Makoto Shinkai – Movie Reviews and Thoughts

ShinkaiThePlacePromisedInOurEarlyDays

Originally I planned to do complete reviews for each of his four movies, but I soon realized it was futile. Makoto Shinkai’s works are rather hard to properly write about and my reviews were far too similar to each other. This is why I decided to instead sum up my thoughts in a shorter format (call them “half-reviews” if you want).

What I can say is that after having seen everything Shinkai has created, there is nothing but a bitter taste of disappointment left in my mouth. All those praises about Shinkai being the next Hayao Miyazaki cannot be further from my own experiences, especially as I feel that he is regressing as a director as time passes. Instead of evolving, he keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

ShinkaiVoicesOfADistantStarVoices of a Distant Star6/10
1 OVA | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2002

Yes, I know that this is technically an OVA, but personally I put it in the “movie” category when it comes to Shinkai.

The first time I saw Voices of a Distant Star was in the middle of the night back in 2007 when I was merely 14 years old. One of the biggest television channels in Sweden was holding an anime marathon from 12:00A.M. to 06:00A.M. and naturally, since I was an anime fan and this was a rare occurrence, I simply had to stay up and watch it all.

Out of every short, OVA and movie that aired, the single piece that stood out was Voices of a Distant Star. This is not surprising, considering how unique Shinkai’s works really are. The often substantial and realistically portrayed stories (either in the real world or the fictitious one) accompanied by wonderful music and visuals are honestly one-of-a-kind in the anime industry as far as I can tell. There is a clear vision of what Shinkai wants to tell and he does so without compromising his own goal, or at least that is how it comes across.

But Shinkai has always had trouble with making me feel connected to any of the characters, which is extremely notable due to all his works focusing on the characters rather than the stories themselves.

Voices of a Distant Star tells a story about two lovers literally being separated by space and time, as one of them is stuck on Earth while the other is travelling through space. Their only mean of communication is sending mail messages via cellphones, but as their distance grows, so does their lack of contact. It is a simple and perfect idea for a story, yet Shinkai misses the chance to make a heart-wrenching tale.

The problem mainly lies in the aforementioned lack of connection to the characters. We are never really shown how much they mean to each other and have to solely rely on the emails if we want to understand them. But because the emails are rather sparse and nonsensical, this does not work. In theory it should, particularly since we viewers are experiencing the same thing as the characters, but in practice is comes off as slightly hollow. I see that the characters care for each other, I understand the message, but why… why should I care, unless I have been through the same?

Another thing hampering Voices of a Distant Star is the overall production, which, especially today, is very simple and on the verge of outdated. While it is possible to ignore ugly heads and static images, it is harder to accept the poorly made CGI-scenes in space and a directing lacking a finishing touch (scenes dragging, odd scene expositions etc.). All of this is understandable since Shinkai essentially did everything by himself, but it does take away a little from the experience.

While not perfect in any way, Voices of a Distant Star manages to tell a fascinating tale in only thirty minutes. But sadly it never manages to reach any of the heights it could have had. This, however, does not mean it is bad. It is merely a missed opportunity.

ShinkaiThePlacePromisedInOurEarlyDays2The Place Promised in Our Early Days8/10
Movie | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2004

What marks Shinkai’s first full-length movie also remains as his best work to this date. Unlike Voices of a Distant Star’s rather simplistic production, The Place Promised in Our Early Days instead features gorgeous visuals, a breathtaking soundtrack and a much stronger directing overall. Personally, this is the movie by Makoto Shinkai.

What makes The Place Promised in Our Early Days such a success is how it is built up; divided into four distinct parts, yet flowing into each other naturally. This way of telling the story strengthens it, since we see the main characters interact with each other and grow up; making us feel the strong bond they all share.

But much to my disappointment none of the three characters grow to anything much more than the blank slates they started as. On one hand, this lowers the emotional investment. On the other hand, this increases the chance for speculation.

You see, compared to Shinkai’s other works, this one stands out in how it tells an ambitious sci-fi story about three young children and their promise to travel to a seemingly endless tower reaching for the stars. As the movie goes on, so does the characters’ lives. We see them grow up and change, while we are also sparsely given details about how the world they live in functions.

