The 43-year-old anime director Shinkai Makoto has been hyped as an heir to the mantle of Miyazaki Hayao, and there are some valid, if limited, points of comparison. He makes ravishing images, inspired by Miyazaki’s signature contrast of bold, flat foreground characters with mottled, fine-detailed backdrops – though where Miyazaki relied on Oga Kazuo for his background art, Shinkai styles his own, while trying out different character designers across his films to date.
Both attend to the weather, though where Miyazaki typically uses clouds, steam and wind to indicate nature’s spirit world, Shinkai deploys a broader range of meteorological effects – rain, gentle snow, meteor fireworks – for emotional spectacle.
And where Miyazaki (prior to The Wind Rises in 2014) expressed his formidable worldview through breathtaking fables and fantasias ostensibly aimed at various ages of children, Shinkai’s wistful, bashful stories of the heart have tended towards a young adult register, with high-school student protagonists exploring their autonomy and graduating through first loves into the bruised, compromised culture of adulthood. But the fact that Shinkai’s new feature, Your Name, has become the first anime to gross as much as some of Miyazaki’s hits at the Japanese box office (overtaking Ponyo’s ¥15.5 billion at the time of writing) suggests that both have found the knack of expanding their reach beyond their target audiences.
Rather like Wong Kar Wai, Shinkai focuses on the distances between people, in films such as 5 Centimetres per Second (2007), a bluesy triptych about a young dreamer’s not-quite relationships with two girls, or The Garden of Words (2013), about an earnest pupil’s rainy-season trysts with an alcoholic young woman outside school. Your Name, though, moves into a poppier gear, starting with the soundtrack: instead of being composed by Shinkai’s long-time collaborator Tenmon, or Kashiwa Daisuke, who scored The Garden of Words, this one is by the major-league Japanese rock band Radwimps; as Shinkai says, it adds “speed and fresh air”. (The partnership between Miyazaki and the composer Joe Hisaishi has become such a paradigm for anime that Shinkai sought to break new ground: “I wanted something new, and not necessarily traditional to Japanese animation filmmaking,” he says.)
The story also moves faster: it’s a time-travelling body-swap comedy drama about two high-schoolers, a country girl and a city boy, separated by not only distance but also the impact of a spectacular meteor shower from a passing comet, an animated spectacle that forms the linchpin of the plot and to which the film loops back twice.
Mitsuha, the girl character, lives in the fictional town of Itomori, set around the bay of a lake high in the Japanese Alps. Here, ritual and tradition are embodied by her grandma and the kuchikami (spit-fermented) sake they still ceremonially make – almost as great an embarrassment to Mitsuha as the public admonishments she receives from her half-estranged father, the mayor. It’s perhaps her wish to escape to the big city that finds her waking up one day in the body of Tokyo high-school student Taki, and he in hers – and over the next weeks the hiccup becomes a habit.
“You weren’t yourself yesterday,” runs the refrain from their friends and family; bewilderment and horror gradually give way to mischief and adventure as they explore each other’s lives and trade notes in their phone journals. Mitsuha spends Taki’s money in elegant Tokyo cafes and uses her feminine touch to sweeten his relationship with Miss Okudera, a beautiful co-worker at the high-end Italian restaurant where he works evenings as a waiter.
Taki also gets to learn more about girls – a regular gag has him starting his days as Mitsuha by copping a feel of her breasts – and to explore the scenery and traditions of a more traditional Japan: Mitsuha’s grandma takes him on an excursion to an ancient shrine in an overgrown volcano crater and explains to him the local concept of kumihimo – braided cords that represent the thread of time and the connections between people – and kataware-doki, a kind of halfworld, in-between state. And when the cord between him and Mitsuha breaks, it’s Taki who has to find his way back to Itomori and through that half-world, in search of his soulmate.
Shinkai himself grew up in Nagano prefecture, high in the Japanese Alps, before he moved to Tokyo, and agrees that he’s seen both sides of the coin. “Mitsuha is pretty much me,” he says. “Itomori doesn’t exist, but definitely her character is based on my own upbringing. I loved Nagano but I really was dying to go to Tokyo. My parents used to run a construction company, so there was a pressure on me to take over the business eventually, but I wanted to do something different, and I left home at 18.”
When I suggest that the film dwells more on the details of contemporary young urban experience (for example, incorporating smartphone messages in its mise en scène more comfortably than just about any film I’ve seen), he pulls me up: “I’m not actually documenting the current Tokyo. The Tokyo you see in this movie is a stereotype, the image that Mitsuha dreams of and that I dreamt of when I was younger: that was Tokyo to me. And in reality it really isn’t. I mean, Taki is working in this really nice Italian restaurant, he’s going to this really posh, cool cafe: no, not really. Young students in Tokyo really don’t go to these places.”
But Shinkai does allow that the animation technique, which apparently incorporates degrees of photography and rotoscoping, lends the film a photorealistic documentary aspect. “Visually speaking, yes, it’s the other way round: in terms of animation Tokyo is more realistic, because I visited locations and we really wanted to be true to what you can actually see in Tokyo. There’s a line Taki speaks: that we’ll never know how long Tokyo as we know it might last. And I think that’s something most of us Japanese people are aware of, because we’re really natural-disaster prone, so it might just go. So yes, I actually wanted to record this Tokyo and honour its beauty.”
The big, generous skies that recur in his films, he agrees, are a legacy of his childhood. “I grew up high in these beautiful mountains, the sky was big, and you can look at the clouds all day; you just don’t get bored,” he says, before hazarding an analogy between star-gazing and romantic yearning: “I still like looking at the sky, stars, clouds. I think for me as a boy, maybe girls were the same as Tokyo: fab, really beautiful, great, but unavailable. I admire the sky, I admire Tokyo; yeah, some girls are pretty, but I can’t get them. So I think that’s why the characters I create love looking at the skies, because they’re admiring something beyond their reach, and it’s definitely from my own experience as a boy.”
Your Name also develops another Shinkai motif, the use of twilight and magic-hour lighting effects, not only for their inherent allure but to conjure a sense of transitions, of time on the cusp and journeys at cross-paths. A key scene is set in this magical limbo when, ironically, Shinkai experimented with turning down the visual distinctions. “What’s important for me to create animation is the contrast: sky, earth, people; which is brighter? And because animation uses lots of small cuts, you really need contrast to create some kind of focal point,” he explains. “But in this twilight scene, I made everything neutral: nothing is brighter than anything else. I don’t normally use this technique, so it was a bit of a challenge.”
Similarly, in his depictions of the city, Shinkai loves images of passing trains and sliding doors, emblems of glancing chances and evanescent connections. Each of his films is patterned around a separated pair; even when a couple moves into alignment, he introduces a more distant third figure for contrast. (Your Name notes the yearnings of characters around Mitsuha and Taki whenever the pair seem closer.)
“When I was a teenager,” he says, “one of the mysteries of the world was why human emotions were not equal: I’m in love with you, you’re in love with me, but it’s not always equal; one person loves probably more than the other person loves. I’m not only talking about romantic love; it’s the same in friendships. Nothing is entirely equal – how you care, any feelings. I don’t have an answer, but I’ve always wondered why that is, and that’s why I’m dealing with these contrasts in my movies, trying to find the answers to my questions and the mysteries of the world.”