Approaching Shinkai

A year ago, Motoko Rich interviewed me as part of the research for an article she was writing for the New York Times about Makoto Shinkai. Only a couple of soundbites made it in, so here is what I said in its entirety.


MR: Are you familiar with Shinkai’s earlier work, and if so, can you describe how he has evolved as a director?

JC: Your Name stands out in Shinkai’s work because it irons out many of the issues that have dogged his earlier work. 5cm/Second, for example, was hampered by a silly logistical issue, which was that it fell a few tantalising minutes short of feature length, and seemed to end with a pop video, as if the director had simply run out of time and money.

Much of Shinkai’s work can be parsed as variations on a theme from Haruki Murakami’s short story “On Meeting the 100% Perfect Woman One Fine April Morning” (“Shigatsu Aru no Hareta Asa ni 100 Percent Onna no Ko ni De’au Koto ni Tsuite”), and Your Name finally delivers the “happy” ending that fans of that story, and indeed of Shinkai’s variations on it, have been waiting for (see my article here).

Nothing is wasted in Your Name, everything has a pay-off. Every odd little observation feeds into the direction of the movie. It’s a proper, mature work from a director whose previous feature length work has been frankly wanting — proof that he has greatness in him.

What would you say are his distinguishing talents?

Shinkai is a master at depicting and investigating the distance between people. On Garden of Words, it is expressed in micro-expressions and gestures, inches on a park bench and the direction someone is facing as an indicator of their true feelings. In 5cm/Second and Voices of a Distant Star, it’s expressed through relativity and interstellar distances, but he excels at allegorising the way that human beings are separated by gulfs of yearning.

He told me that he works by laying down dialog and sound tracks in a digital storyboard and then compliments them with images he finds around the internet before inviting animators in to illustrate his vision. He said he doesn’t consider himself a particularly good illustrator. Do you know if anyone else works that way? How is it different from other well know anime film directors?

I don’t know of anyone who works specifically in that way, but his working method bears a resemblance to ways that image boards work in advertising and marketing. He makes no secret of his interest in a bricolage of real-world inspirations, which, I think, is an admirable way of admitting his own weaknesses as an animator, and then finding a way of making them irrelevant.

Is the “successor to Hayao Miyazaki” label fair?

No, it’s a horrible imposition to dump on the shoulders of a young animator, and nobody really knows what it is supposed to mean. At an exhibition level, in cinemas, it’s the distributors saying “we need someone who can put the same number of audience members in cinemas as that guy who’s been achieving big numbers at the box office from Princess Mononoke to The Wind Rises.” But at a reception level, among the audience themselves, it’s a meaningless term. Miyazaki was a one-off — any animator worth their salt doesn’t want to be the “new” anything, they want to be an original! Shinkai doesn’t even make films for the same audience as Miyazaki — he has a much more adult sensibility, so it’s a fallacy to expect him to suddenly make films with an all-family appeal.

When foreign distributors say they want a “new Miyazaki”, what they are asking for is a guarantee of quality that will allow them to release one animated film a year from Japan that will sell a certain number of copies and garner good reviews. They want that kind of imprimatur and they are hoping that someone — Shinkai, or Mamoru Hosoda, or one of several up-and-coming directors — can fill that role. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with style or content, it’s really about Blu-ray sales and tickets.

How do you think Your Name will be received in the west? Why was it such a breakthrough blockbuster in Japan?

Your Name will get positive reviews — it’s a great film; it’s a fun film; it’s a thoughtful film. It was well-received in Japan in part because it is undeniably a good film, but also because it tapped directly into an important part of the Japanese zeitgeist since 2011. Japan is full of people who lost someone dear to them; who lost their homes, who lost their families. I think Your Name‘s appeal, almost inadvertently, partly derives from the sense of hope and closure that events later in the film offer a large sector of modern Japanese society. Can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers!
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The Have-a-Go Hero

your-name-680It’s a familiar set-up for fans of anime director Makoto Shinkai. In his latest, Your Name, a boy and a girl have never met, but are still intimately connected by a mysterious switching of their personalities.

Shinkai often writes about distance – sometimes the micro-gestures that define how two people feel about each other when they are sitting on a bench; sometimes the time-lag between the sending of a phone message and its reception. But that’s not what made Makoto Shinkai famous. He became the poster boy for an entire generation of animation fans because his debut video release, Voices from a Distant Star, was made single-handed.

