The first in a series of conversations about the acclaimed animator and his work, starting with the short films that made his name.
Makoto Shinkai is one of the most critically and commercially successful animated feature directors working today. After years of well-regarded work, his profile exploded with the monster success of 2016’s body-swapping romantic dramedy Your Name. In the wake of Your Name. becoming a bona fide phenomenon, Shinkai’s subsequent features—2019’s Weathering with You and 2022’s Suzume—have been capital-E cinematic Events.
Shinkai is a fascinating filmmaker. He first made his name with two short films made all but by himself. His feature work has ranged from a science fiction boys’ adventure to a girl’s melancholy quest in a fantasy world to a series of downbeat urban melodramas. His landscapes are reliably stunning, his use of montage and music—particularly pop—is skillful, and his ambivalence towards the city as a setting is fascinating. Shinkai’s cities are sites of potential—for connection, transformation, isolation, loneliness and the whole of the human experience.
Thus, film critics Michael Guarnieri and Justin Harrison decided to delve into Shinkai’s filmography over a series of conversations (edited and condensed for clarity) conducted in April and May, starting with the two short films he made his name with: the comic slice of life She and Her Cat and the mech action romantic drama Voices of a Distant Star.
She and Her Cat and Voices of a Distant Star are available on GKids’ Blu-ray edition of 5 Centimeters per Second
JUSTIN HARRISON: Makoto Shinkai got his start working for the videogame company FALCOM, which is known for cracking games with a small but extremely devoted fan base. And for there to be blunt, masterful use of music, especially rock, and pop, which I find interesting given that Shinkai’s later work would turn in part on his now long-running collaboration with rock band RADWIMPS. And even as far back as the films we’re talking about today, he’s got an ear for using pop music effectively.
The films in question are his first two key works: 1999’s five-minute short She and Her Cat—which follows a very cute cat named Chobi through the seasons alongside the owner (the titular She) whom he adores, and 2002’s 25-minute short film Voices of a Distant Star which follows two young people, Mikako Nagamine and Noburu Terao, and their relationship through a series of separations. First, Mikako goes to space to fight aliens. Second, time dilation kicks in. While lightspeed travel exists in the world of Voices, lightspeed communication does not, meaning that the further away from Earth Mikako gets, the longer her messages take to reach Noburu on Earth. And after a certain point, years pass in between her messages. The couple’s conflict isn’t just caused by their increasing separation, it’s also traceable to the increasing distance between the teenager Mikako left behind on Earth and the man Noburu grows into. So, to begin, Michael, what’s your overall take on these two?
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: I liked both quite a lot. They’re both very brief, especially She and Her Cat—when I started it, I didn’t realize how short it was—a little glimpse more than anything, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And it’s interesting. I don’t know a lot about animation in terms of how it gets made, but it seemed like a work that was made inexpensively. It’s a small, intimate piece of work and not very flashy. Whereas with Voices of a Distant Star, you watch it, and you think, “Oh, this has some backing to it. There’s some financing here, and thus it has the ability to do more technically.” And yet, at the same time, the two films are so similar in terms of their atmosphere, in terms of their themes, and in terms of their tone. And that’s so interesting because, stylistically, they’re significantly different. In terms of plot, they’re significantly different. And yet, watching them, both create the same sort of atmosphere.
JUSTIN HARRISON: I agree, and that’s something that I think we’ll come back to throughout this retrospective since one of the persistent criticisms of Shinkai is that he has one bag of tricks, and while he uses it well, it’s the same bag every time. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Even here, in his earliest works, She and Her Cat is substantially droller than Voices. Where Voices is a good old-fashioned heartrending melodrama (just with 100% more violent mech combat), She and Her Cat is a sedate comedy—not without weight certainly, but the weight’s limited by the fact that Chobi is a cat. He can understand that She is sad and understand that She is sad because of something fairly massive in her personal life. But the specifics are lost to him, and we, the audience, are restricted to cat vision.
