By Bob Clark
Makoto Shinkai’s origins as an amateur animator, creating a pair of shorts in his off time as an illustrator at a Japanese game company, are now something like the stuff of otaku legend. There’s an inspiring quality in the way that a single artist using little more than Photoshop could produce impressive, sometimes even stunning works and quickly move to making features on the scale and scope of veteran directors like Miyazaki, to whom the young director has most often been compared to. Indeed, at 38, he’s one of the most successful and youngest animators in the modern era, surpassed only by Hideaki Anno in recent memory, who at his age had already completed the magnum opus of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its apocalyptic film finale. Shinkai’s accomplishments so far are a little more modest, but only just quite– his two features, The Place Promised in our Early Days and Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below have won droves of accolades from critics and fans around the world, who both liken the director to the older masters of Studios Ghibli and Gainax, while also marveling at his own unique sensibilities, especially the way that he manipulates light and color to create immersive and convincing expressionistic landscapes both on the ground and deep in the sky. But for all the ways his longer works have solidified his esteem in online establishments, it’s his shorter works that have both earned and continued that respect, even in their slightest of forms.
Take his first effort, the barely five minute long She and Her Cat. Already, you can see the main components that sustain most of Shinkai’s work in his shorts and even his first feature– an immaculate sense of detail in his illustrations, based mostly on live photographs (a technique he may have picked up from Anno’s work on Evangelion and His and Her Circumstances); a minimalist sense of actual motion, conserving his animation to the absolute bare necessities, to the point that usually the only real movement comes from a slow pan across a still image; and tied to that, an abundant use of voice-over narration to tie everything together in a distinctly bittersweet, downright sentimental atmosphere. In truth, much of even the most heavily produced anime sustains itself on exactly these kinds of creative restrictions, oftentimes saving the bulk of their framrates for where it counts most in high-octane action sequences or heavily detailed moments of romantic lyricism. But to see these limitations used on this small a scale– telling nothing more than the story of a stray cat adopted by an ordinary single woman– injects a kind of life into the practical considerations that can sometimes be lacking even in the most professional use of them. In Shinkai’s hands, the spare, black-and-white pictorial montages, not really so far removed from Chris Marker’s work in La Jetee, has a kind of haiku-like poetry. Instead of something epic, we have something intimate.
For something that combines the two, we have Voices of a Distant Star, which at 30 minutes positively dwarfs the scope of the previous short’s effort as a solo-animation project. Made with only limited outside financial assistance and completed by Shinkai on a laptop, the film revolves around a familiar set of stock anime conventions– teenage girls in schoolgirl uniforms being drafted to fight do-or-die interstellar battles with existential aliens from the cockpits of immense mech-robots– with mostly the same kind of minimalist aesthetics of the previous film. It’s interesting to see him build on his vocabulary from his first effort– though most of the dialogue throughout is still either delivered in narration or voiced-over during montages that avoid showing the speakers (and thus avoid having to show their lips moving), there’s a more abundant use of animation throughout, saved mostly for epic spacescapes that both deliver high-concept thrills and showcase down-to-earth emotionalism. Shinkai gives more face time to his human characters as well, though we seldom see them talk on-screen, and even if there’s a distinctly hand-me-down nature to his character designs (they have the look of a high-school student doodling imitations of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto in the margins of his notebook, cramped to fit between scratch work for math problems), they remain fresh and honest pieces of lovingly rendered anime.
That sense of excitement endures throughout all of the finished film, even sustaining it past its not-quite-convincing use of CGI for the robot-vs-alien battles– from start to finish, there’s an overwhelming spirit of bliss at being able to animate anything at this magnitude, something any viewer of precocious indie debuts can recognize. Even though it’s only his second stab at animation, he already displays a tremendous gift for both visual splendor, rendering colorful vistas from planet to planet and poignant terrestrial snapshots, as well as a panache for storytelling, especially when it comes to delivering concise, bite-sized chunks of story in the form bristlingly paced robot fights and heartbreakingly one-sided conversations, alike. As such, it’s refreshing to find him focusing less on the sci-fi spectacle and more on the relationship a girl shares with a schoolboy after she’s sent off into the outer reaches of the solar system. With no way to communicate except phone text-messages that take weeks, months and eventually years to be received, Shinkai’s characters show how he both adopts a more mainstream genre to find an audience in, but finds just as emotional an avenue to explore without compromising any of its individual pieces. Indeed, there’s a precedent for this kind of sentimental lyricism in outer-space robot anime– it’s easy to see the influence of Anno’s Gunbuster on this film’s story of lovers separated more poignantly by time than space, the girl remaining fixed as a teenager while the boy grows up to be a man.
