Sunday, August 28, 2011

While You Were Busy Drooling Over Pixar

Meet Shinkai Makoto. Don't worry if you've never heard of him. That's kind of the point of this blog post. You see, he's one of the real up and coming bright spots of the Japanese animation scene and I'd like to tell you about him before you go all goo-goo refreshing Slash Film every minute in the hope that another Pixar related story pops up.

Yes, this is another Anime post. Hey wait, where are you going? Don't go, it'll only last for a minute. Just a little prick - like a need at the doctor's office. Hey, stop! Come back. Please! I love you! *cough cough* Too much? Alright, back to the serious stuff.

You see, Shinkai Makoto represents to me a sort of encompassing much of what Anime can be when done correct. Personally I'm not as big a fan of the turbulent, blood laden, long tongue monsters, half-human hybrids of the Ninja Scroll anime variety; generally finding myself far more engrossed in the whimsical fantasy and science fiction filled worlds often created by the likes of Makoto, and the much revered Hayao Miyazaki (hopefully you've at least heard of him). I enjoy a careful, methodical attention to detail and design, imagination and wonder. Something I can simultaneously engage in mentally and vainly enjoy the beauty of. That's not to say I don't enjoy realistic, heartfelt anime. After all Grave of the Fireflies sits firmly in the #2 spot on my all time anime films. Either way, there's something to be said for any film that can whisk you away to another world and make you truly want for its existence.

Which is perhaps ironic in the case of Makoto as what I would argue is his best film is entirely void of that science fiction/fantasy element and is far more grounded in reality. But more on that later. My first introduction to Makoto was, in fine fashion, his first feature length film, the 2004 romance-friendship tale The Place Promised in Our Early Days. A beautiful tale of two one-time friends who, in an alternate mid-war Japan, band together, despite their conflicts and possible damage to their own world, help heal their childhood whose conscience is trapped in an alternate universe.

Confused? Don't be, the film's elusive enough on its backstory as it is. It is a shame that, at times, the choppy narrative hinders the movie from ever escalating beyond being 'good,' but the heartfelt nature of the characters really beckons a want for their hapiness. Their dispondency clashing with their dedication, and in one of their cases deeply repressed romantic feelings, help glide the film from scene to scene. Not to mention Makoto is downright majestic when it comes to creating breath taking shots. The climax, in my assessment the film's real highlight, brings out much of what becomes a backhanded signature for Makoto. Not sad per say, but a somber optimism that weighs present love versus the possibility of a long term romance. Especially when you take into account the wonderful way he builds romance between characters who are often forced to be apart.

So after that emotionally rocky roller coaster, I thought it would be nice to continue by journey through the work of Makoto. More specifically of course checking out his much acclaimed first short, Voices of a Distant Star, clocking in a slim and trim twenty-five minutes. Which one might find a hindrance were it not for the speed and precision with which Makoto lays out each scene for the viewer to wholly engulf themselves in. Of course, this being a smaller scale installment, it also comes with a much lower budget than Makoto's following works, but I find a certain pleasure in seeing a more intimate approach - knowing that Makoto himself did most of the work (including one of the voices for the short's two characters) on the film himself. Yet I cannot deny that the melancholy nature of it is a bit overwhelming. You see, Voices of a Distant Star tells the tale of Nagamine, a teenage soldier sent into outer space to battle an army of aliens, who passes her time by emailing her adolescent love, Noboru. However, the longer the battle goes on, the farther she gets from Earth, and the longer her messages take to reach her beloved - up to a maximum of nine years. So you feel a real powerful disconnect and torn nature inside her. She is sending these messages, these declarations of love and want and friendship to someone who will have out aged her by a half her life by the time they are received.

It's a heartbreaking and heartwarming take on how far one may go for someone they love, and Makoto captures this beautifully. Despite the at times graphical woes, the emotional chords struck in the narrations by Noboru and Nagamine resound deep within. It is perhaps for that reason that this short is held in such high regard, and perhaps equally so why it is often derided by those who came seeking action.

