Makoto Shinkai’s modern work is defined by its immediate circumstances to a larger degree than most people realize, be it the themes he decides to tackle or the finesse in the delivery that depends on the whims of the industry. This is how they affected Your Name, Weathering with You, and even his new film Suzume no Tojimari.
Although his tremendous commercial success as of late and his prominence in anime fandom consciousness even prior to that make it easy to forget, Your Name was actually Makoto Shinkai’s very first widely distributed feature film, and thus an entirely different challenge for him. At the time, it had heavier responsibilities on its shoulders than any prior work of his, including its 1.5 billion JPY box office target; a meager-looking figure now that we know it was multiple orders of magnitude more popular, but that at the time represented 10 times his highest-grossing work. Not even TOHO’s business-savvy producers could bring themselves to predict the industry-shifting hit they were about to unleash.
With these circumstances in mind, the approach Shinkai and planning producer Genki Kawamura took since the very start makes a lot of sense: a bright, vibrant streamlining of Shinkai’s traditional star-crossed lovers narrative that perfectly read a room craving such a story in a post-Tohoku earthquake—and midst-demoralizing nonsense on a worldwide level—audience, smartly constructed as a piece of entertainment that encourages multiple watches through its structure and easy digestibility. It’s easy to look back on it as an excellent effort in storytelling more than in having a story to tell, but the more Shinkai’s career progresses, the more I feel like such backhanded praise doesn’t do him justice. While you can’t seriously argue that his works have rich narratives, his drive to send positive messages to younger generations growing up to inherit a future that seems not to have much of a future is the real deal, and only seems to have increased tenfold now that TOHO has given a much larger platform than he ever had.
As someone who began his career as a bit of a one-man army that lived and died through its aesthetic, it’s no surprise that Shinkai made sure the movie’s visuals underwent a similar glow-up and refinement, doing away with any extraneous elements and emphasizing its laser-focused imagery. This upgrade wasn’t so obvious in the dazzling backgrounds and compositing, as those were already top of the line, but by all means made a difference when it comes to the animation. Although it would start the amusing trend of becoming the face of Shinkai’s modern work and then being unable to actually work on his films, Masayoshi Tanaka helped by lending his attractive character designs. And, most importantly, those had life breathed into them by an animation team of an incomparable caliber to anything Shinkai previously had at his disposal. In the span of a single project, he went from requiring the world itself to act in place of the cast to directing the best character animators in the business.
Leading that spectacular production was animation character designer and lead animation director Masashi Ando, whom you might know as a key player in 90s to early 00s Ghibli, or perhaps as an equally important figure in his tour across all projects by Japanese animation titans that he’s been on since then. While he was no longer an employee at the studio when Ghibli announced that they were suspending activities in 2014, having someone of Ando’s pedigree as the animation centerpiece of his project with such good timing led to Your Name becoming the poster child of the post-Ghibli movement in the industry—a sudden influx of exceptionally talented animators who suddenly had to find new roles, which in this case led the participation of Takeshi Inamura, Atsuko Tanaka, Megumi Kagawa, Shunsuke Hirota, Hiroko Minowa, and so on.
As it usually happens when you gather this much animation talent, gravity kicked in to attract even more outstanding names: a Production IG faction led by Kazuchika Kise and featuring some of the studio’s realistic animation experts like Shinji Suetomi and Takahiro Chiba, as well as a legion of theatrical level freelance aces including the likes of Hiroyuki Okiura, Hideki Hamasu, Akira Honma, Ei Inoue, Norio Matsumoto, and of course Takashi Hashimoto to animate everything and anything related to the comet in the film. In short, the greatest animation team you could realistically hope for, and then some.
No amount of talent on paper means anything if you can’t properly garner it, but fortunately, Shinkai and Ando did an exceptional job directing the team; almost a given with the latter as guiding acting experts has occupied him for much of his career, and a pleasant surprise for the former in the form of storyboards that naturally exploited animation draftsmanship on a level he’d never dealt with before. The relative simplicity of the character writing played to their advantage, as individual cuts weren’t obligated to convey minute nuances, but rather to unequivocally convey strong feelings. There is a sense of unambiguousness to the animation throughout the film, with a constant barrage of attractive character acting with a palpable sense of purpose. There are many roads that can take you to something worth being referred to as characterful animation, and thanks to Ando’s meticulousness, Your Name achieved that through the path of deliberate movement.
