tested with the increasing time and space between them. Despite losing so much time and emotion across lightyears, a single email from a fifteen year old Mikako finally reaching him eight years later, gives Noboru a new glimmer of hope, ever so bleak, but enough to keep him going.

Shinkai puts the deepest of love to the toughest of battles- through time, through space, through hopelessness, through fear, through death, even; and Shinkai alone can pull the characters out of the abyss in the way that he does. The theme of distant love between two lovers, friends, a father and his daughter, is what Shinkai paints to reflect the deeper significance of love- peace, joy, solitude, impatience, helplessness, desperation, and of course, the forlorn beauty it holds.

This was our breakdown of Shinkai’s art style, the little details he never misses, and the depth of emotions he imparts in his characters. With every intricate detail deliberate and character carefully given life to, his films go beyond fiction, and stay with us for a long time.

Tout ensemble, it is safe to say that Makoto Shinkai truly understands the very depths of human nature, and knows precisely how to portray them in animation, without the often unsaid nuances getting lost in translation. Not only do his films leave us absolutely mesmerised but also portray the conflicts and complexities of nature/nurture in a way that makes us look at things in a brighter light, from a clearer perspective. We are always waiting for a new Shinkai movie, while we keep going back to the old ones!


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