The Garden of Thoughts: An Interview with Makoto Shinkai

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We had the privilege of speaking with noted anime director Makoto Shinkai at Anime Expo 2013. Noted for his lush background work and wistful themes, Shinkai first came to fame with the home computer produced Voices of a Distant Star. He has gone on to make several acclaimed anime films such as The Place Promised In Our Early Days, Five Centimeters Per Secondand Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below. This year, he has released his latest work, The Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa), which is perhaps his most refined statement about romantic longing (koi) yet. We decided to speak to him about that movie, its vision and the casting, as well as his artistic approaches and influences and what he thinks about his place in the anime world.

NOTE: this interview contains very mild spoilers, or at least hints, about The Garden of Words.

You seem to have a unique ability to capture the beauty of ordinary life. What things around you make you say, “Wow, I want to capture that!” in animation?

It’s not that there is always a particular moment, so, it’s hard to answer in a one word…it’s not that I’m always thinking that “oh, this scenery is beautiful so I have to cut that part out and make it to art.”

And speaking of The Garden of Words…the first thing you make is a story. Then you decide where the location of the story will be, and how the story will develop. And then, when you think how the visuals will be in this process, then you finally think about how you take something from the setting and use it, how to depict it, and how to make the setting beautiful. That’s when you begin to think that. So  the story always comes first.

So the visuals come last in the process.

Yes, that’s right.

The way you use lighting is a distinguishing feature of your work. How do you approach lighting, and do you have any influences in that area?

There is a famous Japanese director of live action art film, Shunji Iwai [director of All About Lily Chou-Chou, Love Letter, and star of Hideaki Anno’s live action film Shiki-Jitsu]. And his films are not anime, but he shoots beautiful scenery, so I think there is some influence from Iwai-san.

A screenshot from
A screenshot from All About Lily Chou-Chou by Shunji Iwai.

And being 40 years old, I am part of the 8-bit video game generation, like the Famicom, or in America, Nintendo Entertainment System. (You call it the NES, right?) My generation loved Famicom and PC games, but at that time the computers couldn’t use as many colors as today–[some] PCs could only use 8 colors, and the Famicon only had 64 colors. I think there were many ideas of how to depict nature or characters with limited colors, and I think I was influenced from that as well.

How have you changed as a storyteller since your early works?

I want to believe I am getting better with my storytelling skills. I don’t know what the audience thinks about me, though.

Well, compared with 10 years ago when I was making She and Her Cat and Voices of a Distant Star, I have come to be more aware and conscious about the structure of the story, or what the driving force of the story is. What’s the engine, what elements moves the story forward? So I think I am more aware of that compared with 10 years ago.

You’ve done both sci-fi/fantasy works as well as contemporary “slice-of-life” stories. Do you prefer one or the other?

I like both. For Garden of Words, I made the film about really ordinary life, but I have a desire to make an SF story my next film. Before Garden of Words, I made a fantasy story, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and since I made a fantasy film then, I made a film about ordinary life this time. So, there is always a pendulum of desires: since I made a realistic film this time, I want to make a different film next time.

So what genre do you want to do next?

But I always think that there are many movie directors, and many animes, so there is no need for one director to make all kinds of films. Everyone has something they’re good at, and what I’m good at is depicting the tightly focused relationship seen in The Garden of Words, as well as scenes from contemporary life. So The Garden of Words is like my speciality. I’m playing in my home turf, using skills that I excel at. Sure, I still do have a desire to make SF and fantasy; I’m interested in them. But if I try to do mystery or comedy or anything else, I think that will be beyond my powers. That’s how I feel.

What kind of emotions did you depict that you hadn’t previously in The Garden of Words?

To put it simply, I hadn’t really depicted characters screaming out their emotions at each other in my previous works. I think I had a lot of works where you might carry a lot of emotions inside but you suppress them; you can’t say what you want to say. But this time, at the climax of the film, I wrote a scene where the boy screams at his crush Yukino-san. He throws his emotions hard at her, and personally I think I hadn’t made something like that before.

An openly emotional scene from The Garden of Words.
An openly emotional scene from The Garden of Words.

Also, [another] difference from my previous works is that they were about the characters searching for who they are inside, for their self-identity. I had wanted to write stories that explore the kind of inner emotions a character might have. But on reflection, this film became not so much about self-discovery as about discovering the other. So Takao [the male protagonist of Garden of Words] is not trying to find out who he is, but is trying hard to find out who Yukino is instead.  That’s one significant difference from my prior films.

We heard from [screenwriter] Mari Okada yesterday at her press conference, and she said that she wrote scenes of characters shouting at one another in AnoHana to send a message to the current youth that they need to be more honest and expressive, not repressed. Did you have the same agenda with your climactic scene?

Mari Okada is here at Anime Expo?

Yes, she is here too.

Oh, okay. I have met her before. I don’t feel the same way as Mari Okada, that youth should be more expressive. Rather, I think the opposite. My impression is different, and while I don’t think you can hastily generalize about all “youth,” I think young people [especially] in online communities express inconsiderate snap judgments too much. Like, “that’s creepy,” “I love this,” that is BS.” They say that stuff so easily and without hesitation; that’s my impression at least. So don’t scream your thoughts right away; digest them first. I want them to have more thoughtful communication as a form of expression. That’s how I feel about youth.