The aspect of the film that best embodied that was the portrayal of body language, which played directly into the theme of body swapping. You’d be able to tell who was in control of each body at any point in the film based on their demeanor alone, even in distance shots where the careful shorthand designs made the Ghibli roots of the animation ever so obvious. This idea of strongly character-coding the animation in a synergistic effort that also reinforces austere writing might sound fundamentally simple, and to some degree it is, but consistently executing it at such a high level is nightmarishly complicated—hence why there are very few comparable works of animation out there. A reading that only focuses on the substance of Your Name’s text will never be able to figure out why its simple love story resonated so strongly with people, but once you factor in the animation’s delivery, it’s as clear as day.
Now jump 3 years forward and, in contrast to that very precise execution of relatively vague optimistic ideas, Shinkai’s following film Weathering with You inverted that balance with much messier delivery of many more—and way more specific—uplifting messages for a whole disenfranchised generation. After a painful struggle figuring out how to follow up his own smash hit, Shinkai put together a more chaotic film, swinging with more ambition than ever and accidentally shattering some windows in the process.
Out of the three themes that Shinkai initially pitched, the one that most meaningfully represents Weathering with You is survival. The movie focuses on the struggles, be it economic or emotional, to survive on the outskirts of society. As if to prove that he still keeps his finger on the pulse of the youth, the movie masterfully voices a quiet, normalized anguish that more and more people are being pushed towards—obligated to act a certain adult way, but also denied the simple pleasures that previous generations could take for granted. Although the sentiment can more generally apply to people of all ages, there is a clear modern framing to it, with Shinkai directly encouraging younger folks to live on. In doing so, it invokes actual concepts like climate change, filtered through Shinkai’s magical realism as they may be.
While the willingness to tackle such themes is part of the reason why the movie feels so poignant at points, it also led to muddying its beautiful waters. In the process of exculpating younger people of a crisis they’ve simply inherited, as well as trying to free them from asphyxiating societal expectations, the movie uncritically drops certain statements about cyclical disasters that feel very odd in the very real context of climate change. If you take a step back, it’s clear that Shinkai is simply pushing back against the idea that individuals—vulnerable ones at that—are meant to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, but his decision to use climate both as a literal factor in the current crisis and as an allegory wasn’t the most elegant choice in storytelling.
When it comes down to it, though, I find that occasional lack of narrative and thematic clarity to be a symptom rather than the problem at the root. Had the same ideas been delivered as carefully as Your Name’s admittedly simpler messages, Weathering with You could be similarly tight, but its planning was never as smooth, and being far more rushed, the animation never stood a chance to convey everything as definitely—especially given the way less fortunate timing.
As alluded to earlier, Shinkai didn’t have an easy time visualizing the successor to Your Name. He pondered which direction to take for so long that meeting the deadlines became an issue since the very start, be it his own or the rest of the team’s. While it spent more time in the oven than Your Name, as well as more time outside of it as they figured out what they were even cooking, Weathering with You came out half-baked in spots, visually and thematically so. A production chaos incomparable to the remarkable efficiency of Your Name wasn’t the right context to foster polish and precision, so the final result should surprise no one.
To make things even more complicated, the animation team they managed to gather wasn’t quite the same. A superficial look might tell you otherwise: it still had an ex-Ghibli leading the animation in co-character designer and animation director Atsushi Tamura, as well as a beefed-up replacement for Hashimoto in de facto main animator Hidetsugu Ito—one of the greatest FX: Shorthand for effects animation – water, fire, beams, that kind of cut. A pillar of Japanese 2D animation. animators in history, lending his expertise in fluidity on a movie all about the rain. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll realize that most theatrical animators who made Your Name what it was vanished this time around, forcing Shinkai to rely on TV anime aces like Chiyoko Ueno, Yuki Hayashi, Keita Nagahara, or Masahiro Sato to carry the load this time around; partly due to availability, partly due to the fact that the schedule resembled the chaos of television more than the… lesser chaos of film.
Tamura, who was more of a roleplayer in his stunt at Ghibli than a leader like Ando, never had that sort of magnetism towards his peers and other high-profile animators. That team dispersed in favor of projects like Mamoru Hosoda’s films, Ponoc’s own ex-Ghibli efforts, and even Kitaro Kosaka’s Okko’s Inn—and, eventually, in favor of Ghibli’s actual comeback with Miyazaki at the helm. The thorough acting to humanize the cast that specialized artists like them can nonchalantly offer became so scarce that remaining ex-Ghibli Minoru Ohashi had to animate essentially all food-related scenes. That is the kind of attention to detail that you could take for granted in Your Name, and that for the most part is missing from Weathering with You.