This becomes one of the hallmark obsessions of Shinkai throughout his work, focusing on the intangible qualities that separate human beings from one another and keep them from connecting. It’s a concern of Anno’s as well, but the primary difference is in Shinkai’s works, our heroes don’t spend nearly as much time in denial about wanting to connect to one another, and thus wind up breaking the bonds themselves. That concern found itself expressed almost perfectly in Shinkai’s first feature and first big professional production, The Place Promised in our Early Days, where all the old hallmarks of teenage kids trying to find their places together and apart in the world found itself told with an eye-opening and jaw-dropping tale of alternate histories, parallel dimensions and surreal dream-states– a grab-bag of various conventions and sub-genres both in and outside anime that provided a rich, if at times overly familiar ground for the director’s visual gifts to grow. Following that film, however, Shinkai departed from sci-fi for the first time in his career since She and Her Cat for the three-chapter OVA series Five Centimeters Per Second, which shows him jettisoning nearly all high-concept novelty and relying solely on the interpersonal storytelling that provided the pulsing heartbeat of his works.
Indeed, one can look at this work, an hour-long altogether, and almost wonder if he might’ve been tempted to stretch it out to feature length with a more pronounced addition of sci-fi exposition here and there (the closest we get is a subplot of kids watching Japanese space-program rockets take off for the stars), but decided to attune himself strictly to the confines of realism. As an exercise of animation, it certainly allows Shinkai to flex his illustrative muscle and show how adept he is at rendering scenes of ordinary kids in contemporary Japan in a fuller range of motion and detail without the creative crutch of out-of-this-world imagery to rely on. It forces him to get a bit more creative in how he frames his imagery, injecting a little bit of movement or odd new vantage points from which to look at everyday life, instead of merely relying on the same old cock-eyed, perspective-heavy angles that guys like Anno or Oshii have tended to use when emphasizing the physical in their animations. Little moments and essences in the way that Shinkai uses close foreground elements help make his interiors as immersive and impressive as the deep backgrounds of his scenic depictions, and fleshes out the emotional portraiture of this, his most sentimental effort so far.
Indeed, if it weren’t for his winning eye what we’d have would barely be enough of a story to sustain a Valentine’s Day card, all things considered– the three-part narrative of a young man’s history of an adolescent crush thwarted by moving away, and the ways in which is blinds him to all possible love henceforth can be cynically seen as hackneyed, to say the least. The way in which the protagonist finds himself the object of so many dashed romantic aspirations at times makes him seem an ironically comical figure, a Casanova for unrequited love. It’s thanks to the director’s gifts with animation that the story manages to elevate itself beyond mere high-school soap-operatics, for the most part, and even then it winds up straining itself in that direction at least once or twice– a closing J-Pop montage especially brings the whole enterprise dangerously close to being little more than the most shojo music-video ever made. But that’s merely evidence of the high-stakes risks he takes by baring so much open emotionalism without the safety net of science-fiction to catch the more romantically skeptical. As a slice of life narrative it may not be as fully developed as similarly sentimental stories like Ghibli classics Whisper of the Heart or Only Yesterday, but its visuals more than make up the difference.
In the end, his breathtaking and even more breathtakingly independent vision provide one of the best cases for DIY cinema out there. Whatever faults his work has, they may just be the equivalent of Icarus letting his waxen feathers melt just a drop or two in order to dare himself to fly as high as possible– it’d be worth it to get that much closer to one of Shinkai’s skies.