The Best (and Worst) Works of Makoto Shinkaiby Anne Lauenroth,
Why do we wake up crying from a dream we've already begun to forget? Why does the feeling of loss linger after the memory of that dream has faded to a vague feeling of something that should be there but isn't? How can we long for something we cannot even give a name?
When I scribbled these lines in my notebook in the darkness of the theater a little over a year ago, Makoto Shinkai's your name. had just surpassed Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises at the Japanese box office. It was still a few weeks away from becoming the global sensation everyone would be raving about for the rest of the year. It's this indescribable feeling that Makoto Shinkai seems to have dedicated his work to exploring. Thematically, he's been incredibly consistent, from his first indie short to the highest grossing anime of all time. His films star over-saturated sunsets bleeding with melancholic cravings for what was or could have been, longed for by star-crossed lovers, estranged families, and childhood friends separated by time, space, age, or any combination of the above.
Before hitting it big with critics and audiences worldwide, Shinkai was already a household name in certain circles of anime fandom – especially among fans eager to reminisce about that summer back in middle school, when we were young and full of dreams. We might not be too clear on what exactly we did that day, but we still vividly remember the smell of the burning asphalt in the rain, enough to make us choke a little on the emotion. If you're an avid Shinkai fan, you might enjoy this painful feeling of nostalgia a little more than the average viewer, but if you're less into the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms and adolescent love, you might at least find solace in his visual artistry.
Shinkai's unique strength has always been evoking a sentimental mood not primarily through the plot of his work, but by using his artfully crafted backgrounds and mastery of lighting to express emotion. He uses heightened beauty to put the audience in the characters' heightened state of mind, making us see, feel, and almost smell what the protagonists experience. Another recurring feature is Shinkai's use of sci-fi elements. Even when they're not enabling the plot directly, spaceships and other cosmic occurrences create wonderful opportunities for characters to long for whatever's out there that they lack in the here and now.
The following list is my ranking of all Makoto Shinkai's shorts and movies, excluding commercials. (Although the ad he did for Z-Kai in 2014 saw people expressing hopes for the feature film to follow this "trailer", but I'd say we got more than compensated with the creation of your name.) This isn't so much a list from worst to best as from good to masterpiece; I count myself among those hopeless rain-on-asphalt sniffers. Since this list is highly subjective, be sure to share your favorite Makoto Shinkai works in the comments!
11. Egao (2003)
In his music video to Hiromi Iwasaki's saccharine song, Shinkai tells the story of a woman who gets a hamster. Watching the lovable creature munch on treats and complete circles in a tiny wheel, everything's sweet and adorable, until – naturally – she's reminded of something she lost. Luckily, creative freedom and the imaginative power to dream ourselves out of running wheels and their human equivalents allow the hamster to run through open spaces, and the woman vows not to give up hope. At just over two minutes, Egao is a charming little film to a song so kitschy it definitely needs adorable animal compensation.
10. Other Worlds (1998)
Shinkai's first film, though still pretty experimental compared to later works, shows how thematically consistent his oeuvre has been. If you were to show Other Worlds to a group of anime fans, asking them to guess which famous director's debut they were looking at, a lot of them would probably guess right. Set to Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No.1, the 90-second short intersperses limited black-and-white animation with text to tell a fragmented story of yearning to fly away, the pain such unfulfillable yearning brings, and the human connection making it all just a bit more bearable. Between the images of birds and planes roaming the skies while humans gaze at them from below, trapped in shadows and trains, Other Worlds has all the ingredients of what Shinkai would become known and loved for years later. It's fascinating to see where the man responsible for the most successful anime of all time started out.
9. She and Her Cat (1999)
She and Her Cat is important not simply because it won Shinkai the grand prize at DoGA CQ Animation Contest (quite an achievement for his second indie short), but also because it marks his first of many collaborations with composer Tenmon, whose music became integral to the director's following feature films. Slightly less noteworthy, it's also his first film to feature a cat named Chobi. Voiced by Shinkai himself, the story's POV character tells us how he got picked up by a caring woman he's deeply in love with. While there isn't a lot of character animation, effective lighting adds a modest beauty to the everyday black-and-white scenery. Although we only see snippets of their life accompanying Chobi's narration, there are enough carefully placed details to make their world feel whole and lived in. It's not a perfect world, but it offers enough warmth to endure the "vague loneliness" Shinkai aimed to convey according to his old website. The short was later adapted to a four-episode series that can be streamed on Crunchyroll.
8. The Garden of Words (2013)
Shinkai's love letter to the beauty of rain is jaw-droppingly beautiful. From the hyper-realistic backgrounds to the gorgeous lighting (and enough lens flares to rival J.J. Abrams), the film is a visual poem of water dripping from leaves, drops forming puddles, and ripples adorning ponds. But contrary to the features that came before and after, this beauty often feels like an end in itself, meant to inspire the audience's awe simply for the sake of capturing it. Simultaneously too long for its story and too short to reap the emotional payoff, The Garden of Words culminates in such melodramatic fashion that not even Shinkai's trademark pop-song-driven conclusion could compensate for my loss of immersion. It's pretty, though. Real pretty.
7. Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)
This feature film is Shinkai's longest work. At 116 minutes, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is too long for the story it's telling, allowing sentimentality to turn into outright melodrama. Compared to his earlier movies, the film gives preference to plot over theme but fails to bring that plot to a truly satisfying conclusion. As a journey taken to say farewell, the visually gorgeous fantasy adventure stars a plucky, youthful heroine who experienced her share of loss, but doesn't really display much need for personal closure, thus rendering her journey somewhat unsatisfying. Sure, there's Morisaki and his quest to get back what was lost, but while I can understand his pain, I can never embrace it on a personal level. The deeper emotional connection easily established in Shinkai's older movies is lost between chase and fight scenes in this adventure. Given the film's setting, main character, and adorable animal companion as well as the art design, it's easy to see where the worn-out "next Miyazaki" nickname has landed on Shinkai's shoulders, but he neither needs to copy Miyazaki, nor is he at his best when he creates works that try to.
6. A Gathering of Cats (2007)
Part of NHK's Ani*kuri 15 collection, Neko no Shūkai, or A Gathering of Cats, is a cute and fast-paced one-minute short with great comedic and dramatic timing. It's proof that films don't have to be long to be good, and that Shinkai has a knack for comedy underneath all that melancholy. When family cat Chobi (not the Chobi from She and Her Cat) gets his tail stepped on a dozen times too many, he plots revenge alongside his fellow suffering felines. Will there be a chance to avert the cat apocalypse? You'll have to watch to find out. It's well worth a minute of your time.
5. 5 Centimeters per Second (2007)
5 Centimeters per Second isn't very subtle about what it wants the audience to feel. Split into three segments, it's a story about first love, losing it, and the realities of growing up. While the segments come together to create an overall narrative, the first one is easily the strongest. From the watercolor sky's fifty shades of pink and purple to the voice-over narration reminiscing about what was and might not be again, it's all about nostalgia for a time in life when a friend's move a few trains away felt like the end of the world. And while protagonist Takaki does grow up over the next two segments, something inside him can't let go of his elementary school self. But 5 centimeters per second isn't just the speed at which cherry blossoms fall, it's also the speed at which life will pass him by if he can't accept that descent eventually. On a technical level, Shinkai has grown quite a bit in the three years since his first feature film, which, while more flawed in terms of plot holes and character animation, still ranks higher for me because of the way it used its sci-fi elements to lift Shinkai's all-important sense of transience to a cosmic scale instead of just giving Takaki a really pretty metaphor to gaze at.
4. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)
The wonderfully corny English title of Shinkai's first feature-length film says it all. This "place promised" is a giant unreachable tower across the Tsugaru strait, superbly suited for our trio of middle school friends to gaze at and dream about. Promising that someday they'll go there together (under the bleeding sunset skies), it seems like nothing about their plans will ever change. When it does, things turn much greyer, visually and emotionally. While Sayuri dreams of being all alone in an empty universe and Hiroki plays a game where he waits for no one at the station, tank convoys replace their childhood trains. The fragile dream of adolescence seems all but over, but sometimes a place must be lost for a future to be gained. The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a story about the dreams of things that could have been on a cosmic scale. Apart from some awkward character animation, Shinkai proved he could handle a full-scale production for the first time with this film. Just like in his earlier Voices of a Distant Star, characters still spend a lot of time marveling at skies and the things that soar through them, but those skies already look quite magnificent above the serene winter landscapes of northern Honshu. More significantly, the way Shinkai captures the essence of "that one summer back in middle school" is quite magical.
3. Dareka no Manazashi (2013)
Set in a near future that's just futuristic enough to make our present feel like a time of childhood nostalgia, Dareka no Manazashi opens with the perfect visual metaphor for adulthood. It's a time when Aya's answer to the question of How are you? is no longer sincere. In just seven minutes, Shinkai tells a powerful, mature story of family bonds, seemingly eroded by life, before shared loss might rekindle what was never truly lost. It's an absolute tearjerker, but never manipulative. If you appreciate a film that makes your soul ache in all the right places, this one's for you. Tears start flowing right on cue with Shinkai's traditional pop song insert, the best use of this technique outside this list's number one.
2. Voices of a Distant Star (2002)
Voices of a Distant Star is an aspiring filmmaker's wet dream in how it came to be and what it achieved for its director. A guy whose filmic output had been a combined 6 minutes of limited black-and-white animation decided to take half a year off to create a brilliant 25-minute film made almost entirely by himself, which would open the doors to feature-length productions and international acclaim. While the film's star-crossed lovers continue to drift apart, wondering if their connection can overcome time and distance, some images will stay with me forever: Mikako curled up in a fetal position, floating in the beautiful emptiness of space where she can no longer feel the rain, and Noboru sitting alone at the bus station they once sought shelter in together on a rainy day. Of course, it's sunny now. Shinkai knew how to pull at the heartstrings with visual symbolism right from the start.
1. your name. (2016)
There wasn't going to be any surprise as to which film would end up in this top spot. your name. features all of Shinkai's usual strengths – gorgeous visuals, emotional rawness, great musical sensitivity – while simultaneously fine-tuning earlier weak points like character animation and plot construction. From RADWIMPS' perfectly edited insert songs to the intriguing fantastical elements, everything comes together to create a compelling, polished, focused narrative. Still thematically consistent with his body of work, Shinkai takes those all-encompassing feelings of loss and longing that define his stories and allows them to touch the consciousness of an entire nation. your name.'s depiction of loss is more tangible and visceral than Shinkai ever portrayed before, bridging the gap between helpless melancholics and the general public and capturing a worldwide, mainstream audience. It's a blockbuster in the best sense of the word, and it deserves all the praise and success it's gotten.
So what do you think of Makoto Shinkai's work? Share your favorites with us in the forums!
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