Or was it? Although he used off-the-shelf software, it helped that he could liberate the most expensive pro tools from his day-job at a computer games company. And by the time the public saw it, it had been buffed up with an injection of cash and manpower from Shinkai’s new patrons. But print the legend: Voices was an anime hit, made by a computer nerd in his living room!

Shinkai bypassed the usual route to an animation career, but that didn’t come without a price. He was propelled into movies, even though he had no apprenticeship in running a studio, and no experience in writing long. Hopeful hype rashly proclaimed him as the next Miyazaki, a ludicrous assertion to make about 31-year-old first-time feature director. His first full-length feature, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, was unremarkable, leading him to drift back into shorts amid whispers that he might have peaked too early. His next work, 5cm Per Second was a far more accomplished, emotionally compelling work, but comprised three linked shorts that fell seven tantalising minutes short of feature length.

Forget the Miyazaki comparison. Shinkai has much more in common with Charlotte Church (no, bear with me…!), an undeniable talent, successful at a perilously young age, and forced to learn the ropes of a more mature career path while trapped in the public eye. Shinkai has literally not had the time to make the mistakes and discover the skills that other animators hone over a decade. His particular style is often born from the things he never got around to learning, like photo-real backgrounds suffused with wondrous sunsets and dappled lighting effects to obscure the fact they’ve been ripped off from real photos.

your-nameIn the first flush of his success in 2008, he ducked out of the industry for several months and became an English student in London. His idle days spent mooching around the British Museum, he said, helped inspire his second feature Journey to Agartha. But Journey to Agartha was something of a flop – a bloated, half-hearted fantasy epic that evoked a meeting of accountants trying desperately to reverse-engineer the appeal of the retiring Hayao Miyazaki.

Shinkai’s follow-up was a bold return to his fannish roots, the 40-minute Garden of Words, about a student and a teacher who play truant in a Tokyo park. Garden of Words was a triumph – a thoughtful, bittersweet platonic romance, distributed in a bespoke, small-cinema format in which, more often than not, the director himself was in attendance, ready to sell you a signed DVD on your way out. At the time of its release, as its box office swiftly climbed, he gingerly told me that it was liable to steer his future productions. Money-men were sure to determine that his next movie should be another romance, not sci-fi. The fantasy elements in Your Name are liable to have been smuggled in by the back door.

Now in his forties, Shinkai continues to live in the glare of publicity, now as the first Japanese animator to be in competition at the London Film Festival. But he also has something of the geek made good about him, barricading himself in his hotel room to complete the next instalment of the novelisation of his own movie, and using his clout as a film maker to fulfil the occasional nerdy dream. I asked him why he had cast Fumi Hirano, the actress who played devil-girl Lum in Urusei Yatsura, as the teacher in Garden of Words.

“Well,” he blushed. “I’d always fancied her…”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Your Name opens throughout the UK on 24th November. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #14, 2016.

So What’s New…?

gits new

So there’s a new Ghost in the Shell film, spun off from ARISE. It’s called Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. Just remember, someone had a meeting about that, and that’s the title they brain-stormed. Someone got paid to say: “We’ve got a title that everyone’s going to sit up and take notice of. It’s Ghost in the Shell. And it’s NEW!”

Seriously, did nobody in the room raise a hand and point out that the last Ghost in the Shell film was also new when it came out? And so was the one before that.

Maybe you missed it at last year’s Scotland Loves Anime, because you, like a number of other punters, thought it was the old new Ghost in the Shell until it was too late. And not just the punters; some journalists also confused this new film with the last time a Ghost in the Shell film was new, and used the wrong stills in their coverage. This new film will only be the new film until a new new film comes along, and then it will be the old new film.

Is there method in the madness? Quite possibly, what with a live-action Ghost in the Shell movie also coming soon. Internet search engines are sure to confuse this new film with Scarlet Johansson’s. Who knows, maybe the distributors will end up like those sneaky bastards who released Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoon with an all-typography cover just before Christmas, hoping to fool shoppers at the checkout that they were snagging Peter Jackson’s. In movie distribution, such sleights-of-hand are called “spoilers”, not the least because they’re going to ruin someone’s day, possibly yours.

Meanwhile, Makoto Shinkai’s latest film Your Name (Kimi no Na wa…) just happens to have the same title in Japanese as a radio series that was a massive hit in the 1950s, and adapted for television in the 1960s and the 1990s. When the Japanese publicity kicks off, it’s going to trend through the roof on social media with three different generations of tweeters, all of them crossly telling each other that it’s nothing to do with the show they loved from their youth. Someone, somewhere in a Tokyo cocktail bar will be patting herself on the back about how high the title is trending, even though half of the hits will be noise.

