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Shinkai Makoto

Entry updated 29 October 2021. Tagged: Author.

Pseudonym of Makoto Niitsu (1973-    ), a Japanese writer and animator who uses sf tropes as metaphors for the emotional distance between individuals. His short film Hoshi no Koe (2002; vt Voices of a Distant Star, 2004 US) draws on Top o Nerae, with Relativity delaying the Communications sent by phone from a teenage military pilot to her ageing lover on Earth. Made practically solo, with off-the-shelf software in his own home, it turned Shinkai into the poster-boy of DIY animators, and offered a tantalizing glimpse of the opportunities to bypass traditional channels of production and distribution.

The feature-length Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho (2004; vt The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 US) was made with a full studio staff, and set in an Alternate History balkanized Japan in which World War Two ends with the Soviet occupation of the northernmost island, Hokkaido. An immense tower on Hokkaido is revealed as a doomsday device (see End of the World) to which the inventor's Southern grand-daughter is the key, via Identity Transfer, but at the cost of her own memories of her relationship with her boyfriend.

The film Byōsoku 5cm: A Chain of Short Stories About Their Distance (2007, English-language release 5 Centimeters Per Second, 2008 US) comprises elegiac vignettes celebrating young love, as childhood sweethearts are separated by mundane logistics and time, until a moment – inspired by Haruki Murakami – in which their glances momentarily meet as adult strangers on either side of a Tokyo railway line. The tale is non-sf, but juxtaposed with the progress of a space probe, whose distance from Earth proceeds in symbolic proportion to that of the would-be lovers from each other. Oddly truncated at 63 minutes, the film appears to have been intended to include other stories, although no extra ones can be found in Shinkai's own novelization Byōsoku 5cm: A Chain of Short Stories About Their Distance (2007); the two earlier works were novelized by Arata Kanō and adapted into Manga by Mizu Sahara.

Prematurely and rather embarrassingly hailed as the next Hayao Miyazaki, Shinkai is nevertheless a creator of great potential, and may indeed prove to become one of the auteurs of Anime in the twenty-first century. His animated film Kimi no Na Wa (2016; trans as Your Name) begins as a gentle body-swap romantic comedy (see Identity Exchange), but broadens into a prolonged allegory of Japanese society in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear Disaster, here re-imagined as a comet strike on north Japan. It revisits many of his earlier themes and tropes, but with true accomplishment and 10% of the year's Japanese box-office returns. It was novelized twice, in one version by Shinkai himself, and in a second, Kimi no Na wa: Another Side, Earthbound (2016), in which Shinkai's original story is retold by Arata Kanō from the perspective of several minor characters. Shinkai is credited on this latter oddity as a co-author, but appears to have had little to do with it.

An assured box-office winner, Kimi no Na wa... might reasonably be termed a milestone in Shinkai's work, fixing certain flaws from his earlier films, including minor issues of character motivation, denouement and pacing. But he was left ill-prepared for a small media backlash aimed at its blockbuster reception, particularly a cutting comment from Yoshiyuki Tomino that it was not a film that anyone would be talking about within five years. Shinkai's subsequent Tenki no Ko ["The Weather Child"] (2019; vt Weathering with You) may hence be understood as the reaction of a creative seeking to refine his output in answer to, and occasionally in defiance of, his critics. In a story for which Shinkai openly acknowledged similarities to Haruki Murakami's Umibe no Kafka (2002; trans by Philip Gabriel as Kafka on the Shore 2005) a runaway boy in Tokyo becomes the business manager to a girl who has acquired a limited power of Weather Control. Shinkai still delivers a happy ending – love does indeed conquer all, but at an immense societal cost. A Near-Future coda suggests that the people of Japan cope with their new conditions with considerable equanimity, much as the milieu of Mobile Police Patlabor (1988-1989) embraced cataclysmic transformations with a shrug. Along with some earlier asides about the permanence and ubiquity of Climate Change, it seems like a remarkably off-hand dismissal of modern bugbears, the polar opposite of the grim End of the World envisaged in Yōko Tawada's Kentōshi (August 2014 Gunzō; fixup 2014; trans Margaret Mitsutani as The Emissary 2018; vt The Last Children of Tokyo). Shinkai, however, has publicly defended his narrative choice, arguing that it would have been hypocritical to deliver a traditional ending, in which the balance of the world is "restored", to a young twenty-first-century audience that endures a tumultuous environment not of its own making. [JonC]

Makoto Niitsu

born Ko-umi, Nagano, Japan: 9 February 1973

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