Makoto Shinkaiweathers the stormHow criticism of the animedirector’s 2016 blockbusterinspired his latest film
Makoto ShinkaiHow criticism of the animedirector’s 2016 blockbusterinspired his latest film
weathers the storm
Makoto Shinkaiweathers the stormHow criticism of the animedirector’s 2016 blockbusterinspired his latest film
Attention to detail: Director Makoto Shinkai poses for a portrait at Toho Co.’s main headquarters in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district on July 13. MARTIN HOLTKAMP
Anime director tests the water with a new release that seeks to explore issues that affect us right now
It has been raining for weeks, but director Makoto Shinkai doesn’t seem to mind a bit.
The award-winning creator’s latest film, “Weathering With You,” couldn’t have been accompanied by better meteorological conditions than in the weeks leading up to its July 19 release.
According to the Meteorological Agency, the capital received a total of only 5.6 hours of sunlight between July 1 and 16, one of the worst figures since records began in 1961.
However, the prolonged rainy season that has darkened the skies over the Kanto region this year actually fits the mood of Shinkai’s latest release to a T.
Titled “Tenki no Ko,” meaning “child of the weather” in Japanese, the film depicts the capital in the middle of one of the longest rainy spells in decades.
When I ask the director if Tokyo’s recent precipitation was a clever marketing ploy engineered by his publicity team, he laughs.
“No,” he says, “just a happy coincidence.”
I’m speaking to the director a few days before the July 18 arson attack on anime production company Kyoto Animation that left 35 dead and dozens injured, an incident Shinkai later described as “horrific” in promotional appearances for his new film.
Like many of the creators at Kyoto Animation, Shinkai is one of the most respected names in anime today.
And his directing stocks couldn’t be much higher following the commercial success of his blockbuster 2016 animated film “Your Name.”
Back then, recognition of his name was limited mainly to anime connoisseurs who knew him as the promising creator of atmospheric, melancholic love stories such as “The Garden of Words” (2013), “5 Centimeters per Second” (2007) and “Voices of a Distant Star” (2002), which the director animated by himself on his Apple Power Mac G4.
Three years later, Shinkai is known at home and abroad for creating one of the highest-grossing Japanese films in history.
“Your Name.,” a body-swapping fantasy that focuses on a pair of teen star-crossed lovers, fused the director’s hyper-realistic visual sensibilities with spirited pacing courtesy of power producer Genki Kawamura and a booming pop soundtrack from rock band Radwimps.
The film, which also incorporated natural disaster themes in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, earned more than ¥25 billion in Japan and took the top spot as the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time — a title it held until Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” was officially released in China last month.
Shinkai says the runaway success of the film changed his life.
People walk past a poster advertising “Your Name.” in Beijing on Dec. 2, 2016. KYODO
“It’s made life feel a bit constricted,” he says. “I feel like I’m constantly being watched. People greet me on the street and, while some say how much they like ‘Your Name.,’ others tell me how much they hate it.”
Despite its popularity, the success of “Your Name.” inspired a backlash, something Shinkai partially attributes to the length of time it remained in theaters and, as a result, the public consciousness.
As its theatrical run continued, “Shoplifters” director Hirokazu Kore-eda wrote in 2016 that the film was “packed with the elements of a hit film … maybe too packed.”
“I think it’s about time films moved on from the ‘time-traveling high school girl’ trope,” Kore-eda continued.
Manga artist Tatsuya Egawa said the film was, “from the viewpoint of a professional, not the least bit interesting,” while “Mobile Suit Gundam” creator Yoshiyuki Tomino had “serious doubts whether anyone will be watching it in five years.”
Shinkai says the scrutiny at the time was overwhelming.
“I’d be out at a bar or something and someone next to me would be criticizing the film,” Shinkai says. “Or I’d be at home eating with my family, we’d turn on the TV and some famous person would be insulting it. I started to feel like I was really hated.”
He says the criticism ultimately affected the production of “Weathering With You.”