Ah, I hear you say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Does it really matter how these people get the public talking about their movies? It matters to me, because in five years time when the perpetrators of these crimes are back selling soap powder or brushes, I’ll still be here, dealing with angry letters from people who’ve bought the wrong DVD, or who missed a cinema screening.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #147, 2016.

Variety is the Spice…

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I’m taking the chance to publish the unexpurgated version of Mark Schilling’s interview with me for his piece last week in Variety. My comments were, naturally, reduced to a couple of soundbites, but I think some interesting things came up. Sometimes my brain doesn’t grind into action until it’s asked the right question, and some of my ideas here were straight off the cuff. The question was that old favourite, the “new Miyazaki” in the light of Michael Dudok de Wit’s forthcoming Red Turtle and Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name but as ever, I preferred to think of it not in terms of the creative abilities of modern animators, but of the ways in which the industry can find an equivalent revenue stream for the biggest money-spinner of the last generation.

Mark Schilling: In your view, has the torch truly been passed?

Jonathan Clements: No. There is no torch, at least not in the way that the public expects. Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t just a one-off, he was part of a trio. You can’t have the Miyazaki phenomenon without Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki as well. All three of them are retiring. Suzuki spent ten years not just looking for someone to take the torch, but examining the torch itself, trying to work out what parts of it could be replicated by other means. He concluded that there was no torch but the legacy of Ghibli itself, and that’s why the Ghibli Museum is so crucial to understanding the studio’s late period.

tale-of-princess-kaguya

Do you view Shinkai, de Wit and others as “Miyazaki heirs”?

Studio Ghibli spent a decade looking for some way of continuing Miyazaki’s momentum. Takahata couldn’t get the same numbers, although Suzuki did hope to hide that by releasing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya on the same bill as The Wind Rises. When Kaguya was delayed, its box office numbers made it very clear that Takahata didn’t have the following that Miyazaki had. None of the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Ghibli have done Hayao Miyazaki numbers.

Toshio Suzuki tried everything in the noughties. He tried to lure big-name directors into Ghibli, but they didn’t gel with the studio. He tried to train up new apprentices, some of whom have gone on to make names for themselves elsewhere. But he couldn’t find a proper replacement for Miyazaki.

So Suzuki engineered Goro Miyazaki’s controversial directorial debut, and invited audiences to come and see the car-crash. That lured Miyazaki himself back for Ponyo. That’s where they started the “We Made This” alphabetical credit listings, which conveniently obscured the fact that Miyazaki didn’t actually direct Arrietty! He engineered the father-son team-up on Poppy Hill, and got audiences to see that. Then he lured Miyazaki back for absolutely anything he wanted, no matter how controversial, so he could go out with The Wind Rises. He’s played Miyazaki (and the public) like a fiddle! He’s managed to stretch the heritage of Ghibli since 2006 with only two genuine Hayao Miyazaki movies. But after The Wind Rises, it really is over. Ghibli has to admit it’s got no more features in it that are going to trounce the next five rivals at the Japanese box office. It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Laputa_Robot_on_Roof_of_Museum_-_CopyBut that’s not good enough for distributors, and it’s not good enough for exhibitors. Cinemas are fixed sites, they need more product. July is going to happen whether or not the film studios have something suitable for a vacation tent-pole movie.

The Ghibli Museum turns over US$7.5 million a year, just on admissions. Throw in the restaurant and the gift shop, and the museum is making its owners a modest movie’s worth of revenue every year, just by managing Ghibli’s own legacy. It doesn’t need to make any more films – in fact, doing so would risk compromising the brand. It just needs to keep the conversation going. It needs people like us talking about it like it’s still there, so people remember they want to take their kids to see the giant fluffy Catbus.

So what does it mean when they say The Red Turtle is a coproduction? Is Ghibli just putting its name on it, like it did with the Japanese releases of Aardman films? I’m guessing that Ghibli is slightly more involved in investment than that, but not in actual animation. The Red Turtle will be imitation Ghibli, ‘inspired by Ghibli’, and it’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history. It’ll be a tenth of Miyazaki numbers, but it’ll keep that conversation going for another year. There will be a Red Turtle exhibition at the Ghibli Museum. Ghibli will keep trending. This is legacy management with very modest expectations. Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if The Red Turtle is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.

