A rare comet shatters the infinite loop of time, linking two unsatisfied teenage lives in the anime hit Your Name—the highest-grossing anime film of all time worldwide, having earned over $320 million to date.
Superficially, director Makoto Shinkai’s latest is anchored in the well-known body-swap comedic storytelling trope. Yet as the plot dives into much more mystical territory than, say, Freaky Friday does, its use of science-fiction conventions, channeled through traditional Japanese Shinto beliefs, makes for a brilliantly written piece of existential fantasy.
Shinkai, an animation prodigy whose 2002 short “Voices from a Distant Star” catapulted him to almost immediate acclaim, employs digitally crafted backgrounds and effects as well as traditionally drawn characters for an evocative style that’s aesthetically on par with Studio Ghibli, yet relies on its own artistic intricacies and innovations. In Your Name, protagonists Taki and Mitsuha are more than just star-crossed lovers; their relationship takes on more visionary connotations. The film asks viewers to question the nature of opposing forces such as fate and coincidence, as their two worlds, one of a student in bustling Tokyo and the other a frustrated youth in a small-minded town, collide as part of an eternal cycle.
An animated masterwork through and through, and Shinkai’s greatest achievement to date, this dazzling story reveals itself via a winding plot and vibrant rock music. During a rare visit to Los Angeles in December for the film’s award-qualifying run, we sat down with Shinkai to learn more about this landmark production, one that has succeed both commercially and intellectually with critics and audiences alike.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How has the way you work evolved from your first short film to Your Name, an exponentially larger production?
Makoto Shinkai (MS): On my very first project, “Voices from a Distant Star,” I worked alone. Over time, with each project, I review and look back and see how I can improve. Each time, it’s almost like I repeat this cycle of asking, “What’s possible?” Now I’m fortunate to have a lot of staff members working with me on my projects, so it has really expanded the scope of what I can do.
MM: How much of your films do you personally get to animate now, compared to your initial film? Has your role as a director become more about overseeing the process and making decisions from afar?
MS: As I work on more and more films, my role has shifted. Right now, I focus a lot on the screenplay and storyboards. That’s where most of my time goes, and these serve as the blueprints for what the movie is going to become. Once we have these blueprints, I generally allow my animation director to take charge of how things are going to be animated, or the environmental artists to design the backgrounds and the environments. Of course, I’m in constant communication with them, but I like to leave the smaller decisions to them, and focus on the general scene and how something is going to play out. I feel that is more my role as the director. It’s very rare for me to go from zero to 100 and do everything, from the screenplay to the cut, at this point, so I allow the artists to be creative in their realms.
MM: Tell us about the production of the film and the division of labor among the different artists that worked on it.
MS: As I’m sure you’re aware, the backgrounds and environments and characters are done by separate artists once you reach a scale this large, so there are specialists that each focus on their own craft. The compositor then has to take all of these different elements and put them into one cohesive image. After we have the storyboards, I do what’s called a layout, and there we lay out the background, the characters, the lighting and maybe some of the movement I expect to see. We start designing the scenes around that, so when we integrate everything early on in this layout phase, it allows you to see that more cohesive image.
MM: The effect, in your films, from blending digital backgrounds with hand-drawn characters is breathtaking. Why do you find this dual process ideal?
MS: In terms of the digital vs. hand-drawn argument, when I did “Voice of a Distant Star,” I created all of the backgrounds digitally. Because the ultimate medium through which the film was going to be produced and rendered was a digital format. You’re dealing with data, and it seemed like a natural pipeline to already have the backgrounds done and rendered digitally. As far as characters are concerned, frankly I think if we could digitize that process a little more, it would actually be more efficient and better for the pipeline. But that being said, a lot of the staff and a lot of the more experienced people in the industry prefer the pencil and paper method. It’s almost like a legacy artifact from ages before. However, if we can slowly transition to a pen and tablet, that might improve the efficiency of the pipeline.
MM: Music is very important storytelling device in Your Name. I know that you adapted the screenplay to work with this music in particular. Why was it so important?
MS: I think there’s always a relationship between Japanese anime and music. The ideal that a lot of creators strive for is of course Studio Ghibli, and what Miyazaki does in a lot of his works. He has a composer he’s been working with throughout all of his projects, Joe Hisaishi, and it’s that combination of visual expression and orchestral music that really complements each other. But I think if anyone else attempted that, it wouldn’t go nearly as well, so that’s why I decided I needed to take a slightly different approach. That’s when we thought, “Well, if we take a different genre of music, then we might be able to change the way we combine the visuals and the music.” That’s when we decided to go with a rock band, whose musical tones informed a little bit of how the screenplay was going to play out.
MM: Thematically, the narrative includes traditional Japanese spiritual elements adapted into a modern setting.
MS: It’s not that I personally believe in reincarnation or spirits, necessarily, but given the nature of the narrative and the switching element that I wanted for the storytelling, it became almost necessary to integrate these Shinto beliefs into the narrative. I think that’s what you felt when you watched the movie.
MM: There’s a meaningful visual symbol throughout the film: a sliding door that divides two worlds. How did this visual cue develop and what’s its cinematic purpose?
MS: I think there are two sides to that. The first being that, of course, there were moments where I wanted to separate the two worlds, but the other element of why the doors close the way they do is to keep the tempo of the narrative the way I wanted it. In my pipeline for creating this, after I have the screenplay and transition to the storyboard, the first thing that I do in making the storyboard is I lay out an audio scratch track. I put in temporary voices for all of the characters—my own voice, generally—and sound effects, like footsteps and doors closing. I wanted to establish the tempo of the entire movie before I started putting any visuals to it. Once I had the entire audio, that’s when I knew: “The door’s going to close here; I need some kind of beat,” and the visuals followed the audio.
MM: The film has been incredibly successful in Japan, and it won the Best Animated Feature award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Is there pressure for you to replicate this massively positive reception with your follow-up project?
MS: Ironically, I don’t really feel that much pressure. I think that if we had made just $20 million, that would have been a massive success for me, so when it resonated and hit the $300 million mark, that represented a different level of correlation between the movie and society in general. Can that be reproduced? I don’t know, because that’s not what our intention was. We didn’t go out saying, “We’re going to make a movie that’s going to gross $300 million.” It was more of a result of what the movie became, so I don’t really feel too much pressure to reproduce it. I will always strive to do the best I can with what I have available to me at the moment, and create something that I feel is good. MM
Your Name opens in theaters April 7, 2017, courtesy of FUNimation Films.