A Chat with Makoto Shinkai

“… One of my motives for making this film was a desire to spin my own ending to that book.”

Animation, like any film genre, maintains a certain hierarchy of talent based on admiration, reputation and experience. And perhaps more than any other country, this archetype maintains particular relevance in the Japanese film industry where manga not only remains a daily part of the Japanese lifestyle, but animated feature films often out perform their live action counterparts. Part of Japan’s success in the animation lies in its ability to nurture talent, with animation studios such as Bones, Gonzo and 4°C actively seeking out and supporting new artists and storytellers. But while the studio’s themselves draw a deep level of loyalty and respect, its Japan’s true masters of animation including Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Mamoru Oshii (Sky Crawlers), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and the late Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) who have shaped the anime feature world into a truly international phenomenon. But as with any genre, time eventually paves the way for the new guard, and one of the freshest young talents to emerge in recent years is undoubtedly Makoto Shinkai, a Nagano native whose first entry into feature film, Voice of a Distant Star stunned critics and anime fans alike drawing instant comparisons to revered Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki with its sense of wonder, soul and visual brilliance. Makoto’s next film, The Place Promised in our Early Days only reinforced the 38 year olds arrival as a force to be reckoned with, drawing international accolades. But it was in 2007 that Shinkai’s nostalgic coming of age tale 5 Centimeters Per Second took the coveted Best Animation Feature Film award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards on Australia’s Gold Coast. Three years later Shinkai returned to Queensland to host a forum at the 2010 Gold Coast International Film Festival with producer and collaborator Noritaka Kawaguchi of CoMix Wave Films. And now, Shinkai’s flirtation with the Gold Coast continues as his latest big screen endeavored Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below makes its Australian début as part of the Cool Japan program playing at the 2011 Gold Coast Film Festival.

In anticipation of the films screening Shinkai chatted via email with us to discuss the films upcoming premiere and how he, like many Japanese, are coming to terms with recent 3-11 disasters.

Fletcher: Your Films are quite universal in their themes, but process a distinct Japanese style. When you direct a film are you conscious of appealing to an international audience or do you target your films specifically toward the Japanese market?

Makoto Shinkai: I believe that my memories of where I grew up are reflected in my work. I grew up in the mountainous regions of Japan, and the high sky, deep green, transparency of the water, etc. that I saw as a child have permeated my work even when I’m illustrating a non-Japanese landscape.

The truth is that I actually don’t think much about gearing my works towards Japanese or foreign audiences. The audience I imagine is always a specific person. As I make my works, I am hoping that a certain someone would see the work and feel a certain way. That “someone” can be one person or multiple people; it can be a Japanese or a non-Japanese person. The point, however, is that I am thinking of individuals rather than “the market.”

F:  In that case as a director is it important that your films to be seen by international audiences?

MS: Since I’m not a producer, I’ve never seriously thought about whether or not my works will sell overseas. I’m slightly taken aback when I hear that a significant number of people have been watching my films overseas.

I do, however, believe that people tend to have some degree of pride in their homeland, and I do have a desire to show and brag about the scenery and colors of my country to overseas audiences (laughs).

F: The imagery in your films often evokes a sense of nostalgia. Do you draw on these images from specific moments of your own childhood or is it more of a collective social ambiance?

MS: My works are fiction so I’m not depicting myself in them, but then again I do first recall my own childhood when depicting childhood and my own college experience when depicting student life. However, I believe that the individual cannot exist completely independent of society, so in some form or another I think my works occasionally reflect the atmosphere of Japanese society.

F: Having won various prestigious awards, do you find there is more pressure when pitching or delivering new projects?

MS: While working on a new film, I never feel pressured by thoughts about the audience or awards. My hands become full with finishing the work, and I’m left with no room in my mind to think about anything else.

I begin to feel outside pressure around when the film is released. I become especially nervous about the audience’s response on the first day of release. When I go home I can’t help searching for opinions online, so during the first few days of release I try to wander around and not go back to my room (laughs).

F: Japan has recently undergone many hardships including the financial crisis and the 3-11 disasters. Have you noticed any negative impact on Japan’s animation studios? If so what do you feel the lasting effects will be?

MS: With regards to the economy, I believe that Japan’s recession is not a short-term problem but a structural and sustained situation that will continue well into the future. Japan’s animation producers will simply have to accept this as a presupposition while making their works, and in reality I believe that this is indeed what they are doing.

Japanese animation may steadily decline, or perhaps a new and ambitious mode of expression may come about and become widely accepted. That’s something I don’t know.

F: Considering the overwhelming media coverage given to the 3-11 disasters and the efforts to rebuild, have you felt its influence on you as a storyteller?

MS: Yes. In Japan, there were many things that became clear on a societal level through this earthquake, but as an individual it was also opportunity for me to recognize emotions and feelings that I had not been aware of before. For example, feelings for land, homeland; a hint of the reason behind a very vague feeling of “guilt” I feel as I lead my life in Tokyo; reasons and emotions behind why people need stories. I haven’t been able to sort all of it out yet, but I cannot say that this will have no influence on my work from now on. This will probably be true for many authors and creators.

F: Can you explain what drew you to ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below’? How challenging was it to bring this story to screen as opposed to past films?

MS: There are a number of catalysts that lead up to this work. The oldest one is a children’s book I read as an elementary school student entitled “Piramiddo Boushiyo, Sayounara” (“Farewell, Pyramid Hat”). It is an incomplete story as the author passed away while writing it. I really liked this book and as a child I really wanted to know how it ended. “Children” is a different story from “Pyramid,” but one of my motives for making this film was a desire to spin my own ending to that book.

Yes, in contrast with my past works “Children” was a film that was also meant to be a challenge for me. Up to “5 Centimeters per Second” I had only been making what I was good at. I made “Children” as if crashing head on into what I wanted to express without first considering what I was good or bad at. I don’t think I ought to use my own inability as an excuse, but in any case this was a work that I confronted with everything I had.

F: It has been reported that you praise Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky as one of your favorite films. How do you now feel when young animators cite your work as an influence?

MS: Very happy! I’d like to work hard to produce works that both the elder generation of Mr. Miyazaki and the young animators can be proud of, even though as of now I still have a long ways to go.

F: Apart from other animated films or shorts, what other artistic genres (music, live action film, art); people or works have influenced you creatively?

MS: I’ve been strongly influenced by authors Haruki Murakami and Arthur C. Clark and the artist Andrew Wyeth.

In addition, I learned something along the lines of the spirit of production from Masayuki Katou, then CEO of the gaming company I used to work at (Nihon Falcom). He is one of the founders of the Japanese PC gaming scene of the 1980s, and I deeply admire him.

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