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Interview: Makoto Shinkai

by Gia Manry,

Less than ten years after his impressive debut, Voices of a Distant Star creator Makoto Shinkai is pleased to see American audiences react enthusiastically to his latest work during a packed screening at Otakon in Baltimore, MD. A film two years in the making, Shinkai calls Hoshi o Ou Kodomo his "real" directorial debut— which makes sense if you know the director's history.

In 2001, Shinkai was a 28-year-old graphic designer who quit his job at game developer Falco to work on an ambitious project: Voices of a Distant Star. Shinkai wrote, animated, and even voiced the 25-minute original anime, which received rave reviews on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, eventually released officially in North America by ADV. Two more works followed: 2004's The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 2007's 5 Centimeters Per Second.

After 5 Centimeters, Shinkai seemed to disappear off the anime industry's map for a time. He spent 2008 in London, where he began to pen ideas for Hoshi o Ou Kodomo. He returned to Japan and worked on the film for two years; production wrapped this past March and the movie was released in Japanese theaters in May, 2011.

In an interview with ANN followed by a press conference, Shinkai spoke frankly about his works and inspirations, the growing trend towards computer-generated animation, cats, dogs, and even his own changing philosophies on life and death.

* * *

Please note that questions and answers which contain spoilers for the Hoshi o Ou Kodomo anime film will be clearly marked with [SPOILER].

AnimeNewsNetwork: Your past films have been largely set in the real world, sometimes with a sci-fi or futuristic feel but certainly this world. By contrast, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo features a fantasy world. Was this shift a conscious decision on your part?

Makoto Shinkai: The new movie is not entirely fantasy; the first half is set in a place that makes people think of the Japanese countryside. So I consider the film as taking place in two worlds. However, Asuna and the other characters all needed to go somewhere far away from the place that they're used to for the story, so it was necessary to have a totally different fantasy world incorporated.

ANN: You've been compared to Hayao Miyazaki a lot. Your new film feels particularly inspired by him; would you say that's the case?

MS: Yes, that is true. I admit, and especially with [Hoshi o Ou Kodomo] it might be a bit more obvious. But generally speaking, Hayao Miyazaki is one of the biggest names in the Japanese animation industry, so regardless of what you do in that industry, it's nearly impossible to be far away from the effects of his influence.

ANN: Hoshi o Ou Kodomo features a cat-like creature named Mimi, and your first work (1999's She and Her Cat) also predominantly featured a cat. Would you call yourself a "cat person"? Do you own any cats?

MS: (chuckling) Ever since I was a child I always had cats with me. I'm from the Nagano prefecture, and while living there I had cats, and after I came to Tokyo I also picked up some strays and started raising them. So I definitely always had cats with me. If you ask whether I'm a dog-type person or a cat-type person, I never really thought about it...but I'd say I'm more of a cat-type person.

ANN: The aesthetic of Agartha, the fantasy world in Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, feels influenced particularly by South America, especially the inclusion of quetzalcoatl. What led you to that choice?

MS: Since I used the term quetzalcoatl, viewers may get a strong image of South America. But in fact, Agartha was based on the remains of all the cultures in the world, including India and the Middle East. All of those ancient cultural effects are included in Agartha. When I was writing the script I was staying in London, so I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum. I got to see many ancient artifacts and so forth, which gave me a great deal of inspiration for the script. So you can consider Agartha to be a combination of all of our world's ancient cultures mixed together.

ANN: [SPOILER] The leaders of Agartha said that they believed that they should fade quietly into nonexistence, while other characters in the film fight against death itself. In the question and answer session at Otakon you said that fifteen years ago you would have sided with Shin, who works for the Agarthan leaders but may not fully agree with their views. What did you mean when you said that, and how do you feel about it now?

[SPOILER] MS: Yes, let me explain that a little. When the adorable cat Mimi died, Asuna suffered. But the people of Agartha think of death as sad, but ordinary; it's only a part of life which is unavoidable and everybody has to go through. Now that I'm getting older, I can imagine my death easier; it's closer to me and I can accept the idea that it's part of life. But 15 years or so ago, death felt further away from me. Even if someone told me that it was an unavoidable part of life, I'm sure I wouldn't have understood or accepted it.

