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Anime Expo 2013
Makoto Shinkai Q&A

by Bamboo Dong,

Director Makoto Shinkai attended Anime Expo 2013 as a special guest of Sentai Entertainment to promote his film, Garden of Words. He gave an audience Q&A Sunday morning, many of whom were able to attend the movie screening earlier in the week. Mr. Shinkai opened the conversation by saying that he was happy to get a chance to talk to attendees about Garden of Words, saying that audience reactions after a previous work, 5 Centimeters Per Second, were different than he expected:

Many of you have seen 5 Centimeters Per Second. In Japan, actually, many audience members told me that the story was too sad, and that it made them lose their appetites and they were unable to eat. With film, sometimes the director's intention can't reach the audience, and the audience reaction is different than I expected. It may sound unbelievable, but I didn't mean to make audiences depressed. Sometimes the director's intention just doesn't come across. It happens all the time, even for other directors. So, there might be some misunderstandings, but I hope we can deepen the mutual understanding here.

What was your real intention, then? Why do you use such sad stories?

I think what upset many people was that when Takaki, the protagonist, passed by the girl at the train crossing, when he looked back, the girl was gone. Maybe that was upsetting. My actual intention was that because she wasn't there, that wasn't a sad thing. Because she wasn't there, Takaki could now go on and develop a new life. That was my initial intention. It's a very deep moment, but when he starts walking towards the other direction, it's a fresh start from when they first met. And also, I guess, first loves just can't be achieved, in general. Don't you think so? When I make stories about first loves being achieved, that's not really a story for many people who weren't successful in their first loves. That's why I made the story that way.

In Garden of Words, is there any symbolic meaning behind Yukino lacking a sense of taste?

In the movie, Yukino is the female protagonist. She's a working woman of 27 years of age, and the story starts with her drinking beer and eating chocolate in the garden. She meets a boy, but he thinks she's a little weird. That's the start of the story. She finds out later that she has an inability to taste, but that's actually a temporary disability. The cause is stress from her workplace. Yukino is stressed, but she meets Takao and learns to cure herself. The beer is kind of a metaphor for her being in a bad condition. Eventually she starts drinking coffee instead of beer. When you watch the film, watch carefully to what Yukino is eating or drinking along the way.

A lot of your works are significantly shorter than feature films. Why is that? Do you think there are some stories that are better told in a shorter format?

Garden of Words is only 46 minutes long. I didn't really set out to make a two hour film; I just wanted to depict the story and the human relationship between Takao and Yukino. For the two, the story only lasts for three months; I only needed 46 minutes to tell the story. If it was a story where aliens came to Earth and they needed to save Earth, maybe the work would have been longer. But, since it's a story about one summer and two people, I thought a short film would be enough, and I didn't think it was necessary to extend the story. It really depends on what kind of story you want to tell. Although, business-wise, it's sometimes difficult to show a 46-minute film in theaters.

At this point, a representative from the film's distribution company, TOHO, spoke regarding the theatrical distribution of the film:

First of all, I know Mr. Shinkai worries about the length of the film, but I knew that even though it's a short film, it can still impress audiences. With Garden of Words in particular, even though it's only 46 minutes long, theater managers knew it would be good. It really depends on what kind of work it is, and who directed the story. Even in the animation business in Japan, there are various ways to show the content, and people in the business are welcoming, depending on the story.

What inspires your stories? Do they come from personal experience?

The stories aren't really about myself. My personal experiences don't really affect them. Personally, I'm not so much into first loves, but talking about 5 Centimeters Per Second again, the boy takes the train to meet the girl, his first love, when the train stops. I actually had a similar experience, when the train stopped because of the snow. I was 25 years old at the time. I was going to meet my girlfriend on vacation when the train stopped. I had a cell phone back then so I just called her. In 5 Centimeters Per Second, though, the story takes place in a time when cell phones weren't available, so when the boy got stuck, the girl just waited for him. I just imagined that situation.

People ask me often why I write about teenagers. It's a simple thing, but when I was a teenager, the biggest problem for me was when my intentions wouldn't reach a friend and eventually I hurt that person, or maybe some other person didn't mean it, but something that he or she said hurt me. The lack of understanding was the problem. I guess it happens all the time, even with members of the audience, but even though I liked a girl, she wouldn't always like me the same way I liked her. Or rather, how much I liked her wasn't equal to how much she liked me. I think this happens to teenagers nowadays as well. Things like that, when you become an adult, they're fairly small things. But when you're a teenager, it's a big thing. That's why I keep telling those kinds of stories, to encourage teenagers.

