I first encountered anime auteur Makoto Shinkai's work a few years ago, when a friend handed me a DVD of his omnibus feature 5 Centimeters per Second. My friend urged me to pay attention to the visuals, to the way Shinkai blended photorealism with painterly effects, lending his frames the vivid surrealism of early morning dreams.
My friend was right. Shinkai's artwork was captivating, rendering the stark digital glare of a Tokyo station signboard and the soft pastel hues of cherry blossoms with equal intensity.
But what impressed me most were his stories: three interrelated short fictions narrating the near-miss romance of two would-be lovers, from tentative childhood affection to adult longing and loneliness. I later learned Shinkai was a literature major in college who was deeply moved by the novels and stories of Haruki Murakami.
Shinkai, 39, cites Evangelion, Hideaki Anno's coming-of-age epic of childhood betrayal at the hands of misguided adults, as having taught him "anime doesn't always have to be about crazy movement and a lot of action. Sometimes it is also about the words or even the lack of words, things not being spoken."
I was introduced to Shinkai a year ago at his Tokyo studio. Finishing his latest feature, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, he showed me one of the film's most arresting scenes: a crouching dinosaur-like creature consuming the two young protagonists in one gulp. It reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa, wherein fantastical other worlds threaten to overtake our realities.
Shinkai has been awarded best director by the Association of Media in Digital (AMD) and has taken the Tokyo International Anime Fair's highest honor, yet he remains relatively unknown beyond dedicated anime circles.
That began to change this past fall, when he toured the United States and Britain to meet fans at screenings of Children. Shinkai was forthcoming and self-deprecating while discussing his early days in the digital graphics and gaming industries, and the earth-shattering transformations in Children anticipating the disasters that struck Japan last March.
"I was making the film before the earthquake happened," he told me in an onstage interview in New York. "But things were changing around the world, like the earthquake in Chile, that made a lot of us in Japan think that maybe things would not stay the same. That's why the main character has to go to the underworld. Eventually she'll come back, but there is a sense that maybe some things will be lost forever."
Shinkai's vision of anime as a public art form, engaged with concerns beyond domestic otaku culture, is encouraging at a time when many in the industry have been churning out lightweight series of little consequence to salvage their bottom lines.
"After being alone for so long, I really want to go out and be in the world," he said. "A great way for me to make a commitment to society and participate is to collaborate and create something beautiful."
Arriving in London on his tour was a "triumphant return" for Shinkai. In 2008, after completing 5 Centimeters, he took a year off work to live abroad, largely at the urging of his staff, who thought he needed a rest. The time was transformative, he said.
While he struggled with the language, he found himself seeing the world anew. "The film festival [where Children was screened last fall in London] was very enjoyable, but I was even happier finding a favorite noodle dish in the supermarkets there."
Shinkai believes that today's global audience may possess an even deeper appreciation for anime directors who bother to court them. Japanese fans have grown accustomed to such appearances, he says, while "overseas fans seem more nervous and passionate. Maybe for them it's still a valuable rarity to meet anime directors up close."