ANN: Has your creative process changed at all since you first started developing your own works?

MS: When I first debuted, I basically self-produced my works, so compared to that my current work style is totally different. It has changed a lot!

ANN: Where do you stand on the balance between traditional hand-drawn animation (even fed into a computer) and computer-generated animation?

MS: I definitely think that the world is definitely heading towards 3D [computer-generated] animation, whether made by Pixar or DreamWorks... maybe Disney will keep making 2D productions. But definitely, the world is going to 3D, and even in Japan there are fewer and fewer people drawing by hand. It might be unavoidable, and there might be nothing we can do about that trend, but personally I still prefer hand-drawn works. So even if the day comes that Japan doesn't make that much 2D animation, I would still like to keep doing it.

Due to the director's time constraints, ANN's one-on-one time with Shinkai was cut short. However, Otakon provided a press-only question-and-answer session the next day; the following is a transcript of this session with questions from the various outlets present.

It seems that there's a difference between the Japanese and English titles. Why is that?

MS: Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is actually a sub-title of the Japanese name. We're using it as a sort of temporary title in the English market, so there's a possibility in the future that the title will change to a more direct translation of the Japanese name. I'm sorry if that confused anyone.

What are your literary and film influences?

MS: First of all, as in anime, I get a lot of inspiration from Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki's works. If I had to pick one specifically it would be Laputa: Castle in the Sky. For literary influences, I get a lot of inspiration from [novelist] Haruki Murakami.

You seem to have a small staff now. Do you wish you'd had that staff available when you did Voices of a Distant Star?

MS: As you say, right now I have a staff. But when I was doing Voices of a Distant Star, it was a self-made indie film; I even voiced it. At the time I felt a deep satisfaction that I was able to make the film by myself. On the other hand my staff is almost like my family, so now when I work alone, sooner or later I start to feel lonely. Still, that's sort of a what-if question; what it would have been like having my staff with me for Voices never really occurred to me.

Is there a goal that you'd like to achieve for your latest movie?

MS: I'm not sure if this answers your question, but Hoshi o Ou Kodomo was finished in March and was released in Japan in May, so it's only been three months since it finished. I'm still not sure what to do from here on. Currently I have these opportunities to see the reactions of people who watch the film in Japan and abroad, and I'd like to use that opportunity to decide what to do after this, both professionally and personally.

Your previous films have had simple themes and complex emotions; what would you say is the overarching theme of Hoshi o Ou Kodomo?

MS: It's very difficult to put the theme into one word— if it wasn't I wouldn't have made a two-hour movie! But if you want me to just say it, I guess that would be how to overcome a sense of deep loss, the loss of another person.

The action scenes in the film demonstrate new aspect of your film-making that we haven't seen before. Can you tell us about other films you looked at while establishing your own style of action?

MS: As I said earlier, I did study a lot of Miyazaki's works, but since we were using a sword this time I spent a lot of time with Rurouni Kenshin and a lot of Japanese chanbara— sword fighting television shows. In particular was one called Mugen no Jūnin [Blade of the Immortal], which was animated a few years ago. So I watched that to get some ideas.

Unlike a lot of other animators today you started animating on computers rather than hand-drawn animation. What do you think of computer animation as opposed to hand-drawn animation?

MS: It's been frequently said that I started working with computer animation, but in reality when I started out I drew my characters with pencil and pen and scanned them into the computer. So my method is actually the same as traditional 2D animation. But as you say, it's totally different from what companies like Pixar and DreamWorks are doing, and it's true that those are more of a trend today. I feel that if that's the direction that we're generally going, and even if traditional 2D disappears, that may be unavoidable. Personally I love the 2D style; it's what I'm more familiar with, having grown up watching it, and it's what I want to keep on drawing myself.

You studied literature in college in Japan, and there is a very literary quality to your work— such as voice-over narration. Are there particular authors or film directors who inspired you? And would you ever like to work in live-action?

MS: I go to see live-action films and enjoy them, but I go just as as an audience member, just to enjoy it. I'll go see movies like Batman or whatnot. But if you ask me if I'm ever inspired by a particular director, it would be Shunji Iwai. His way of using light and shadow is very inspiring.