Could you please talk about your process for producing Garden of Words? In particular, the backgrounds.

For Garden of Words, it only took six months, which is a relatively short time. First, I did location scouting. This story takes place in Shinjuku, so I walked around Shinjuku and took thousands of pictures. Based on the pictures I took, I made storyboards, and then the actual production started. Regarding Garden of Words, half of the backgrounds are based on the pictures, which I used Photoshop for. I didn't use Photoshop to actually modify the picture; I use the pictures as a base, and I override everything. The other half is a fictional setting, so it's based on 3D computer graphics or hand drawings just like any other animation.

It's inspirational that you were able to make your first film on your own. Do you have any advice for directors or people involved in animation?

As you mentioned, for Voices of a Distant Star, I made everything except the music. I also did the voice acting. My girlfriend at the time did a voice, too, but we separated. But, it was a very exciting experience knowing that I could make everything by myself. It took eight months but it was a fun experience. Except for eating and sleeping, all I did was work on the film.

Here's my advice—making something is so exciting, that if you want to make something, just start right away. Maybe you're worried that you can't make it nice enough, or that the quality won't be good. But if all you do is worry, time passes. Don't worry so much. Just go ahead.

When I watch Voices of a Distant Star, I see that I was lacking in technique, and I feel a little ashamed. But I think some of you still like it, right? Which means that even when you make something you don't think is good enough, if somebody still likes it, it's a good start. So good luck. Regarding Garden of Words, why did you have your main character work in shoe cobbling? It's a very old trade. Did it mean something to you?

Garden of Words is a story about a boy who wants to be a shoemaker. It's about a boy who wants to help people, and I wondered what kind of occupation would suit him, and I came up with the idea of a shoemaker, because shoemakers help people walk. So Garden of Words is about the shoes, but the shoes are a metaphor for life. Yukino has a line she says to Takao about how she could walk better than before.

Will you ever make a movie to honor someone, or even yourself?

I haven't made a movie to honor a particular person, but I've made some movies targeting special people. She and Her Cat, that was my first film. I made it twelve years ago, so maybe I can confess something now. That was actually a personal film I made for the girl I loved back then. Actually, the girl had some similarities with Yukino from Garden of Words. She had some problems, so she couldn't go to work, and she actually quit work. To tell the truth, She and Her Cat was a story to encourage that girl I was seeing. I've since lost contact with her. I believe she's living nicely now, but that first film, I made for one particular person. It was just a five minute film. Time passed, and many people loved my film. It's very strange for me. Please keep it a secret. I've never talked about this story before; it's very embarrassing.

Regarding 5 Centimeters Per Second, Takaki is working in what looks like a software company. He quits his job because he doesn't want to work there anymore. I know you used to work for Nihon Falcom and you quit to pursue your dreams. I wondered if that was autobiographical in some way.

I haven't thought about it as autobiographical. As you mentioned, I was working for Nihon Falcom, the game company. I actually made She and Her Cat back then, when I was working there. Even though She and Her Cat was made for a particular person, I was very lucky, and I received several awards for the work. I started thinking about how I could make stories targeting a broader audience, and so I made Voices of a Distant Star. I quit Nihon Falcom in order to complete Voices of a Distant Star, but the difference is, Takaki didn't have a special purpose, so it's not autobiographical. But I knew what happened when someone quit a company, like how to prepare the paperwork and what not, so that actually helped me a lot to depict the story.

I'm always taken aback by how beautiful all the skies are in your works. What's the philosophy behind the color in your work, especially in your skies?

Sometimes when I'm drawing a cloud, I think, maybe the cloud is round-shaped, and I want to draw one such that it would make the audience think, “I want to stand on that cloud.” I know it's not realistic, but I'm always thinking about how to make a beautiful cloud. Sometimes I draw skyscrapers and there are tiny windows, just two pixels wide. But I'm always thinking about how to make it so that you imagine what's behind the window, like somebody's living there.

I grew up in the countryside when I was a little kid. That was before Nintendos. The only way I could spend time was to watch the sky and the mountains; that was all I could do back then. So now I'm trying to recreate what I imagined back when I was watching these sceneries, like “I want to stand on that cloud,” or maybe some monster in the trees on the mountain. That imagination is what I want to include in the backgrounds, and then I try and create more details.

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