“I asked myself, ‘Should I make a film my critics will like,” he recalls, “or should I make one they’ll hate even more?’”
He decided on the latter.
“I felt like I needed to make a movie that would make my critics feel even more strongly about me,” he says. “The hate surrounding ‘Your Name.’ actually helped me realize what I wanted to do as a creator.”
At the same time, the director says that “Weathering With You” is very different from “Your Name.”
“Since it’s the same person making it, naturally some elements will feel the same,” he says. “But I did want to make a completely different story. I had to create some distance between myself and what I had already achieved with ‘Your Name.’”
I felt like I needed to make a movie that would make my critics feel even more strongly about me. The hatred surrounding ‘Your Name.’ actually helped me realize what I wanted to do as a creator. ”
“Weathering With You” begins with a protagonist who also decides to put some distance between himself and his past. That protagonist is high school student Hodaka Morishima (Kotaro Daigo), who runs away from his small island hometown to Tokyo.
From the towering skyscrapers of Shinjuku to the low-rise, shrine-dotted neighborhoods of the east, the rain-soaked metropolis is captured in breathtaking detail.
Location hunting for the film took about two months.
“The topography of Tokyo is important to the film,” Shinkai says. “There are actually parcels of land near Tokyo Bay, for example, that are lower than sea level. That plays a part in the story, so it was important to do that research.”
Shinkai believes the attention to detail should help viewers connect with the story.
“I want people to feel as if this is something taking place in our world right now,” he says. “It’s not a piece of fiction that has nothing to do with you and I — it’s happening here and now.”
Hodaka spends his first few days in Tokyo in awe of his new surroundings, wandering the streets of Shinjuku in fear and wonderment.
Shinkai, who was born and raised in Nagano Prefecture, had a similar reaction when he first visited the metropolis.
“I came with a friend after graduating high school,” he recalls. “I must have been 18 years old. We walked around (the Shinjuku entertainment district of) Kabukicho in total fear. Various people approached us, from religious groups and adult shops. … It was pretty scary (at the time).”
“Back then, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building was brand new,” Shinkai says, referring to Shinjuku’s iconic twin towers. “It was a huge, shining skyscraper. … It felt like a city of the future.”
After two decades living in and around Shinjuku, Shinkai still finds himself fascinated by the capital’s urban landscape.
“Tokyo is covered in dark asphalt and when it rains, it turns almost black,” he says. “The man-made lights of the city reflect against that darkness. And when a ray of sunlight hits the damp asphalt, it sparkles. You might typically think of wet asphalt as pretty drab, but I think it’s beautiful and I want viewers to experience this as well.”
The few rays of sunlight that appear in “Weathering With You” come courtesy of the film’s female protagonist, Hina Amano (Nana Mori), who discovers that she is able to create a reprieve from the rain through prayer, causing the sun to shine in a localized area for a few hours. In short, Hina is, as one character refers to her, a “100 percent fair-weather girl.”
Shinkai, who studied literature in college, is an avowed fan of novelist Haruki Murakami. Might he have taken inspiration for Hina from Murakami’s “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl on One Beautiful April Morning”?
“I was definitely conscious of it,” says Shinkai, laughing. “There’s no real connection as such, but you might make that leap if you’re a fan of Murakami. I do love that story and it just came out naturally.”
Shinkai explains the Murakami links — conscious or otherwise — go even deeper.
“I didn’t realize this as we were making the film but, in hindsight, it’s actually quite similar to Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore,’” Shinkai says.
Both the main character of that 2002 novel and Hodaka are teenage runaways who meet a mysterious cast of characters; both works of fiction even feature fish falling from the sky.
“It’s possible I unconsciously remembered that novel,” he says. “However, I do believe that when you break down stories, they all ultimately end up following a few basic structures.”
Shinkai turned 46 this year. Aside from a few errant gray hairs, you might peg him as a decade younger — not just because of his boyish grin, but because of the way his young characters seem to reverberate with audiences at home and abroad.
