Makoto Shinkai is a Japanese anime movie director, whose extensive involvement in his projects, from directing to screenplay writing and concept creating, has made his films visually and conceptually recognizable. I was introduced to the critically acclaimed and award winning Kimi no Nawa, or Your Name, many years ago and instantly fell in love with the movie and his style. Having now seen all of his movies (with the exception of the short films) in their release order was an incredible experience because I saw how his visual and narrative style evolved with each one. His movies have very specific aesthetics, from the visuals to the concepts, every frame has its unique and distinct beauty, and it was wonderful to see the many ways his intellect manifested in each film.
1. The Place Promised in our Early Days (2004)
The Place Promised in our Early Days was the first long film Shinkai released and the result? A mysterious wonder. This is a sci-fi film set in late 1900s Japan and follows three friends at different stages of their lives and their journey to fulfill a promise. As I have learned from his other movies, the best way to watch a Shinkai movie is to learn as little as possible about the story. Part of what I enjoy the most about his films is the intrigue and mystery that is built into every moment. The movie might start at the beginning of the story but the information you learn about the motivations and the world the characters inhabit remain a mystery until the details are revealed. You don’t fully understand what has happened until you have all the information at the end of the film. Being his first long work, I was able to notice how much of his stories hinge on the background details, like news footage or interviews. These little details that would normally be brushed off and forgotten about build the foundation for the bigger reveals in the endings of the film. It’s very rewarding to get to the end of a film and feel satisfied that you caught that little bit of foreshadowing in the news coverage half-way through the movie.
2. 5 Centimeters per Second (2007)
5 Centimeters per Second is the only long film of Shinkai’s that does not feature an adventure or a mystery. Despite those elements, Shinkai manages to evoke strong emotions while depicting the strife of young love. Through a series of three connected short films surrounding the experience of the main character and his relationship with his middle school flame, Shinkai manages to present a heartbreaking story of missed connections, nostalgia, and melancholy for the what-could-have-been. This is his least conceptually complicated film as it deals with the mundane and doesn’t include fantastical elements like his other long films.
Watching Children who Chase Lost Voices is when you begin to see Shinkai’s trademark of mind-blowing, evocative stories along with detailed, colorful, landscapes. The sprawling adventure of these characters into fantastical lands takes you beyond a visual journey as it speaks about grief and the difficulty of moving on. The characters seem to be stuck in a static state of grief over what has been lost or in the acceptance of the inevitability of death. The commentary of the movie urges the audience to appreciate the present and those who are alive now instead of prioritizing the dead or the hypothetical future after death. By now the trend of colors and visuals of the landscape are what make Shinkai films stand out from the rest. Much like Studio Ghibli’s classic character and landscape art style, Shinkai’s landscapes and use of colors are what makes his films as recognizable as they are.
4. Your Name (2016)
Your Name was the first Shinkai film I watched and despite the dozen times I’ve rewatched it over the years, I have yet to stop crying. From the characters to the story and music, this film manages to reach deep into my soul and make me cry like there’s no tomorrow. I sincerely hope you watch this movie if you haven’t yet because it is an incredible, heartfelt film with a wonderful story that will make you want to rip the hairs out of your head because the creativity behind it is too much to cope with. This movie makes me think of what a pleasure it is to feel sorrow from time to time because it means I have felt joy beyond comparison. There is something utterly romantic about this movie that I fail to properly put into words. RADWIMPS work on its original soundtrack (and their work in Weathering With You) is what separates and uplifts these two films from the rest.
5. Weathering with You (2019)
Weathering with You is a film I had waited to watch with bated breath when I learned of its release. Although the concept is simpler compared to Your Name, this film follows a very similar theme of weaving mythology, tradition, and fantasy into modern Japan. I absolutely adore the rain and this film had a rain noise ASMR track going in the background that I genuinely enjoyed. Once again, Shinkai manages to create and write a beautiful and evocative love story while intertwining it with Japanese mythologies and urban legends, like the sunshine girls, as he talks about the climate crisis and its impact on the younger generations.
Makoto Shinkai’s directing has become iconic, as his films all share visual and conceptual similarities, while being separate and unique in their own ways. I had an incredible experience seeing his stylistic evolution through his long films and have been motivated to watch his short films in order to see what other trends I can follow. His films perfectly encapsulate the inherent romance of the familiar and routine within uncertain times, and the comfort of keeping traditions and routines alive in dire circumstances. The latest film he has released, Suzume’s Door-Locking, has yet to become available for streaming or on DVD, and trust me that I will be watching it as soon as I can. I urge you to give these beautiful films a watch. If you consider yourself a Ghibli fan or an anime guru, you will most likely love these films with the passion and dedication they deserve.