Shinkai, center, with directors Kazuya Murata (left) and Noboru Ishiguro (right)You seem to be a notable exception in Japan in that you came from the video game industry into anime, rather than the reverse. What do you think the anime industry could do to help attract great talent?

MS: It's true that video game companies in Japan is much more stable than the anime industry, and they also tend to treat their workers much better. However, the people who work with me are people who really love making animation, so of course I treat them so that they can make a living with it...but that's all I can do personally. As to how the industry as a whole can reverse the trend, I've never really thought about it; I'm not a representative for the industry. But personally, I think that if we can keep making great films that people think are great, then maybe we can increase the number of people interested in making animation.

The time period in which Hoshi o Ou Kodomo takes place is unclear; did you have a specific time setting in mind?

MS: Yes, there is an intentional setting: I wanted to put the minimum required in for the audience to understand the timeframe. I want the audience to feel satisfied after watching the film, but at the same time I want them to have certain questions about the time frame so that they want to watch it a few times more and get more detail. So I purposely made it a little complicated to understand.

Your movies tend to have ambiguous endings. Is this intentional? What feeling do you want audiences to get at the end of your films?

MS: Yes, as you say my past works had endings were purposely left questionable as to whether they were happy or sad endings. But that's because I wanted to have the audience think about the ending themselves. In Japan that isn't the major style of how films end, and for my films I wanted to make something unique. On the other hand, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo's ending is a little more clear compared to my past works.

Looking back at [Hosho o Ou Kodomo's] premiere and seeing the audience's reaction, is there anything you would change about the film?

MS: Yes, I always have certain regrets, or rethinking, as time goes by. As I said earlier, [Hoshi o Ou Kodomo] was finished in March and released in May so I've had three months to see audiences' reactions. I could probably remake it, I could probably make something twice as fun. Even for my older work, 5 Centimeters Per Second, if I were to remake it right now maybe I could make it five times more interesting, or ten times as time goes by! I might gain more skills as time goes by, but the audience has already seen it. So I try not to think about how I could have done it better. It's the best I could have done at the time.

Could you talk about the difference between making a one-man project like Voices of a Distant Star and working on larger-scale project with a team?

MS: The biggest difference is that when I'm making it alone there's less stress! Basically, what I imagine and intend, I draw and it comes out. No stress at all. On the other hand, if you're making it alone then the outcome can't be more than what I have, it stays within my limits. When you're working with a group there's tremendous stress, and some people might not come out with the picture I want and I might have to ask them to redo it, so there is tremendous communication stress to make my vision come true. But sometimes my staff comes up with better talent than I expected, so the work stretches beyond my own personal limits.

Throughout the course of your career, in what ways do you feel you've developed as a director and how would you like to develop further in the future?

MS: I debuted with Voices of a Distant Star, but I'm not sure if I could call that "directing," since I made it by myself. It's my work, so yes, I was called "director." But I didn't really understand what "directing" was at the time. All the works after that involved working with other people in order to make the animation come out...but still, I wasn't sure about what "directing" meant. I drew the pictures myself, and directed others in certain ways...but it's been a learning process. After two years working on [Hoshi o Ou Kodomo], I think I finally understand what being an animation director is about. I feel like this is my real directorial debut. Now that I've learned how to be a director, I think "yes, I want to make the next movie as a director." So I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do as a director on my next project.

With more powerful computers and software for animation now available, do you feel that the role of small, independent animated films has changed in the past ten years?

MS: It's true that today's circumstances are better, with more powerful PCs, and you have the Internet available for distribution, and new and better software...but the truth is that what you want to tell in your work is its base. When you're making something yourself, you tend to put more effort into how it looks, so even though circumstances are better, independent artists don't always understand that you need to decide what you really want to show, which hasn't changed much from ten years ago.

In your previous works you've used younger protagonists; in the new work you have a more adult, mid-30s character. Is there a reason that you've used young people in the past, and what does the introduction of an older character mean for this and possible future works?

MS: First of all, yes, Morisaki is an adult. But the main character is Asuna, who is an 11- or 12-year-old girl, so first I want to talk about that. The basic purpose of the change [to a protagonist of Asuna's age] was to reach a broader audience. My past works were watched primarily by a 20-30 year old male audience, which is fine, but I wanted to challenge myself to have a broader audience— even as young as teenagers —watch and enjoy it. So that's the main reason.