Well, if I must say one more thing about Mari Okada…I love Toradora, which she wrote the screenplay for, a lot. And I think that Garden of Words is influenced by the way the characters express their emotions in Toradora. I really do think that.

Well, one thing about Toradora is how well it depicts the longing of the characters for love and friendship. I see a similar thread of longing, koi or ko-hi, in your own work. What continually draws you to that theme?

I’ve been asked this question many times…why do I keep going back to that theme? Hmm. It’s like asking, “Why do you make sad stories more often than happy stories?” It’s hard for me to explain even to myself, why do I keep depicting this strong yearning or unrequited love? Well, if you want to psychoanalyze me, there might be various reasons, but even I don’t know what they are that clearly. I just seem to be constantly drawn to it.

Speaking of ko-hi, are you influenced by the “Tora-san” series of films? They are about a man who is always turned down by the main woman in the end.

No, actually I’m not influenced by Tora-san either, I have never watched those movies. But I do love stories where the character always get turned down. Speaking of getting turned down, there are a lot of novelists that I like who write that type of story, but if I had to choose one, I love Mitsuyo Kakuta, a female novelist. She is a writer of “real” or “pure” literature—not light novels, but “real” prose novels like those by Yukio Mishima. Kakuta has a collection of short stories where a character gets turned down, and I love it.

But the thing about getting rejected is that you reflect and think and analyze about why you got turned down. You learn a lot more from stories about getting rejected than stories about becoming happy. That’s why I prefer those stories.

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How was Kana Hanazawa chosen to play Yukino? Did you write the part with her in mind from the start, or did she audition for the role along with others?

Well, we just had a typical audition, and we had about 20 people come in. We chose the one that we thought was the best among them, and it was Kana Hanazawa. But I heard a lot of opinions that casting her as Yukino was an unexpected choice. Hanazawa is 24 years old right now, but Yukino is 27 years old.  So Hanazawa’s voice playing the role of an adult woman might sound too childish. That’s what I heard often.

But during the audition, Hanazawa’s childish voice—actually it sounds more like a teenager’s voice—I thought it was very charming or appealing. And she can do not only childish voices but, since she is a woman in her 20s after all, she can do a mature woman’s voice too. In fact, when she is off screen, she doesn’t sound like an anime character at all in daily conversation. Instead she talks with a calm, rather low tone of voice, as one might expect. Moreover, I thought Yukino’s character had both a childish side and an adult side, which Hanazawa reflected well—so we chose her.

Where do you see yourself in the anime world today—someone who belongs more to the otaku fandom side of things, or someone who stands outside of the scene, like Hayao Miyazaki or Mamoru Oshii? Personally, I see you as having one foot in both…

Perhaps that’s what it looks like when you see me from the outside. But I have a question for you instead How am I seen on the outside, like overseas, in America? if we suppose that there is a fine line between those two sides as you just described, which one do people think I belong to?

Well, you’re regarded as one of the most promising directors in anime—the most common comparison is that you are “the next Miyazaki.” I remember that Voices of a Distant Star made a splash among hardcore fans, the moe and SF type. However, I also know people who are not hardcore anime fans, like animation students, who know about She and Her Cat (but not much else).  I think people who know your name tend to be hardcore fans, but there are still people who like animation in general who also recognize your talent. Hence my thinking about both sides.

To me, I don’t think I belong to either side, and personally, I want to make films that belongs to neither one. Maybe, for lack of a better term, there’s a “Miyazaki side,” or [Mamoru] Hosoda or [Mamoru] Oshii side, and there’s is a deep maniac anime fan side, but there are people that don’t belong to either side and I want to do things that neither side has done.

For example, there’s groups who don’t usually watch anime—like working women in their 20s or 30s that usually only read women’s magazines, and I want to make anime that makes this group feel “oh, I didn’t realize that Japanese animation was this beautiful!” or “Oh this anime is interesting!” At the same time, for the chuunibyou people who love Kyoto Animation’s works, who are very deep hardcore fans, I want to make them feel “oh, there is also that kind of expression or depiction in anime”—that there isn’t just KyoAni-like or Macross-like anime, that they get to know or discover my style of expression and come to love it. Ultimately it’s not about deciding where I come down on; I want to make work that reaches an audience that’s neither on the “Miyazaki” or “hardcore anime” side.


Photos by Shizuka and Laszlo Dudas. Translation and some questions by Rome. Thanks to Makoto Shinkai and David Del Rio and Kim McKee from Sentai Filmworks for making this conversation possible.

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13 thoughts on “The Garden of Thoughts: An Interview with Makoto Shinkai”

  1. The Garden Of Words made me realize that it is so far the greatest masterpiece of ko-hi, saudade, or sehnsucht made into anime. And I cried to that climatic scene at the screening, ah, the visual quality, with that wide screen, we can see how much it is detailed, and beauty, so breathtaking, I was just awed. Shinkai is the meister! Interesting to know that Hana Kanazawa can talk in normal voice. :)

  2. DUDE. Iwai-san is The Man. Love Letter remains my favorite non animated movie of all time and tied for favorite movie of all time with The Cat Returns.

    Also, how can you not ask him about shoemaking -_-

    1. Shinkai actually answered in detail the question about shoes in some director notes we received before the interview. Basically, he wanted to show something that required craft and attention to detail, and thus show his protagonist to be a serious, dedicated young man. He had help from a Japanese shoe company, Diana, who you see product placements for in the movie.

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