But when I ask Shinkai whether he thinks the young people of Japan will sympathize with the themes of this latest film, he pauses.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I’m not so young anymore.”
That may explain why “Weathering With You” features Shinkai’s most three-dimensional adult character to date, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), a writer who takes Hodaka under his wing and whose complicated family issues are fleshed out in a significant subplot.
“First and foremost, the story is about Hodaka coming into conflict with society, so I needed an adult to represent society as a whole,” he says. “That’s Suga’s role. But, indeed, he’s about my age and he has a young child — just like me.”
By including this grown-up in the narrative, Shinkai was able to explore his own thoughts on adulthood.
“When you get older, you accumulate more ‘things’ that aren’t easy to let go of, whether that’s work or family or what have you,” he says. “The main characters of the film are still a boy and a girl, but a middle-aged guy naturally worked his way in there as well.”
While the director insists “Weathering With You” is primarily entertainment, adulthood is just one of the deeper themes he explores. The relentless rain depicted in the film, for example, was partially inspired by the extreme weather events of the past few years.
“Japan used to have four distinct seasons, and that was a source of pride here,” says Shinkai, whose “5 Centimeters per Second” takes place around the cherry blossom season.
But in recent years, he says, “weather has become something hostile to humans, something we have to prepare against. It’s frightening.”
In “Weathering With You,” Hodaka visits a shrine where a monk scoffs at the notion that, historically speaking, there’s anything particularly abnormal about a long rainy season.
“Humans think on a scale of 100 years or so, but the world works on a much larger scale,” Shinkai says. “That’s what the monk is saying — humans can’t control the weather. That’s one way to look at things but, at the same time, that’s not quite right either, as humans have definitely changed the weather. I don’t come to a clear conclusion on this but the issue definitely lies at the heart of the film.”
The topography of Tokyo is important to the film. There are actually parcels of land near Tokyo Bay, for example, that are lower than sea level. That plays a part in the story, so it was important to do that research.”
Perhaps the question Shinkai is most interested in exploring in “Weathering With You” is whether the needs of society should always be put ahead of the needs of the individual.
It’s a question he’s allowed to explore, he says, precisely because it’s packaged in the form of entertainment.
“To say the person right in front of me is more important than society … (is something) politicians and those in power definitely aren’t allowed to say, right?” he says. “You can’t write it in newspapers or textbooks either.”
However, he says, “in entertainment, you’re free to yell it at the top of your lungs.”
“And when you do, it makes viewers think about things,” he says. “Some people will agree, others will strongly oppose it. At the very least, it should help people understand what kind of society we are living in.”
In some ways, it almost sounds as if Shinkai considers “Weathering With You” to be a massive social experiment.
“How will Japan react to the film?” he asks. “Will it be accepted, rejected or ignored? The reaction will help me see the form of our society, to figure out how people are really thinking right now.”
The public’s reaction to “Weathering With You” may be crucial to Shinkai for another reason: Much like “Your Name.” did three years ago, the response to the film may well determine his future.
As far as initial interest is concerned, early indications are positive, with the film attracting ¥1.64 billion in box-office sales in the first three days of its release, according to Toho Co.
However, Shinkai says the film may have wider ramifications to how Japanese anime is perceived worldwide.
“I think the advantages held by Japan in terms of animation are decreasing every year,” he says. “China and South Korea are becoming bigger players, and a totally different style — one pioneered by Disney and Pixar — is sweeping the world. Meanwhile, we’re still here (in Japan) drawing by hand.”
For a director who created one of the biggest anime hits of all time, Shinkai seems ambivalent about the future of his industry.
“How far can it go?” he asks. “Can we continue to make animation in this way? It’s a huge question for us right now. To what extent will 2D animation such as ‘Weathering With You’ continue to be loved by people? We’ll see how things go this time around and take it from there.”
REVIEW: James Hadfield describes “Weathering With You” as “breezy with scattered showers.“
“How will Japan react to the film? Will it be accepted, rejected or ignored? The reaction will help me see the form of our society, to figure out how people are really thinking right now.”