June 06, 2015
Along with Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai comes closest to capturing the cinematic "look and feel" of Studio Ghibli (Shinkai cites Castle in the Sky as his favorite anime). However, I think Hosoda hews much closer to Miyazaki's (and John Lasseter's) emphasis on story driven by plot and character.
Shinkai waxes moodier than I usually care for, emphasizing affect over effect. But, boy, can he capture moods! His visual palette is stunning, exquisite, and deeply evocative. Voices of a Distant Star is less a film than a narrative poem. (It's also the best version of Ender's Game that isn't Ender's Game.)
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The excruciatingly gorgeous 5 Centimeters per Second vividly captures (especially in the last scene) a very real moment of self-realization. You want honest emotions? Like, man, I'm grokking it totally. But I'm not sure I'd call it "entertaining." Not beyond the dazzling cinematography.
In other words, 5 Centimeters per Second may be the most beautiful work of literary fiction ever created.
One exception in the collection is Children Who Chase Lost Voices. This retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice (Izanagi and Izanami) visually merges the worlds of Totoro and Princess Mononoke in a young adult adventure through the underworld. Death and loss is still the subject, but less meditatively.
Mono no a'wa're is Shinkai's specialty, referring to the classical Japanese aesthetic concept of the beauty that can be found in loss and in the transitory nature of things, "a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life."
A'wa're isn't about being nihilistic or deliberately depressing. It's the simple recognition that nothing lasts forever, and if you know where to look there's beauty in that too, so it doesn't have to completely bum you out.
Shinkai's oeuvre truly comes together in Garden of Words, a story told in images that suffuse the senses like a Monet exhibition. No cinematic rain has ever felt wetter. Though here Shinkai does drive toward a specific resolution that pays off in the final frames (stick all the way through the credits).
Senri Oe's 1988 hit single, "Rain," inspired the screenplay. In the movie it's performed by Motohiro Hata.
In Garden of Words, Shinkai has given a well-established romance subgenre (in Japan) a poignant twist. Once you realize that, the film is worth watching again to see how he advances the plot without showing his hand, and how many subtle touches come alive with the additional context.
Netflix still carries The Place Promised in Our Early Days in its dwindling DVD catalog. All of the titles are available at Amazon in one form or another. She and Her Cat is included as an extra on the Voices of a Distant Star DVD.
• She and Her Cat (short; cats)
• Voices of a Distant Star (short; science fiction)
• The Place Promised in Our Early Days (science fiction)
• 5 Centimeters per Second (contemporary)
• Children Who Chase Lost Voices (fantasy)
• The Garden of Words (short; contemporary)