Everyone has their Makoto Shinkai moment. In mine, I am sixteen—like all of Shinkai’s protagonists—with a boy I like, and we’re running down the streets of Shinjuku, caught in a sudden rain. We’re running because I need to catch the last train out. We lived in different cities, and we'd made each other forget the time. He grabs my bag—“Let me take it, we’ll be faster”—and tucks it into his school sweater to protect it from the wet. This is my Shinkai memory, so imagine this with the raindrops refracting rainbows of light, the neon billboards casting a soft and blurry orange on our skin, sketched with colored pencil, the brush of nostalgia. We skid into the station, and we hear a conductor announcing the departure of the midnight train. The boy shoves my bag to my chest and tells me to go. There’s a pause as I try to say something, and suddenly, the rain stops. We look up, silhouetted against a Shinkai sky: immense, shot through with teenaged yearning, and almost unbearable in its breathlessness.
Were my life an actual Makoto Shinkai movie, this would be the moment that you'd hear the opening strings of a familiar Japanese rock song, and you would see a montage of everyday events, minor moments of embarrassments and joys. As the song reaches its chorus, you would see us growing closer, earnest and awkward with each other, our feelings thumping upwards to RADWIMPS rhythm. I would scold him at least twice for staring at my breasts; he would flush wildly and look away. There would be some cataclysmic semi-magical event that will “permanently” separate us and devastate Japan. I, the gentle girl, will be lost, and this loss will make the boy go singularly bat-shit. He will be given a choice: me, or averting a natural disaster. Have you seen me? I glow from the rays of at least six animated suns. Of course he chooses me. He will unite forces with an intergenerational band of wise grandmas, middle-aged men in suits (a too-serious father in black or a too-saucy uncle in maroon), and a precocious elementary school sibling, and get me back. An epilogue: we—older, a little scarred, but our feelings ever unchanged—meet again.
Need it be said that the boy and girl in my non-Shinkai life weren’t nearly so palatable? That none of our ordinary lives are suffused with such dappled shards and orbs of light? Animation, it seems, has always been the medium of extremes, depicting our brightest fantasies and the darkest catastrophes. We don’t expect Shinkai to make us think or feel like Katsuhiro Otomo, Hideaki Anno, or the other lords of animated night, who champion the damaged, the freaks, the depressed cerebral, the bodily grotesque. Shinkai, like Mamoru Hosoda or Naoko Yamada, is interested in whimsy, the hidden forces contained in a conventional life, the sheen of a cup of coffee sipped from a can. Their challenge is to hold us in thrall with lyricism, to say that the troubles of an ordinary person are equal to—and as worthy of representation—as a galactic battle. When Shinkai first started working at a game company, he was always handed projects about fantasy. “But I wanted animation to be able to explore the feeling of swaying on an over-packed train,” he said in an interview. “I wanted to draw Shinjuku as it was, as I saw it.” And so he went home, the lore goes, and drew storyboards during sleepless nights.
Everyone wants to find the next Hayao Miyazaki. A lot of people want to be him. Certainly, both Shinkai and Miyazaki take the teenaged heart very seriously. But Miyazaki is obsessed with planes—the shuddering of things in flight, the jolts that accompany take-off, the complications and sacrifices in the stuff that, if you pay attention, cannot be unwoven from the feeling of soaring. Shinkai is obsessed with skies. This is what makes him different; there’s something he expresses that Miyazaki does not, especially in the range of his hyper-realistic precision. He takes as seriously the different colors of sun glinting off a girl’s iPhone, as how clouds may part, god-like, revealing a sea of shifting blues. When used sparingly, there’s an oomph to his sprawling depiction of the world far above and away that perfectly matches the caterwauling too-much-ness of being sixteen, squinting in yearning. We all—from the toddler to the 90-year-old grandmother—have an experience of skies, and Shinkai makes them magical, adding to his wide-ranging appeal. But can skies have irredeemable flaws—can they be rejected, unforgiven? Can skies be sacrificed—can they be truly, irrevocably lost?
Stretched to the scale and relentlessly pretty canvas of the sky, are Shinkai’s emotions rendered flat and predictable? Thirty minutes into one of my favorite interviews of Shinkai’s—he’s shooting the breeze with an artsy radio host, on the eve of the national release of Your Name—they decide, impromptu, to recite the first line of the upcoming movie. The radio host jitters with excitement as Shinkai sits, adjusting his dad-glasses and the part in his bowl-cut. “Once in a while, when I wake up, I find myself crying,” the radio host recites, smoothly. Shinkai leans forward, smiles, and says—his voice soft—that the emotion in the sentence isn’t coming across properly. The radio host’s tempo is too good. “When you’re trying to hold something in that can’t be expressed in speech,” Shinkai says, “there’s a difference in rhythm, more space in between words.” He, then, recites the line—halting, sad, tremulous. The radio host tries again: his rhythm matches Shinkai’s. “Better,” Shinkai says, laughing, rocking back and forth. “That was a little better.”