The Japanese animation (anime) film market is no doubt quite saturated with new releases every year. Some films break through the geographical barriers and become global blockbusters, such as critically acclaimed animation director Mamoru Hosoda’s recent work, Belle. Only a few directors in this unique film space have what it takes to become household names. For instance, Hayao Miyazaki’s 60-year career continues to shape the landscape of anime films, as the 82-year-old director laid the foundation for this specific art form. As more animators enter the scene, we see a brilliant and meticulous director burst through the door: Makoto Shinkai.
The genius who shattered Japanese box-office expectations in 2016 and then in 2019, Shinkai is back to shake things up once again. Suzume is the successor to Shinkai’s past global achievements in Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019), first premiering in Japan in 2022 and receiving its U.S. premiere in April of this year.
The director’s hallmark style and technique place an emphasis on hyper-realism through his illustrations yet remain reminiscent to the detailed landscape art of his peers, Miyazaki and Hosoda. While anime and anime films often cater to the genre of fantasy and speculative fiction, Shinkai’s films explore the space between realism and fiction. The director seemingly established his signature style over the last two decades, incorporating high-concept themes and realistic illustrations of real-life locations in Japan in his films. His work is so beloved that fans and TikTok creators travel to Japan, seeking out the famous scenes from Your Name on video for a side-by-side comparison.
For many people anime has become a platform to explore realistic issues against the backdrop of magic, affording its viewers comfort and escapism. Shinkai’s anime films do that, too, and in the process ground viewers in an unfiltered realistic landscape and setting. Here, let’s explore some of Shinkai’s notable works and observe why he is the next living legend of Japanese animation films.
秒速5センチメートル (5 Centimeters per Second, 2007)
A film that comprises three acts, 5 Centimeters per Second follows three different periods of quiet protagonist Takaki Tono’s life, from childhood to adulthood. Centered around the theme of puppy love, Tono struggles to connect with the women around him (even when he has a girlfriend), as the memories of his first love remain unshakable, years after they’ve parted ways. The title of the film is inspired by the speed at which a cherry blossom petal falls to the ground, at five centimeters per second, which is allusive to Japan’s highly celebrated, unofficial national flower. Shinkai draws the connection of romance to the beautiful and poetic observation of physics and nature. The film delivers a soft push and pull, sometimes slowly and other times swiftly, between the two characters, as they drift apart.
星を追う子ども (Children Who Chase Lost Voices, 2011)
Opposite of Shinkai’s critically acclaimed 5 Centimeters, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is action-packed while successfully maintaining the genre of romance. Protagonist Asuna meets a mysterious teenage boy who claims to come from a mythical country called Agartha. Shinkai explores high fantasy in this film, as he launches Asuna and her companions into a world that no one has heard of, with magical beings like Quetzacoatls and archangels. As Asuna’s journey continues, she learns more about her journey-mates, unfolding dark secrets and leading to unsuspecting betrayals. Children Who Chase Lost Voices explores the themes of death, resurrection, and grief, structured in the framework of fantasy. One of Shinkai’s most underrated yet powerful works of art, Children Who Chase Lost Voices reminds its viewers the importance of companionship and the impact of grief.
言の葉の庭 (The Garden of Words, 2013)
The Garden of Words is only 46 minutes long but packs a lot of emotion and shatters many stereotypes in the East Asian diaspora. This dramatic romance follows a high school student, Takao Akizuki, who aspires to be a shoemaker. Yukari Yukino is a woman in her late-20s, whom Akizuki coincidentally meets multiple times at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Every time they meet, it happens to rain, forcing the two to remain close to each other under a gazebo. Yukino does not share much about herself with Akizuki, never disclosing anything about her professional or personal life. The two develop romantic feelings for each other, but the lack of information Akizuki knows about her makes him concerned. Shinkai effectively builds the tension and releases it, sending Akizuki and Yukino into utter chaos. The Garden of Words puts societal expectations and unequal treatment of women under a microscope and criticizes the unfair standards of women in the genre of romance. This film, additionally, is quite critical in Shinkai’s career as an animator, as we start to see his art style shift and become what we are currently familiar with now.
君の名は (Your Name, 2016)
Taki Tachibana and Mitsuha Miyazumi, our protagonists, are launched into a body-switching spell at the start of the film, bringing some cheeky comedy and laughter to viewers at the get-go. But the mood slowly changes when Tachibana and Miyazumi suddenly stop switching one day. As the two strangers figure out what caused and stopped the phenomenon, they begin to realize that perhaps they do not exist on the same plane. The keystone that ignites this destiny is a meteor that changed the course of both Tachibana and Miyazumi’s lives. Never short of romance, traditional and beautiful Japanese imagery, witty humor, and masterful weaving of threads that construct the tapestry of something greater than the universes, Your Name is a hyper-realistic yet fantastical story of love that transcends time and space. Whether you are a new fan of anime or just discovering Shinkai, Your Name is the perfect project and a necessity to watch.
Critics and fans alike unanimously agree that Your Name is Shinkai’s magnum opus—the film that launched his filmography into global recognition. This film has, in a way, served as a career-reset for Shinkai, as his art style evolved and solidified himself as a strong contender for the title of the next living legend in anime films. Along with his international stardom, Your Name also boosted the notoriety of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who composed and performed the soundtrack for the film. With a fresh, new style in Your Name, Shinkai does not shed away the realism that had made him the great anime director that he is. Unlike his previous films, Your Name serves as a platform that brings together fantasy and realistic environments, set between rural Japan’s Hida region and insomniatic Tokyo.
天気の子 (Weathering with You, 2019)
Following the global success of Shinkai’s Your Name (2016), Weathering with You (2019) had huge shoes to fill. Hodaka Morishima is a first-year high schooler who finds himself running away from the police due to troubles at home. He meets Hina, the “sunshine girl,” who can control the weather and is just like Morishima, looking for a home. At a shrine on the roof of an abandoned building, Hina demonstrates her weather-controlling ability, as Shinkai draws back the curtains to reveal the magical elements of the film. With such powers, the young boy proposes a business plan that would benefit the both of them and put a roof over their heads. Of course, exposing her unusual talent to the world would only attract trouble in this exploitative and capitalistic world. Hina’s powers come at a cost, which pushes the plot further and into utter chaos. Weathering with You is adventure-packed and a joy to watch. This film also features the return of Shinkai’s musical partner, RADWIMPS, for yet another outstanding original soundtrack.
すずめの戸締まり (Suzume no Tojimari, 2022)
At the end of 2022, just three years after Weathering with You, Shinkai premiered his newest film, Suzume no Tojimari, in Japan. Set in Kyushu, Japan, the film opens with an unexpected encounter between the two protagonists. Suzume Iwato meets Sota, a mysterious man, on the side of the road. He is interested in abandoned areas in rural Japan and asks if Suzume knows of any in her town. As depicted in the official trailer of the film, we see Iwato and Sota traverse mystical realms through magical doors. Once again, the element of magic spreads through Shinkai’s film, as he points to the architectural crisis in Japan that has left suburban areas littered with ghost towns and abandoned homes. Suzume presents its audience with fast-paced and exciting storytelling that honors Shinkai’s foundational art style. The U.S. premier is set for April 14, 2023.
Published on April 10, 2023
Words by Ray Liu
Ray Liu is a New York-based entertainment and culture writer and K-beauty content creator. With a master’s degree in English, he finds purpose in analyzing fictional works with a cultural lens that centers marginalized communities. When he’s not writing, he’s making K-beauty content and reviews on YouTube (rayliur). Feel free to tweet him at @rayliur on Twitter.