Interview: Makoto Shinkai
Makoto Shinkai's international smash Your Name is approaching the $300 million dollar mark at the international box office, and by now you've been likely inundated with an inescapable ocean of hype about this gentle, genre-bending and heart-rending tale of two people who connect across time and space. If you've found yourself frustrated at the lack of opportunities to see this incredible film, worry not – Funimation is planning a wider release for the film in 2017, and premiered it this month in Los Angeles with the director in tow. What follows is a transcript from Shinkai's press day in early December 2016, along with his thoughts on the film's real meaning, how far he's come as an artist, and whether or not any Hollywood studios have come sniffing around for remake rights.
Makoto Shinkai: Good morning, I am the director of Your Name, Shinkai Makoto. Thank you for coming this early on a Monday morning. I will try to answer anything I possibly can, so please have at it.
Question: First, I just wanted to say I really loved the film a lot. You've written all of your films, which is amazing. I thought this one was your finest piece of writing yet. I wanted to know if this one was more difficult for you to write, because it's such a polished and tight piece of writing.
Shinkai: With this screenplay, I began writing it in the Spring of 2014 and when I started, I felt like I could do something new. I could explore new areas in my creative writing before I had begun writing a script, because I was doing several commercials, I had done movies in the past, and I've also been writing for this publication—short stories, fiction of that sort. So with all of that combined I felt like, when I set out to make this movie, I really wanted to incorporate elements of comedy as well as unpredictability for the audience. In doing so, I came up with this very complex timeline narrative structure. At that point, I didn't necessarily feel like understanding the complex structure and timeline was necessary for the audience. If anything, I wanted to shift the focus to the relationship between the two main characters, our protagonist and romantic interest. In doing so, I think that understanding the complexities of the timeline wasn't most important in achieving the comedy and unpredictability I was going for.
Question: Has Hollywood approached you yet about adapting it for an American audience?
Shinkai: From what I understand and what I've been hearing, there are a few offers to do a live-action adaptation. That being said, as far as the US audience is concerned, I personally feel the movie is what it is, and I don't intend to redo it in any medium as of right now.
Question: Traditional braiding is a symbol that shows up a lot in the film. At times, the shooting stars kind of resemble strings and there's a lot of talk about the strings of fate, along with a vision where they even form an umbilical cord. What attracted you to that as a symbol for the story's themes?
Shinkai: First, because this is a story centered around the romance of Taki and Mitsuha, I wanted a symbol that connected the two of them. In Japan, there is always this talk about the red thread of fate that links two people, and that's where the idea of the thread came from.
Question: I'd love to ask about the business elements of making a film like this. For example, how do you get the support of a studio on board, whether or not you have to assist in raising funds to produce it, whether or not the studio offers notes or creative input or if he has a completely free hand in what he wants to do.
Shinkai: In the case of Your Name, there were a few producers involved throughout the production process. First, from the Toho side, the distribution company, there was a producer named Genki Kawamura who played a lot into the outcome creatively. When I was writing the screenplay, he would give me some ideas and feedback, as well as during the storyboarding phase. So that was a large form of creative input from the studios. On the business side, there was another producer named Kawaguchi who helped run my operation as well. So there has definitely been a lot of support from the producers. We've worked with Mr. Kawaguchi since 2002, when I made Voices of a Distant Star. Since then, we've slowly expanded our operation and the scope of our studio.
Question: Your earlier work, pretty much everything leading up to here, maybe a little less Children Who Chase Lost Voices, was decidedly sold more to the otaku market in Japan. Your Name feels like it's aimed directly at the broad Ghibli market, that $200 million dollar mainstream Miyazaki market. Was that intentional? Additionally, have you ever considered writing a twelve or thirteen-episode TV anime?
Shinkai: It's interesting you bring that up because I get asked that question a lot: "have you intentionally made this for a much broader audience?" But throughout my entire creative process and career, that was always my intent, to create something that people would be able to engage with, not just a very specific market. So I think at any point and time, I made a movie that was the best I could do with what I had at that moment, both creatively and team-wise. The people who end up supporting it were just a result of what I was able to create. However, after I had a few projects under my belt, I think I increased my capacity and was able to create something of this nature, so the intent was always to create something for a mainstream market, but the result just happened to be different based on what was available at the time. As far as TV series go, I would like to stick with something that has more closure, so whether it's a movie or a slightly different medium, I feel that one project should have a start and an end.
Question: We know this movie is about the shooting star destroying this little village and the lake, and that reminds me of the earthquake that struck Japan a few years ago. So is there a connection between this movie and the disaster caused by the earthquake?
Shinkai: Yes, there is some truth to your question. I sort of linked the comet to the 2011 earthquake that hit the eastern side of Japan in Fukushima. When I did research, that earthquake is said to come approximately once every 1000 years, and I thought that a regular natural phenomenon could be the narrative tool I needed to tell the story. So a natural disaster sort of uprooting people from where they live was the theme that I came up with. I likened this comet to the earthquake that happened, and it felt to me like the natural evolution of what I needed to tell as a story, given the disaster that happened in 2011. Linking the comet to the earthquake allowed me to discuss the theme of people who must move from what they once called home because of natural disasters that occur regularly, since comets do orbit around different stars and have a chance to regularly fall out of their normal orbit and cause disasters.
