Your Name, the heartwarming story of two high-school students on an emotional, consciousness-swapping journey to find one another, took just two weeks to become a domestic and global blockbuster. The 2016 film also catapulted the already accomplished but not yet well-known director Makoto Shinkai into the Japanese and international spotlight.
Born in 1973 in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, Shinkai, who has created dozens of films, commercials, video games and other creative works, credits teenage exposure to manga, anime, literature as his inspirations. While we are impatient about what Shinkai will do next, let’s take a moment to explore his pre-Your Name works, which are all equally captivating. Here are four of his (still) less-known works that first revealed the talent of this unique and powerful director.
1. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (雲のむこう、約束の場所), 2004
Shinkai’s feature film debut is a jump into an alternate reality sci-fi universe where post-war Japan is a wildly different place. Opening in 1996 in the northern Japanese city of Aomori, The Place Promised in Our Early Days follows the story of three close teenage friends, Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri. In their universe, a “Union” (a reference to the Soviet Union) controls the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and the United States controls the south. The “Union” constructs a mysterious tower in Hokkaido, and the three friends — able to see the massive structure from their home — grow obsessed with discovering the tower’s secrets. The friends make a pact to fly to Hokkaido to investigate, but the plan is halted when Sayuri begins suffering from a strange sleeping sickness and eventually disappears. Over subsequent years, the boys discover that what really happened to Sayuri was caused by the tower, and they begin plotting to destroy it. Fantastic, yet oppressive technology, conspiracy, shame and betrayal, and a subtle love triangle amongst our three protagonists, make this film an exciting and emotional ride.
2. 5 Centimeters per Second (秒速５センチメートル), 2007
Shinkai’s second feature production, 5 Centimeters per Second, is a three-part emotional story wherein each episode revolves around the protagonist, Takaki Tono. In Episode 1: Cherry Blossom, set in Tokyo in the early 1990s, Takaki, an elementary school student, is developing a close friendship with a young girl, Akari. Upon graduation from elementary school, Akari’s family moves away and the young friends stay in contact by writing letters. With Takaki’s family also about to relocate, and realizing that he might never see Akari again, he sets off to meet her one last time to declare his love. In Episode 2: Cosmonaut, set in 1998, Takaki, is now a high school student who lives in the deep-southern Japanese island of Tanegashima. The story focuses on Kanae, Takaki’s classmate, and the unrequited love she holds for him, despite him considering her nothing more than a good friend. But Takaki still has only one girl in mind: his first love Akari. In Episode 3: 5 Centimeters per Second, set in 2008, an unhappy Takaki works as a programmer in Tokyo. To his own and his girlfriend’s emotional detriment, he still longs for Akari and thinks about her constantly. 5 Centimeters per Second might appear to many as a sad narrative, but the film’s conclusion manages to leave us with not only the peace of acceptance, but a nostalgic reverence for the idealistic emotions that we all feel when we’re young.
3. Children Who Chase Lost Voices (星を追う子ども), 2011
Shinkai’s fourth anime release, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, leads us into a fantastical and interdimensional world. The protagonist, Asuna, is a bright young girl whose father has passed away and whose mother works long hours, leaving her mostly to her own devices. One day, on what was to be a normal walk to her clubhouse, Asuna is attacked by a monster and simultaneously saved by Shun, a mysterious boy who, along with the monster, seems to have arrived suddenly out of thin air. As Asuna and Shun bond over the experience, she learns that he comes from another land called Agartha. Tragically, however, her new friend doesn’t stay long. Asuna is once again left alone, but she perks up one day at school when a new teacher, Mr. Morisaki, mentions his own interest in Agartha. The student-teacher pair becomes obsessed with exploring Shun’s place of origin, and the adventure begins. This emotional, heartfelt film explores the very real struggles of dealing with solitude and overcoming the grief of losing a loved one.
4. The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭), 2013
The Garden of Words, Shinkai’s fifth anime production, is an emotional, mildly metaphorical exploration of loneliness, sadness, and the variety of ways in which human beings mature through struggle and hardship. The film follows the interactions between an earnest teenage boy who’s dedicated to the dream of becoming a shoemaker and an unhappy woman in her 20s. Over the course of Japan’s rainy season, the pair consistently find themselves in an outdoor Japanese garden, where little by little, the two start to form a bond. We eventually learn that the characters share something very important — a common struggle toward achieving normalcy in life. An innocent, platonic and touching romance, this movie is about two very different individuals who simultaneously realize that, despite differences in age and aspiration, they share a universal longing for personal satisfaction and emotional connection.
As we can see from this list, Makoto Shinkai’s narrative elements are quite simple: love, longing, loss, and, occasionally, redemption — the oldest of all human tropes. Basic ideas, yes, but what showcases Shinkai’s particular talent for storytelling is the way in which he communicates these universal ideas, the way in which he pushes emotion across time and space, and the way in which his characters and we, the audience, are made to accept the weight of what is inevitable. But more importantly, the one special feature found in most of Shinkai’s storytelling is that he always leaves a backdoor open for hope.
With that kind of track record, we surely have much to look forward to from Makoto Shinkai. In the meantime, however, do yourself and favor and take a look back!