This isn’t new. We’ve seen a lot of this lately, where studios will rent out their IP to someone else and take 5% off the top. A Nigerian Astro Boy? An Indian Star of the Giants? A Wachowski Speed Racer? Ghibli has shut down its feature production arm, but what the hell, if someone else wants to take the risk, Ghibli will put in 5% of the effort for 5% of the returns. This is anime Moneyball.

kimi

Is there a “Miyazaki tradition” being passed on, even though Ghibli is not making features with its own directors?

That’s the conversation Ghibli wants us to keep having. Come and see this movie, to see if the director is The One! Will he save us? Is he the anime messiah? Or are we stuck hereafter with otaku-bait that can’t fill a single cinema for more than a couple of weeks?

That’s why Toei’s risk with Shinkai is so interesting. Shinkai has no trouble pulling in audiences on the small circuit. A Shinkai movie is usually a much more bespoke event. He makes a lot of personal appearances when his films go on tour, so it’s not just a trip to the cinema, it’s a trip to the cinema to see the director and get him to sign the DVD.

“Events” are a small but growing part of the Japanese cinema model, because if you have a small otaku audience, then you want to make sure they spend triple the usual money on a trip to the cinema. It’s not just about popcorn, it’s about T-shirts and phone cases, and often the limited edition Blu-ray. You limit and target the availability of the merchandise, and you make sure that you provide an experience which can’t be pirated. People are ripping off the software all the time, but Shinkai’s not going to sign a pirate copy, not of his movie nor the novel spin-off. He’s not going to shake your hand while you’re downloading the torrent.

“Events” at the moment are worth less than 5% of Toei’s revenue, but that’s a huge increase on just five years ago. It’s taking Japanese cinema back a hundred years to the days of the benshi and a cinema experience as a form of live vaudeville. But Kimi no Na Wa is different because it’s being touted, as you say, as a summer tent-pole movie. Shinkai can’t go to every screening; they can’t spread him that thinly. They’ll do some glad-handing for the hard-core fans at the premiere events, and hope that there’s enough momentum to keep it going with the general public. Watch the marketing on Kimi no Na wa, because I bet Toei goes all-out on interactivity. I bet they steal an idea from Mai Mai Miracle and try to engage the consumers with lobby exhibits. I bet they come up with a hashtag on social media and try and drag everybody into it. They are going to have to do this, because most of the users are going to have to bring their own event.

Look at the title, for God’s sake! They’ve called it Kimi no Na wa because I bet you half the general public will think it’s a remake. There was a radio series of the same name in the 1950s, adapted for TV in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Half the eyeballs for this movie’s advertising will only look because they think it’s something else. Much of the social media trending for this film will be people telling their confused friends that it’s not what they think it is. That’s some smart mockbuster marketing to get their attention. Then the pressure’s on Shinkai to keep it.

doraemon

Or is the Miyazaki legacy (including his box office supremacy) in danger from not only Hollywood hits like Frozen, but also domestic trends?

I think everyone would love it if there were a domestic trend that could compete with Miyazaki’s numbers. I don’t think there is. Everyone has to dial down their expectations to a level where domestic anime earn the kind of money they did in the 1980s, not the 2000s (or rather, the kind of money that people have earned all the way through if they are not Hayao Miyazaki). That’s the problem with movie punditry. Everybody wants to talk about the outliers. The successes are outliers! Miyazaki was an outlier. The general trend is much more modest in terms of returns, and Miyazaki’s success has hidden that for a generation.

Frozen is a red herring – Disney cartoons have always outperformed domestic product at the Japanese box office, with the exception of Miyazaki movies. A much more long-term issue is CG, because the stats for CG make it abundantly obvious that Japanese movies are getting their ass kicked by computer animation. Japanese movies are still struggling to compete with CG, because even when they get a hit like Stand By Me Doraemon, it’s not exportable like a Miyazaki movie. Nobody wants it abroad because nobody knows what Doraemon is; part of the film’s domestic success was because of the blue-chip marketability of the Doraemon brand, which still doesn’t travel far outside Japan.

Of course, it does export to China, but what happened there? Stand By Me Doraemon wasn’t in the 34 movie quota for foreign movies in Chinese cinemas. The Japanese had to sell it for a lump-sum and take no further profits. That’s not growing a business, that’s treading water and hoping that something will happen.

China’s the elephant in the room in all of this, because it’s the largest possible new market for Japanese animation, but Japanese animation is made to feel very unwelcome in formal distribution channels. It’s censored, it’s banned, it’s shut out of theatre exhibition. There are only two brands that get any love in China: Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.