Will Shinkai Makoto be the next Miyazaki?

A review of Shinkai’s animations including the latest short-film “Cross Road”

Tets Kimura, Flinders University [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 1 (Film Review 1 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 30 April 2016.

“Cross Road,” Dir: Shinkai Makoto, 2014.

Shinkai Makoto (b. 1973) has already developed a reputation within the world of Japanese animation, and his talent is now acknowledged beyond the industry. He debuted as an independent creator in the late 1990s and in 2004, his film Kumo no mukô, yakusoku no basho (“The Place Promised in Our Early Days”) won the 59th Mainichi Film Award for Best Animation Film, defeating Miyazaki’s Hauru no ugoku shirô (“Howl’s Moving Castle”), which was the obvious favourite. Since then, he has created a number of original feature-length animations including Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru (“Five Centimetres per Second,” 2007), Hoshi o ou kodomo (“Children Who Chase Lost Voices”/“Journey to Agartha,” 2011) and Koto no ha no niwa (“The Garden of Words,” 2013). His latest, however, is a two-minute-long video advertisement, “Cross Road” (2014), made for the Z-Kai, which runs a juku “cram school” but in a home study style. Since the release of “Cross Road” on Youtube in February 2014, it has been viewed over 2.4 million times.1

Shinkai had refused to be a successor of Miyazaki, avoiding drawing people in a Ghibli-style, such as minimising the drawing complexity of the characters but over-emphasising their lush movements, until his 2011 movie “Children Who Chase Lost Voices.” However, Shinkai has always offered beautiful artistic backgrounds, just like the Ghibli directors. He often inserts images of natural or urban scenery. These are not required in terms of storytelling, but these scenes act as an extra dimension of feeling. By perceiving Shinkai’s supplementary information, the audience has an opportunity to read between the lines. Furthermore, Shinkai offers scenery that looks real, but he is not a photorealist—rather he is more like an impressionist. This sounds contradictory, but our optical observation consists of perceptions of the real world and emotions. Shinkai, in his early days, worked solo, so everything apart from music was a product of his own efforts. There was no director telling him what to do and no staff member who tweaked his creativity. This was probably a good practice for him to discover the right balance between reality and perception.

On top of the scenic beauty, Shinkai’s films have also been liked due to the sentimental feel delivered in his storylines. Whether being situated in a parallel universe such, as Hoshi no koe (“Voices of a Distant Star”, 2002), “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” (2004) and “Children Who Chase Lost Voices” (2011), or in the real world, such as Kanojo to kanojo no neko (“Their Standing Points”/“She and Her Cat,” 1999), “Five Centimetres per Second” (2007) and “The Garden of Words” (2013), his stories are nostalgic, and remind us what we may have experienced as young adults. This is more evident in his stories that are set in non-fictional worlds, as the lack of supernatural or science-fiction elements can mean there is more room for describing feelings. His 2007 and 2013 movies are largely regarding the feelings of the main character (teenage males in the both) and his relations with close female friends. My description of these movies probably gives an impression of the “same old stuff,” but I did not feel that I watched “one of those things.” He always gives exceptional details of melodramatic emotions, so what the audience perceives is always unique.

In the latest short-film “Cross Road,” the feelings of Japanese high school students are well-expressed in 120 seconds. There are two disadvantaged students: a Tokyo boy, unable financially to afford an ordinary cram school, who works at the checkout of a convenience store after school and is seemingly the only child of a single parent; and a country girl from a remote island, who could not attend a cram school due to her isolation. Both are deadly keen to enter their chosen university or “the place where I want to be;” thus, they enrol in Z-kai’s home study educational program. At the beginning of the film, each observes a method of transportation—a boat for the girl, and a train for the boy. The absence of opportunity presents the both of them as being alone in the film. Throughout the film, there are moving objects such as seagulls, a boat, trains, a bicycle, and cars, symbolising the students are moving forward as they work their way through the Z-Kai study. The students meet by chance at the announcement of the entrance exam results on the campus, and it looks like their hard work has paid off. This is a delightful story considering the importance of the exam and how disadvantaged children struggle to climb up the Japanese social ladder.

However, I have concerns that the significance of “Cross Road” may be limited to a Japanese audience and not extend outside of the Japanese cultural framework. What comes to my mind is, do I understand the nature of this story because I am Japanese? Born in a Japanese Christian family, educated in alternative schools, and moving to Australia as a teenager, I am not sure how much of me belongs to Japan (legally I am not even a Japanese citizen); but I still understand a fair bit about Japan as a Japanologist and have worked for a number of Japanese media organisations. The cram school culture is not indigenous to the West—although many Asian Australians go to tutoring centres—and the importance of the Japanese university ranking of hensachi would probably be beyond the comprehension of international audiences, especially those from the West. Domestic university ranking determines how successfully or how far they can go as shakaijin, full-time workers, and many even believe that the ranking of their university determines the level of individuals’ happiness for the rest of their lives. Thus, it is likely that “Cross Road” will only be fully understood by a Japanese audience, or by someone who can understand that attitude because of similar social backgrounds. Shinkai seems to be aware of the limitation of how far his films can travel. After the release of “Five Centimetres per Second,” he admitted that the film may not be appreciated without knowing Japanese concepts such as the sentimental role of cherry blossoms. Similarly, knowledge of the Japanese/East Asian discourse around cram schools is most likely to be required in order to understand and appreciate “Cross Road.”

Animation is clearly associated with Cool Japan and Japan wants to export it widely in order to revitalise its struggling economic sector. Without offering the “unidealistic culture” that is mentioned in Nye’s book “Soft Power” (2004), cultural products are less likely to travel further. Whether Shinkai is going to be the next Miyazaki is still undecided—however I would suggest that he will need to modify his style to attract a wider international audience; he already decided to adopt the Ghibli style of drawing people in “Children Who Chase Lost Voices” (2011). Can he offer universalistic sentimental impressions? Or, does he have to have robots and witchcraft in his next film? It would be sad if Shinkai were to need to set his stories in only a fictional world, because the sceneries of both Shibuya and Ochanomizu in “Cross Road” are beautifully animated, and the emotions of the high school students are well presented… However, if he is aiming to go beyond being a household name in only Japan and establish an international reputation, he will need to find his own cross road to break through the Japanese barrier.


About the Author

Tets Kimura is an Australian Postgraduate Award scholar at Flinders University, Adelaide, and is conducting his doctoral research to reveal soft power influences of Japanese fashion in Australia. He is a council member of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, and an editorial board member of the Flinders Journal of History and Politics.

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