This is an interesting approach, as when I finished the movie, I still had not fully grasped the story. There were still dots to connect, details to figure out and so on. With The Place Promised in Our Early Days Shinkai managed to tell a story that is as much as an exciting journey as it is an engrossing puzzle.

If I had to summarize this movie with one word, it would probably be: an experience. From start to finish I was completely absorbed into it and the ending left me with a feeling of admiration. It is the kind of empty feeling you have after finishing something really good. The fantastic music definitely played a big part in this.

In the end, I will most likely remember The Place Promised in Our Early Days for a long time. With the exception of a few dumb irks, such as a certain character doing a complete 180 to create drama and a scene bit too magical for my taste, this is a nearly perfect movie.

If only Shinkai could make me truly care about his characters.

If only.

ShinkaiFiveCentimetersPerSecond25 Centimeters Per Second5/10
Movie | Drama, Romance | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2007

As with Shinkai’s other creations, 5 Centimeters Per Second deals with human relationships, in this case two lovers being separated by distance much like his previous Voices of a Distant Star. This time, however, the story is realistic and down-to-earth. Life happens, it cannot be helped.

While this should be a splendid and tightly written story about love and growing up, it fails in the same regard the earlier mentioned Voices of a Distant Star did. Namely: the lack of connection to any of the characters.

Despite telling its story through three different parts of Takaki Tohno’s life, we never venture into his head. We do not understand his thoughts, his motivations of anything. Instead, the viewer is but an observer of what he goes through. This is where 5 Centimeters Per Second fails. I should not feel detached and apathetic. I should be one with Takaki.

Not even the most beautiful visuals and music can make up for a shallow core. It does also does not help that each of the parts feel detached, as if they were three different stories clumsily put together. Had the emotional investment been greater, or if at least some reason to care existed, this may have worked better.

When I do not even understand the characters, even though I am painfully aware of the message 5 Centimeters Per Second is trying to convey, everything goes to waste. It is a real shame.

ShinkaiChildrenWhoChaseLostVoices2Children Who Chase Lost Voices2/10
Movie | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy | Anime Original | CoMix Wave | 2011

Imagine someone looking at Studio Ghibli in hope of creating something similar, but end up completely missing the point and delivering a train wreck of a movie. This is how I would describe Children Who Chase Lost Voices.

Although, to be perfectly honest, I do not entirely agree with the Ghibli comparison many have done. The similarities stop after a magical land, equally magical creatures and character designs that, with some small adjustments, could have come from any of Hayao Miyazaki’s flicks. The rest is characteristic Shinkai flair, albeit this time muddled with a severe identity crisis.

On a first glance Children Who Chase Lost Voices does not sound too bad. A girl named Asuna is about to be killed by a magical beast when a mysterious boy pops up and saves her. One thing leads to another and soon she is thrown into Agartha; a land unknown to mankind.

This is a good set-up and it also tries to tackle subjects such as death and bonding. But the lacklustre execution leaves extremely much to be desired. It is hard to understand how Shinkai, who at least were somewhat coherent in the past, could end up doing this mess.

The story never really makes any sense and Asuna’s drive, a character she had known for ten minutes disappearing for reasons unbeknownst me, is a really bad excuse for starting it. Every ten minutes, sometimes even less, we have drama cranked up to eleven even by Shinkai standard. In most cases these moments are variations of Asuna needing to be saved which does not help making the drama less tiresome after the tenth overblown scene.

There is no room to for Children Who Chase Lost Voices to actually breathe and explore its own setting. Agartha itself is never properly established and neither are the people nor the creatures that inhabit it. There is some conflict, a large kingdom and so on… but these do not matter at all. This becomes almost pathetic when none of the main characters even question or act surprised at what they are witnessing. This is because they are only there to move the already non-existent story forward.

