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Your Name filmmaker Makoto Shinkai ‘honoured’ by comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki

TOKYO — Wherever the Japanese animated filmmaker Makoto Shinkai goes these days, he gets some variation on the question of what it’s like to be the Next Big Thing.

A scene from the movie Your Name. Photo: Toho

A scene from the movie Your Name. Photo: Toho

TOKYO — Wherever the Japanese animated filmmaker Makoto Shinkai goes these days, he gets some variation on the question of what it’s like to be the Next Big Thing.

Specifically, Shinkai, whose Your Name is the top-grossing movie of the year in Japan, is frequently asked how he feels about being the successor to Hayao Miyazaki, who has towered over Japanese animation for nearly three decades as the beloved creator of critically acclaimed hits like Princess Mononoke and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

“I feel very honoured, but I think it’s an overestimation,” Shinkai, 43, said during an interview at the offices in Tokyo of Toho, the Japanese film production and distribution company, graciously rebuffing the coronation. “I don’t think anybody can replace Mr Miyazaki.”

Yet Your Name, which blends gender swapping with time travel, a natural disaster and star-crossed teenage lovers set to a J-pop soundtrack, is the third-biggest-grossing Japanese movie in the country’s history, exceeded only by Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Since it opened in August, Your Name spent 12 weeks at the top of the box office and has grossed 19.4 billion yen (S$242.1 million).

For Shinkai, who until now has been a cult favourite known as much for his work in commercials as for his previous films, Your Name has exceeded all expectations, making more than 10 times as much at the box office as his last movie, Garden of Words.

Your Name has started a one-week Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles and opened last week on 7,000 screens across China. (Funimation, its US distributor, will give it a wider US release in early 2017.) The Japanese government is promoting Your Name — along with Godzilla Resurgence, another box office hit this year — as a major cultural export.

Early word outside Japan has been strong. Writing in The Daily Telegraph in London, Robbie Collin described Your Name as “so beautiful it’s almost laughable”. Last month the International Animated Film Society nominated Your Name for an Annie Award in the best independent animated feature category.

In Japan, where the movie has received mostly positive reviews, the film’s surprise success has been propelled by word of mouth. Fans are so ardent that they have been making pilgrimages to some of the locations believed to have inspired important scenes in the film.

Although the hit status is new for Shinkai, the themes in Your Name are not. Since his first film, Voices of a Distant Star (2002), which he made almost by himself on a computer, Shinkai has explored how young men and women do and do not connect. Text messages disappear, cellphone calls don’t go through, and characters only just miss meeting on trains.

“Shinkai is a master at depicting and investigating the distance between people,” Jonathan Clements, author of Anime: A History, wrote in an email. He added, “He excels at allegorising the way that human beings are separated by gulfs of yearning.”

In Your Name, Mitsuha, a country girl who longs to move to the big city, and Taki, a soulful Tokyo teenager, swap bodies in their dreams. Comedy ensues as they each discover the joys and challenges of being in the body of the opposite gender.

But gradually, as they leave cellphone messages for each other describing what each has done in the other’s body, romantic feelings kindle even though they have not met.

In a slouchy grey cardigan, wire-rimmed glasses and a fuzzy soul patch, Shinkai sipped from a bottle of vending-machine iced coffee and smiled almost sheepishly as he described the recurring themes of his work.

“When I was young as a teenager, that was the biggest mystery in the world to me: Why don’t people connect?” said Shinkai, who is married with a 6-year-old daughter.

“Even now I have that kind of obsession,” he added. “It’s kind of a mystery, and I’m trying to search for an answer.”

As for influences, Shinkai did not cite Miyazaki, who recently hinted he would emerge from retirement to make one final film. Instead, he named Hideaki Anno, an anime director who created the “eon Genesis Evangelion series, and the novelist Haruki Murakami. Astute fans might notice some thematic echoes from Murakami’s short story On Seeing the 100 Percent Perfect Girl OneBeautiful April Morning.

Beyond the allure of teenage romance, Your Name has struck a chord in Tokyo as it deals with a town’s grief after a natural disaster. The comparison is inescapable to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that took nearly 18,500 lives while setting off a nuclear meltdown at a power plant in Fukushima.

“I didn’t intend to incorporate that theme into the work from the beginning,” Shinkai said. “But, obviously, that was a very big event and disaster for the entire society in Japan.”

The movie clearly taps into a sense of regret and wish fulfilment in Japan.

“Many people have the guilt of, ‘Oh, there must have been something that we could have done’,” said Ryusuke Hikawa, a visiting professor at the graduate school of global Japanese studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. “That is now part of the Japanese psyche.”

Shinkai’s method is different from that of many anime directors. He writes a script first, and for Your Name, even wrote a novelisation, released two months beforehand, which has sold more than 1.3 million copies.

Using a digital tablet, he lays down the dialogue, sound effects and music in a multimedia storyboard before introducing images.

He readily describes his drawing ability as mediocre. To fill out the storyboard, he plucks images from around the web, including Google Maps, and then animators flesh out his vision.

Your Name features exquisite detailed images of old Japanese customs in Mitsuha’s hometown and the bustling modernity of Tokyo. Prosaic touches like a cellphone lighting a character’s face at night take on an surprising beauty.

“I pay attention to the things that nobody else is looking at,” Shinkai said. “In daily or everyday life, I am so impressed with tiny details, like when I look up at a street lamp falling on the street, it seems to have meaning or so much information in it.”

“The world,” he added, “has created everything perfectly.” NEW YORK TIMES

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