[SPOILER] Can you talk a bit about the relationship between Asuna and Morisaki? At one point she says that he's almost like her father, and he doesn't react much, but later he seems conflicted at the possibility that she might have to be sacrificed in order to reach his dream. Do you think he accepts the final outcome of his journey?

[SPOILER] MS: As you know, Asuna lost her father. Upon traveling with Morisaki she starts to feel a family-like emotion for him, as if he's a father figure. But Morisaki is a very selfish, very pure person. He lost his loving wife, and upon dying his wife told him to keep living his own life...but that made it even harder for him because he loved her so much. He feels that he can't live without the purpose of making her come back to life again; that's how pure he is. That's all he has. He may know that it's almost impossible to bring back the dead. And while traveling with Asuna he also feels a vaguely family-like emotion towards her...but at the end he chose to sacrifice Asuna for his dream. But this is because he's so pure and selfish, because he feels he has to follow that in order to keep on living. It's controversial, but I can't say that he's simply a bad, selfish person. I think he's a very complicated, yet very pure person. I can't deny him.

The way that your work typically ends— the ambiguous way of letting the audience think about it —is very typical of some Japanese entertainment and perhaps comes from your literary background. Will you keep on with your ambiguous endings? Because 30 or 40 years ago it was almost impossible to imagine that kind of ending in the rest of the world, but now it's much more possible to see it spread.

MS: Morisaki is a very complicated character. He thinks his dead wife is more important than anything else. On the other hand, the boy Shin screams out that living people are more important than the dead. Asuna, on the other hand, thinks this is a blessing; she didn't deny either one and did not have to make a decision about which statement is true. That's how I feel, too. I think about these things a lot but I can't come to a conclusion either. With that in mind, I left the ending for the audience to decide, because I want them to think about it too.

If you ask whether there was any particular Japanese literature that inspired my fondness for the ambiguous ending, there isn't really any one. On seeing the audience's reaction outside of Japan I get the feeling that the ambiguous ending could be accepted worldwide in entertainment if it was perfected. The ending doesn't necessarily have to be so clear. Technically it would be easy to make my endings more understandable, but I can't change myself or what I've already read and grown up with. So maybe the way I think and the way I make endings wouldn't change that much...but it's technically possible.

Your work typically centers around a theme of communication between humans. What draws you to this particular theme? Is there any particular aspect of humanity or society that you get inspiration from?

MS: Simply put, in most of the world today people are interested in communication. They don't watch TV or play games that much; communication is becoming more of an entertainment form in itself. So when the society in which I live has this tendency that communication is so important, it has naturally become a central point of interest for my works.

You left a great deal unsaid about Agartha in your film; do you think you might ever want to return to this setting, or allow others to work with it?

MS: I feel rather honored as a creator to use Agartha. In Japan there are two manga versions of the film in magazines; they are being drawn by two completely different artists and I didn't put in any request as to Agartha is featured. I invite many creators to use it.

Your films have highlighted commitment as a virtue in the face of separation, but have also drawn a line between commitment and obsession. Is this something you want your audience to take to heart?

S: I think it depends on the time that the work was made. When I made 5 Centimeters Per Second I was thinking what you said...but in Hoshi o Ou Kodomo I made a character named Morisaki who is obsessed, but even then I don't deny his existence. He continues thinking strongly and gets the power to keep on living. It's possible to make obsession a source of living will. This change in my thinking is reflected in my works. Maybe it will keep on changing as time goes by.

In stark contrast to what many other anime directors have said, your answers this morning show that you've put significant thought into reaching international audiences. You're also much younger than many anime directors; do you think these two facts are related?

MS: To be honest with you, I made my current work for younger audiences and I wish for it to be watched all over the world...but I never truly thought about it. While making Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, I wanted to make it different from my other works. My older works required people to know certain details about Japanese culture in order to enjoy them, but I wanted to make [Hoshi o Ou Kodomo] different from 5 Centimeters Per Second so that people who don't know about Japan could also enjoy it. It's true that I wanted younger audiences to watch it and if they do so abroad that would make me very happy. But when I was in the process of making it I never really thought that I was making it for the world market, I just wanted to make something different.

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