As if to rub salt in the already fatal wound, Children Who Chase Lost Voices also suffers from a directing that I never would have guessed would come from Shinkai who is an experienced person. The movie has a lot of scene transitions and cuts which results in a very fragmented story. In one second there is a chase scene, another second it has ended and then all of a sudden we are in a town. This hurts the already unexplored setting even more! Add in the tedious drama I spoke of earlier and it simply does not mesh that well.

And this leads me to the movie suffering from an identity crisis. It does not know what it wants to focus on. The setting is not important, the story is poor and the characters are shallow. Yet Children Who Chase Lost Voices incorporates them all in a hope of achieving something. But that something never shows itself throughout the movie. Even the themes, death and bonding, are thrown out of the window towards the end as a way to squeeze out a tiny bit more drama instead of something believable.

Whether or not Children Who Chase Lost Voices was an experiment by Shinkai to try out something new or an attempt to emulate someone else’s success does not change the fact that this is a disaster. An utter disaster that makes me skeptical of his future works.

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16 thoughts on “Makoto Shinkai – Movie Reviews and Thoughts

  1. deejuusand says:

    Not that I agree or disagree with all this.
    I met the guy and he is still one of the people that inspired me in different ways, but I share a few of feelings and thoughts with you.
    I always thought and still do that Shinkai should write novels and illustrate for them.
    He’s a good writer for those who like the genre he writes for. Small audience like stories told that way, but he does write good, and screenwrite bad.
    When I read the translation of the novel of 5 cm per sec, it made much much more sense! Many scenes are symbolic and tell a lot more than what he’s revealing in the film.

    For example, the last scene at the supermarket, Tohno holds a magazine that has on the cover the rocket that he and the girl from the second part watched going through the sky and he feels regret and wonders that if he gave her a chance (he already knew she likes him and rejected her with a look. In the movie too but was never directed or drawn well) he might have been happier present time.
    I enjoyed and read more into the characters minds in the novel than I did in the movie. The Manga for Voices is better told too.

    My appreciation for his movies are more due to personal experiences I had with him than what they really are. Had I never met him, I might’ve never remembered his works the way I do.
    I like that you don’t see how he’s not the next Miyazaki. I’ve never agreed on that. (Mamoru Hosoda is closer to that than Makoto Shinkai) They’re just too different.

    I gotta say before I end this, Children who chase lost voices IS a train wreck. It was a movie that I watched as a series coz I couldn’t keep watching for more than half an hour each time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts~

    • Marow says:

      For example, the last scene at the supermarket, Tohno holds a magazine that has on the cover the rocket that he and the girl from the second part watched going through the sky and he feels regret and wonders that if he gave her a chance (he already knew she likes him and rejected her with a look. In the movie too but was never directed or drawn well) he might have been happier present time.

      This is… quite interesting to say the least. I DID notice that detail in the supermarket, but as for his thoughts… it’s kind far-fetched, especially how he was completely indifferent in the second part. Had the camera lingered on that scene a bit more, then maybe I would’ve had the “correct” thought, but otherwise it’s a no.

      As for the rejected look, I didn’t notice that at all. Could you show me the specific scene, if you know?

      While we’re on the topic of being mega subtle, I think the only time an anime (and manga) has managed with this is Cross Game. Those blank stares tell whole stories. Never seen it pulled off that well in another title.

      I gotta say before I end this, Children who chase lost voices IS a train wreck. It was a movie that I watched as a series coz I couldn’t keep watching for more than half an hour each time.

      … dang, I should’ve thought of that. I don’t know how many times I wanted to shut it off.

  2. Trollkastel says:

    I believe you’re supposed to watch Shinkai films for the cloud porn.

  3. To defend 5 cms, Shinkai does admit that it is a very Japanese film. Not only in the sceneries, which are taken from real places, but also from the experiences it describes; it is very common in Japan to have to move to other places due to work, which of course affects your family, too, and here we have the children’s pov.

    Btw I can agree that he’s no Miyazaki, but with the reasoning that Miyazaki is overrated. From the quite many Ghibli films I’ve watched only 3 are indeed great. The other have left me indifferent or annoyed with their nostalgia feelings… Shinkai is still new. He’s no Satoshi Kon, but still offers sth good and uniquely his – let’s forget Hoshi ou Kodomo ever existed, ok?