In the end, it’d be outrageous to imply that Weathering with You is a poorly animated movie. It is, for starters, a very animated movie, with more motion to its characters than its predecessor. In some ways, Shinkai’s expression even leveled up; while the gorgeous portrayal of the world improved in the incremental ways we’re used to at this point, its depiction of Tokyo’s wear and tear offered a powerful contrast to the sanitized city seen in Your Name, especially as idealized through Mitsuha’s eyes (Mitsuha’s Taki’s eyes?). The movie also stands toe to toe with its predecessor in sheer spectacle, a quality that is very much needed in a Shinkai title.
There is, however, an undeniable loss of intangibles. Had it only been a downgrade in technical draftsmanship, it would be easy to shrug things off, but the movie also loses that thorough purposefulness to the animation that defined Your Name. While Tamura was more willing to rely on exaggeration as an amusing shortcut for expressiveness, it was Ando’s clinical precision that had made the characters so easy to read and to relate to. It was those theatrical animators that gave an edge to the portrayal of desperation in Your Name over Weathering with You’s, despite the latter being much more focused on a whole generation’s struggle to survive. It was their supreme polish that protected the immersion for the entirety of the movie’s runtime. There is a reason why Weathering with You can’t hit quite as strongly despite being much more poignant on paper, and why certain points aren’t expressed as clearly as they deserve. For the good and for the bad, these two movies showed just how much Shinkai’s modern work is a product of their environment.
So, why dig this up now? As you’ve likely already heard, Shinkai’s new film Suzume no Tojimari has been officially unveiled. While no footage has been shown and the vague premise—a teenage girl adventuring through Japan to close mysterious doors that could bring our downfall—isn’t very telling about the content of the movie, Shinkai has already personally stepped in to talk about its intent. By making a road movie in the form of a journey across the country with its fair share of action, his goal is to make something enjoyable to as many people as possible, specifically aiming to encourage them to go to the cinema if possible. And with the door motif, he wants to pivot into making us think about what’s truly important in our lives, at a point where many figurative but also literal doors have been closed.
As you can guess, this is very much a covid-inspired film. Judging from the way he is speaking about it, it seems to be closer to Your Name‘s relationship with the Tohoku Earthquake than Weathering with You‘s tangible link to the climate crisis and so on—which is to say, that I would expect a more vaguely optimistic movie that a poignant yet uplifting critique. With the release being almost an entire year away, absolutely no one can tell whether the execution will be up to scratch, but given that Shinkai has always been pretty transparent about the production process, there are some things that are already worth pointing out.
While talking about this movie before its reveal was publicly teased, I summarized the state of its production with this dichotomy: either they allowed Shinkai to delay the early summer deadline that the previous movies had, or they’d have no movie to show—fortunately, they opted for the former. Although it’s too early to worry about the finished product, Suzume‘s milestones have been notoriously behind Weathering with You‘s already messy situation, as the pre-production has been anything but smooth. The storyboarding process lasted well over a year, from October 2020 to right now, as Shinkai spent ages trying to correct his own work. The animation process began in Spring as it usually happens with his movies, but you can’t really make progress when the director has yet to nail his final vision for the film. Here’s hoping that the schedule extension they’ve been granted is enough in the end.
But what about that element of timing that we’ve determined is so important in a fairly closed space like theatrical animation, with directors in friendly competitions to bait the greatest talents to their side? It would appear that Shinkai is still paying the price of Your Name‘s impossibly good circumstances, as this time he didn’t even get to have a Ghibli animation director; not exactly a surprise, given that those have gathered around Miyazaki and on studio Ponoc’s The Imaginary. Instead, Shinkai has entrusted the job to Kenichi Tsuchiya, a reliable old pal of his with a decidedly lesser profile.
Does that mean that the movie is doomed to scavenge for TV resources even more than Weathering with You did, then? I wouldn’t be so sure yet, even if the situation isn’t ideal. The last couple of years have been a metaphorical bloodbath, as the consistent big theatrical directors have been joined by other creators with irresistible magnetism leading projects of their own. With most of those projects either having finished or being well on their way—including Miyazaki’s—a window should open for titles like this to have excellent additions to their crew. Although The Imaginary will be the default destination of all Ghibli-adjacent creators, Suzume could very well land impressive guests of their own, especially seeing how the action component can attract specialists who hadn’t really considered working alongside Shinkai before. The next few months will tell, as any major contributions should happen way ahead of the production’s end.
Besides keeping people up to date with developments about this new film that they might not be privy to, the goal of this piece was to expose just how strongly Shinkai’s modern works have been influenced by their context. Unlike directors who stay steady in their corner, Shinkai is a very reactive director who can’t help but react to current events, figuring out the right words of encouragement each time. And, when it comes to their delivery, the finesse has depended on the availability of resources and production circumstances much more than people seem to realize. For a director so incredibly straightforward, Shinkai remains not fully understood—so hopefully this will help!
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