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New York Comic-Con 2011
Makoto Shinkai Panel

by Todd Ciolek,

Makoto Shinkai was in many places at the New York Comic Con. The director's previous films Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and 5 Centimeters Per Second were screened at the convention, and a showing of his latest, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, is scheduled for Sunday. In between, Shinkai appeared on a panel to converse with Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica.

The panel was introduced by Crunchyroll's Japan office President Vincent Shortino, who announced that Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and 5 Centimeters Per Second would all be streaming for free from Crunchyroll over the next week.

Kelts introduced Shinkai, calling him “one of the very few young anime artists who's compared favorably with Miyazaki in Japan.” Shinkai introduced himself in English, mentioning that this was his first time in New York, and that he hoped to visit the Apple store for an iPhone 4S.

The two discussed Shinkai's unconventional background, which stemmed from computer-graphics and video games as opposed to anime, where hand-drawn art prevails even when aided by computers. Kelts asked if Shinkai's experience in CGI made him a better director.

“When I first started making these video, I was an amateur working at a gaming company,” Shinkai recalled. “But I really wanted to make animation, so I just used Photoshop and the other tools that I had. This was around 1998, so cameras were really cheap, so took photos on a digital camera, and I used images of cityscapes as foundation for the images I needed. I had to do a lot of drawing.”

Shinkai added "I wanted to think of my city as a beautiful city, so I used photos as the foundation to draw even more beautiful buildings than my reality. New York is already the location for a lot of things, so if I do that now, there's not much of a point.”

Asked about the changes he's seen in creating anime over the years, Shinkai said: “Compared to when I started ten years ago, now the technology is amazing. Because of that, I think, the amount of time people take to develop their ideas has gotten shorter. So it's important to take the time to develop ideas within yourself and decide what you really want to animate.”

In discussing the writing process and story structure of 5 Centimeters Per Second and other films, Shinkai said that he starts with word—such such as the 5 Centimeters Per Second 's opener about cherry blossoms falling.

“I think about what that line could inspire, and the story just sort of grows from there,” Shinkai said. “I also take inspiration from the works that I like. When I was a student, I was a literature major, but I just spent a lot of time reading Haruki Murakami's books, which I really enjoy.”

Kelts pointed out that Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84, which deals with a romance, is similar to Shinkai's stories of melancholy love stories, which often have bittersweet or just plain sad endings. So, he asked, does Shinkai think love is doomed?

“Love isn't doomed, I think,” Shinkai said. “Even if love doesn't always work out, and even if you don't end up with the person you like, you can still enjoy life, and that's what I was trying to convey.”

Shinkai also mentioned the music for his film, stating that the songs chosen depend on the movie.

“For 5 cm per second, I decided that I wanted to use a song from the 1990s, so I listened to a lot of music from that period and chose 'One More Life, One More Chance,” Shinkai said. “In Children Who Chase Lost Voices, I didn't want to use a famous singer's song. The singer Komaki created the song from what she felt at being a member of the team that created the film.”

Shinkai frequently collaborates with the composer Tenmon, who is a senior member from a game company where Shinkai worked.

“No matter how many times we asked him to rework a song, he would always smile and redo it, and it's been great,” Shinkai said.

Kelts noted the stereotype of anime studios as cramped environments filled with animators slaving over computers and cup ramen, and he asked about how Shinkai is working now that he has his own studio.

“We have about twenty main artists, and as far as small changes that need to be done, we have about two hundred artists to work with,” Shinkai estimated. “There aren't many people, so it doesn't feel that small. And everyone there really does love ramen. We made Children during the huge earthquake that hit Japan, and one of the animators, from Korea, didn't have much experience with earthquakes, and her mother sent a package with a lot of Korean ramen, and that really saved us.”

Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is a departure from Shinkai's previous works, as it presents an action-oriented tale with Miyazaki-esque stylings and a mysterious underworld called Agartha. Kelts asked why Shinkai went with a more epic feel and an Orpheus-like journey.

“In this story, we have character going down to hell or the underground to summon someone who passes away,” Shinkai said. “You'll see this in traditional Japanese stories like Kojiki and in other myths as well.”

Shinkai also stated that the films reflect the times in which they were made.

“When we were doing 5 Centimeters, Japan was in an era where it felt like nothing would ever change, and I wanted to make a movie that reflected that,” he said. “However, when we made the new movie, there were things happening around the world that had an effect on Japan that made me think that things would change. So that's why the main character has to go to a world that she might not return from. So things are going to change.”

Lastly, Kelts asked what other artists besides Miyazaki and Murakami influenced his work. Shinkai mentioned Hideaki Anno, creator of Evangelion.

“The last few episodes of Evangelion make some interesting departures from the rest of the series, and when I saw that it college, I thought it was amazing,” Shinkai said. “I realized that this was animation as well, and that it didn't all need to be action and movement.”

The panel closed with several questions from the audience, one of which asked which film Shinkai would want to spent the rest of his life watching, if so forced. Shinkai considered, and then chose Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

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