    • Marow says:

      Yes, I’ve read a lot about that. Honestly, to me, Shinkai seems like a very interesting person. He has a vision, but to me, he isn’t skillful enough to make said vision a reality.

      In 5cm/s, he could’ve showed us them as children before the move. Then it would’ve been stronger. Instead… it started with said move, making it a less emotional impact.

      From the quite many Ghibli films I’ve watched only 3 are indeed great.

      Remember that Miyazaki hasn’t done every Ghibli movie!

      I love Miyazaki’s movies myself since they capture a sort of warm and cozy feeling.

      let’s forget Hoshi ou Kodomo ever existed, ok?

      Now I’m curious to hear what you think of it 😀

      • Well, he did show us just a bit how the cherished things together and how both were introverts and enjoyed each other’s company. Perhaps for you, it needed more. 5cms is DA best film of his. Not a scifi fan like you.

        I know that not all Ghibli films aren’t created by Miyazaki, but for example Mononoke-hime felt unemotional to me and at the end I wasn’t sure what the message was… I also don’t get the fuss about Castle in the Sky. In Whisper’s of the Heart he was writer and I was kinda bored there, too. The same goes for From Up on the Poppy Hill. My 3 favs are Nausicaa, Howl’s and Spirited Away.

        We’ve talked about Hoshi ou Kodomo on twitter. And you’ve actually already pointed out its weakness in directing and sewing scenes together. I also hated the whole Ghibli film look, coz that wasn’t Shinkai. It was obvious the man was made to create a new film…

        • Marow says:

          Haven’t seen Mononoke, Whisper or Poppy, so I cannot judge them.

          I do, however, love Castle in the Sky. I love the sense of adventure and sky pirates are always cool! 🙂

  4. Justin says:

    So yeah, pretty sure 5 CM is his best work. For me, there was no sci-fi element or fantasy aspect to distract me from connecting with the human aspect of the romance between Takaki and Akari. I didn’t really need to get into Takaki’s head. I don’t see that as important. And I guess unlike you, I actually did understand what Takaki was going through, but I guess that’s what happens when you go through life and see what people actually go through. In the end, you couldn’t relate to an aspect of the film. That can affect how you see it, but I find it a surprise you took that viewpoint.

    Oh right, should mention for Voices, Shinkai basically did everything for that film http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voices_of_a_Distant_Star

    • Marow says:

      Thing is, I understand WHAT they’re going through. But the characters are so non-existent, there’s no REASON to care! That’s what bothers me. In that sense, judging by people who like it, inserts themselves into the characters. And I don’t do that. I only do that when the characters are actually good. Even if I’ve experienced the very same thing as them.

      Oh right, should mention for Voices, Shinkai basically did everything for that film

      “All of this is understandable since Shinkai essentially did everything by himself, but it does take away a little from the experience.”

      😉

      • Justin says:

        Wouldn’t exactly call them non-existent. I cared enough to see why they chose their paths and such. Sorry you couldn’t 😦

        Huh, well what do you know, I was pretty certain you didn’t allude to that, hence why I made that comment. Oh wellz 🙂

  5. […] week I wrote about my feelings regarding movies done by Makoto Shinkai. Considering how he is such an interesting […]

  6. hideki says:

    I understand why u did such poor reviews. because u dont know how to interpret metaphors. The gaps on the movies represent something, leaving the audience to absorb the story and THINK. so THINK, so that u could understand the plot 😛

    • Marow says:

      Perhaps I don’t know how to interpret them? Or maybe I do, and feel that the metaphors do a bad job? I love metaphors, but not when they are poorly mad and is the only storytelling a movie has.

  7. Kayy says:

    I have to realize how your reviews aren’t fact, they’re your opinion. Personally I LOVED Children Who Chase Lost Voices. I’m not someone who likes bad anime, either. I’m rather picky, honestly. But again, this is all about tastes and choices. You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember your reviews aren’t fact. :]

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