Anime Director Makoto Shinkai Finds the Beauty in Everyday Life

From Makoto Shinkai's Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below

Tokyo, like New York, can be a dreary place, but anime director Makoto Shinkai looks for moments of beauty and grace and then brings them into his films, which have been compared to the work of Hayao Miyazaki.

Shinkai, whose visit to New York Comic Con was co-sponsored by the anime site Crunchyroll, discussed his work and inspirations in a spotlight panel, and his latest film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, had its North American premiere at the con.

Shinkai is not your run-of-the-mill anime director. He started his career as a graphic designer and worked in the gaming industry before he began making anime, and he broke into the field with short film, She and Her Cat. His films, which include Voices of a Distant Star and Five Centimeters Per Second, often center on themes of loneliness and lost love, and are visually very beautiful. And he does much of the work himself. As Japanamerica author Roland Kelts, who interviewed Shinkai for the panel, pointed out, “Shinkai-san is a triple threat. He basically writes illustrates, animates, directs, he does the whole thing. He is an anime auteur of the highest order.”

Kelts began by asking Shinkai how his background affected his work.

“First of all, like we said, my background is in digital whereas in traditional places like Ghibli they do everything hand drawn,” Shinkai answered, speaking through a translator. “When I first started making these videos I was an amateur. I was working in a gaming company, but I really wanted to make animation. I didn’t really have anything special, no special tools at my disposal so I used what I had on hand like Photoshop, and that's really how I started.”

Shinkai started working on She and Her Cat around 1998. “At that time, cameras became really cheap, and everyone started using them,” he said, “So I started going around and I took my digital camera and I took photos of cityscapes and the streets and I used those images, uploaded to my computer, as the foundation for my the drawings I made. I was working alone so I had to draw a lot of pictures.”

While the technology has come a long way since then, Shinkai cautioned would-be filmmakers not to work too quickly. “I think it is really important to not only take advantage of these tools that you have at your disposal but also to really take the time to develop ideas within yourself and think about what you want to animate, and then you can use these tools to create what you want to create,” he said.

Although he loves the look of hand-drawn animation, Shinkai said, he continues to use photos as the basis for his own work. “I use the photos to shorten the amount of time that is required to draw these pictures, but I still really like the effect of hand-drawn animation,” he said.

“I live in Tokyo, and just like any major city—Tokyo, New York—people say they are not really beautiful cities,” Shinkai continued. “However, I really wanted to think of my city as a beautiful city, so, things like an image of the sky through the buildings or a bunch of letters sticking out of a mailbox—little moments like this I think are really beautiful, and I wanted to capture that. So I would take photos of the cityscape and then use that as the foundation to draw something even more beautiful. I wanted to create a beautiful city in my mind but also in reality.”

Kelts shifted to the topic of storytelling, asking Shinkai how he starts drafting a story and how it comes together.

“I start with words,” Shinkai said. “In Five Centimeters per Second, one of the lines that one of the characters says is ‘I hope that we can see the cherry blossoms together again next year.’ Starting with that line, I think about what sort of an image, [in] what sort of a situation you would have that sort of a line, and it grows from there.” Shinkai also said he draws inspiration from literature, especially the novels of Haruki Murakami.

Kelts picked up on that, noting that Murakami’s most recent novel, 1Q84, is a love story about two people who are trying to reunite after an initial encounter reminded him of Shinkai’s work, which is often about lovers who are separated. “Do you think love is doomed?” he asked.

“I think love isn't doomed, of course, but in real life, love doesn't always work out,” Shinkai responded. “Sometimes your first love, you don't end up with that person you fell in love with, so I think I am reflecting on what life is like. In stories, even if you don't end up with that person you like, you can still enjoy life, you can still enjoy the beautiful things in life, and that is the message I was trying to portray.”

Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is a departure from Shinkai's earlier work; the characters travel to the underworld to search for a friend, a story that Shinkai drew from a traditional Japanese folk tale. "When we were doing Five Centimeters Per Second, at that time Japan was in an era when it felt nothing would ever change, so I wanted to make a movie that reflected that feeling," Shinkai said. "However, when we made the new movie, there were a lot of things happening. This was before the earthquake happened, but there were things happening around the world, for example the earthquake in Chile, that was really starting to have an effect on Japan, and really made not only me but a lot of people think that maybe things would actually not stay the same the same after all, so I wanted to create a movie that reflected that sort of change and maybe realizing that yes, things are actually going to start changing, and that is why the main character in the movie has to go to another world … there is that sense that maybe things are going to be lost, things are going to change, and they are not going to stay the same."

Shinkai had some advice for an aspiring filmmaker in the audience: Use your life experience. "In Five Centimeters Per Second, there is that whole scene where someone is trying to get to where his loved one is but he can't get there because of the train, because of snow. That actually happened to me… I was going to meet someone but because of the snow I was late by one day. So I used a real life experience and put it into the story, but the rest of it was fiction."

"Out of all your work, is there a shot, a moment, a line something that really incredibly resonates with you? What are you most proud of?" an audience member asked.

Shinkai did not hesitate. "In Five Centimeters Per Second, there is this scene where Akari tells Takaki 'I am sure you will be OK,' and I have always wanted someone to say that to me in that sort of a situation," he said. "I really like that scene."

Another audience member asked "How do you go about still finding inspiration in what happens in every day in your life?"

"Life is normal and sort of flat, and nothing necessarily special happens every day, but I think if you close your eyes and focus on your feelings, there are a lot of magical and special moments even in everyday life," Shinkai said. "I wanted to create a movie where you could feel that sense of yes, it's everyday, but it's so very beautiful."

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