Question: I've been a fan of your work, I saw 5 Centimeters Per Second as well of Garden of Words, and I felt this really slow tempo immersion into the worlds that you were creating, which I didn't feel with Your Name. It felt very active, the characters were active, the tempo was more upbeat. Was that something you did intentionally?
Shinkai: To answer the question rather simply, that was the result of where I wanted to go with my next project creatively. It wasn't as though there were outside forces or business decisions from Toho that said “hey we should make the next movie slightly different in tone.” I think that's where I wanted to explore. To answer your question about the tempo of the movie, that itself was intentional. The logic behind that was catering to my target audiences, which was teens, younger twenties, I think you can all relate to this, but a lot of the younger generation has so much information at their fingertips, they're always doing something with the smartphone in hand, checking twitter, social media, searching for something on their cellphone. I wanted to create a movie that didn't give them the chance to do that. So that's why I packed a lot of information in a short amount of time that wouldn't even allow them to pull their cellphone out and try to chat with their friends or whatever it is that kids do on their phone these days. So I think that eliminating that element of multitasking and making sure that the younger generation stays fully engaged with the movie throughout the duration was a result of that tempo that you saw.
Question: You always keep a lot of details in the background, and this time you put some surprise stuff like the restaurant Taki works at, which was the "Garden of Words" in Italian. Is there any special reason behind these details?
Shinkai: The Italian restaurant where Taki works is actually the name of one of my other projects, “Garden of Words," written in Italian, but this was not my doing. Rather, the environment artist decided it'd be fun if he named the restaurant Garden of Words in Italian, because the Japanese audience probably wouldn't get it, but it would be a little easter egg. Because we're working now with such a large group of artists, there are some things that I leave up to them, and a lot of these artists take it on themselves to get a little creative and fun.
Question: I really love the attention to detail you put in all of your backgrounds in your movies. But with this movie, it felt that there was almost a gap between characters and the way they were placed in these very detailed backgrounds. Was that intentional creatively? There are also always birds in the skies of your movies, including 5 Centimeters Per Second where there's a lone bird that felt very secluded from everything else around it. But in this, I don't recall that many birds were flying in the sky, so was that meant to be some kind of symbolism or metaphor you use in your movies creatively?
Shinkai: The first question about the characters and their visual relationships with the background, I can't really say anything except that is the style. I think by the nature of animating, especially in traditional animation like this where you have backgrounds and cels on top that move—you're dealing with something static where motion is applied on top of it. So by its very definition and nature, there is a gap between what you're seeing in the background and what is being animated on top. I believe fans of 2D animation and Japanese anime in particular kind of like this play, where there's something happening in the foreground and something different in the background. So I would say that's just the result of our creative process and the style we chose. In regards the birds that you see in the movie, during the storyboarding phase, there were times where I was very specific and intentional about “hey I want this many birds in this scene,” and other times where I just did it by feel, said “hey it'll probably look nice if there are many birds in the sky.” So both cases are true. Some of it's done just by feeling and some done intentionally. In the case of Your Name, there are several scenes that have exclusively two birds flying through the sky, and at one point one might be chasing the other. That was a very intentional metaphor for the relationship between the two main characters.
Question: Like all creative professionals, I'm sure you don't have a tremendous amount of time to watch other people's work, but I was curious if you did have a chance to watch any recent anime, and if there were any artists, directors, or writers working in the anime industry right now that you would really love to work with or that you think we should be paying attention to. Similarly, are there any American artists that you would really love to collaborate with in the future?
Shinkai: I do of course like making movies very much, but as you say, I don't necessarily have the time to go out and see many other creator's works. That being said, one of the movies I really liked recently is called Koe no Katachi, "A Silent Voice” in English. That was produced by Kyoto Animation. I felt that the way they conveyed their message was very unique yet modern, so that was one I enjoyed recently. As far as US or overseas artists with whom I'd like to collaborate, that thought hasn't really crossed my mind yet, because the US feels like such a faraway land to where I was in Japan. Hollywood movies especially seem like they're in a whole different stratosphere, so I never thought that collaboration was even an option. Even now, it still feels kind of far to me, despite being in Los Angeles. So I don't know if that answers your question, but it still feels like kind of a faraway thing.
Question: Compared to your previous work, what are some of the obstacles that you had to conquer for Your Name?
Shinkai: Specifically for Your Name, I think one of the challenges I had to overcome was of course working with a team that I haven't really worked with before, specifically working with the band Radwimps who composed a lot of the music for this movie. Normally, they have their own sort of world and ideas, because they are a rock band, and the experience was of course very stimulating for me as well. But when you compose music for a movie, a lot of times you already have a movie, you give it to a band, and then say “hey, make a song.” Whereas in the case of Your Name, they were involved already in the screenplay process. As I was writing the screenplay I would have them read it and say “hey, visualizing this world, how would you create or compose a song?” Then I would see what they gave me and actually make adjustments to the screenplay, or say “hey, can you make adjustments to the song to make it fit in this sort of way?” So the level of collaboration with the rock band was very interesting and fun for me, and this process of playing catch went on for over a year, adjusting the music and adjusting the screenplay, so it was a very stimulating experience.
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