With such ideas of sorrow and yearning I ventured out to experience Makoto's third film, the hour long 5 Centimeters Per Second. Which, having experienced Makoto's earlier work, really struck me in a series of ways I can't wholly explain. First there was the same sentiments and motifs that he explored in the earlier films. The notion of adolescent love, that first real love and how it can shape the entirety of our lives. The use of narration to make our character's inner most thoughts transparent instead of expository dialogue or an abundance of action. In fact 5 Centimeters Per Second seems to thrive on a lack of action. Its slowness is its greatest strength, and one Makoto molds into a mosaic of lights, colors, and background set pieces to leave you in awe. Each shot feels fresh, real, and humane, perhaps because this is Makoto's most human piece yet. Told in 3 "episodes" the film follows Takaki Tono and his struggle to escape his first love, Akari, as they are separated due to their parents and the consequences of his inability to stop looking back. Yet, Makoto takes 5cm Per Second beyond that. With a cast that basically only features three characters - the third being Kanae, a young girl with a crush on Takaki who is the focal point for the 2nd episode - we really get to know them in the brief time we have with them.

Through flashbacks and misdirection we see the collection of missed connections that came to define their absence in each others lives. The struggle they go through in traveling down a road of love that they know will only lead to loss and regret. If there is one complaint I would lodge it is that it shirks some responsibility of closure by keeping the 3rd episode short, and open to interpretation. Not to mention the gross absence of Kanae whose 2nd episode woes really capture that uncertainty that comes with young love and fear of the future at hand.

All in all one might say I find Shinkai Makoto to be one hell of an anime director, and I'm eagerly anticipating the US release of his latest anime film - Children Who Chase Lose Voices from Deep Below. Sure, he's a bit rough around the edges, but what he does well, he does so well it quite strongly stamps down any bad. So if you find yourself with a couple of hours to kill - all the time it would take to watch his three major works - please consider checking out his films. I simply cannot recommend them enough.

8 better thoughts:

Robert said...

Great post! I love Makoto, especially "5 Centimeters Per Second". His visual style is so gorgeous and so different from what you normally can find in anime that it's just so wonderful to watch his films. I still need to see "The Place Promised in our Early Days"!

Alex said...

I LOVE Shinkai! His work is so breathtakingly beautiful. "Voices of a Distant Star" had me crying like a baby within 15 minutes, it's just a powerful thing.

I didn't know his latest was heading to the US, that's definitely something to be excited about! Especially after recent news that Satoshi Kon's posthumous film has halted production.

Alex said...

Also thanks for doing a post about him, hopefully it will make some people more aware of his work! I know it's tough to get anyone to listen once the a-word is out in the open.

Castor said...

Nice spotlight of Makoto. I have been looking for more out-of-the-way animations recently and his work looks very intriguing. I shall give those a shot. Nice post Ryan!

Alan said...

I've never seen Makoto's work, but I suspect that I'll have a similar response when faced with all anime (and you nudge up to it in the first film you discuss here); that being that I think the style is beautiful, but I often have problems following the stories. Based on what you and some of the other folks here think, I'll add a few of his films to my Netflix queue.

It's funny that you posted this today, since I've had kids around me and both my movies this weekend were Pixar releases.

Univarn said...

4 People commenting on an anime post I did? This must be one of the signs of the apocalypse!

@Robert PPED is definitely his most wide encompassing tale, which is one of the reasons I think it struggles so much. In the long run he might benefit from picking up a writing partner with a more concrete knack for timing.

@Alex I'm hoping it's coming to the US, if not I'm going to throw a fit and then hunt it down online. There's so many 'fansub' sites, one of them is bound to do a release sooner or later.

@Castor I'd recommend watching his films in order (on this post that would be Voices of a Distant Start -> Place Promised in our Early Days -> 5cm per second) as I feel there's really an evolution of style going on.

@Alan You see, I think one of the major problems people have when approaching anime is they try to lump in all anime together. It's not really the case. Within anime, much like film or television, there's a wide assortment of genres, each with their own plus and minus. I do think with anime - in general - there's a greater emphasis on visual style, creative world building, and open ended narrative than direct a to b plot pointing. Which I can see turning people off. If you really want to get into anime, I can look through your favorite films and make a recommendation or two.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen any of his films yet, but I do agree with the spirit of your post. Pixar seems to be like the be-all-end-all of animation and man is there some fantastic stuff outside the bounds of Pixar.

I still love a good number of Pixar films, but I've got to say I've been more impressed with Studio Ghibli as a body of work and I haven't even gotten to most of the non-Miyazaki ones.

I'll certainly be on the lookout for this director. Animation is one of those areas where I feel I've still got so many films to see.

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