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: Yeah, exactly. When I started She and Her Cat, I knew the very, very broad idea of what it was about. And it starts off in a certain way. It’s funny to describe something so brief as having major tonal changes. But it starts off in a way that feels very wistful, and then the humor kind of comes out as you get further into this cat’s psychology. And not in a way that’s contradictory. But in such a way that the more you dig into it, the more humor you can see. When I started, I was like, oh, it’s going to be so earnest, and with the black and white and stuff like this is going to be so sincere and earnest that it’s a little stultifying. And it’s not. It’s very light and enjoyable, not light in the sense of thin, or, you know, frothy, but just in the sense of gentle.
JUSTIN HARRISON: Right. Chobi feels a great deal, but his feelings are big in a way, while She’s feelings are substantially more layered. Unless he’s dealing with his younger cat girlfriend, who he should probably break up with.
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: I loved that. Those two were great, particularly in the way that they’re drawn so much more cartoonishly than She is. There are really no other people in She and Her Cat other than She, her cat, and Chobi’s girlfriend. So, you get this kind of feeling. And it’s not meant to be literal, but you get this feeling that the entire world sort of consists of this woman, her cat, and this other cat. And these three beings are drawn so completely different that the contrast is really fun.
JUSTIN HARRISON: It is. And I think what I find the most interesting about She and Her Cat having come to it after having seen Voices well over a decade ago (oh god, I’m old) and then, after an extended gap, Your Name. and Weathering with You is that even this early in his career, Shinkai had an ear for farce of the sort that would contribute to Your Name.—which is actively and pointedly goofy in places—being so massive.
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: That’s interesting. I have not seen most of his films. So this the journey of seeing these and seeing how these elements might come up later sooner, that’s going to be very interesting. Because just from watching these two shorts so close together, you see these commonalities that maybe if you see them years apart, not necessarily draw the same connections, or maybe you would. But despite the differences in their genre, you can see the continuity between the two of them. And you’re right, the humorous element is not really there in Voices of a Distant Star, which is still really good.
JUSTIN HARRISON: It is! It’s certainly a much more raw work than his later features are, in part because it’s one of the films where auteur theory absolutely applies because most of this film is the work of Shinkai, Shinkai, and Shinkai. Auteur theory is a useful tool, but it has very real limits. And here we are discussing a film that’s is a damn near picture-perfect look at what this one artist was interested in when he was animating this. And while the finished version absolutely does feature additional collaborators (namely that while Shinkai and his then-fiancée voiced Noburu and Mikako in the original release, he was able to bring on professional voice actors for a subsequent rerelease). But what I find really interesting about Voices is that while it’s the first example of the so-called Shinkai Longing-filled Romance, he would not work in science fiction as overtly again. The science fiction he’s working with here is—while strikingly executed—very much leaning on the established visual and narrative language of mecha anime (think Gundam or Evangelion) and Haldeman’s The Forever War. And while his work does not ditch science fiction entirely (modern technology plays a substantial role in the leads of Your Name. navigating their relationship and the strange phenomenon they find themselves caught up in, even if it is explicitly mystical).
But he would not make something so tied to the genre and form again. Though, for what it’s worth, he acquits himself with the form. While Voices’ mechs and aliens are very much early-2000s CGI, the action he crafts with them is clear. He’s already demonstrating a keen eye for motion and space, which plays a major role in the success of his later, more human-scaled action sequences.
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: Interesting. I’m interested in seeing where that goes. Exactly. And it’s also interesting that you’re talking about Voices of a Distant Star in genre terms because as I was watching it, I was thinking about how so many movies that are about space travel are not, you know, your outright, Star Wars-style space opera, but something where space travel itself is more kind of rare. I’m thinking about your 2001 and Solaris and, you know, Interstellar, things like that. And with Voices, I thought about how often space is used as a symbol of distance—the emotional distance between one person and another person. And the idea of communicating from another star or another planet or somewhere out in space to Earth, and how impossible it seems.
So often, that is used—or at least really great artists figure out how to use it—as a way of talking about and looking at our own inability to communicate with people, sometimes even people that we care about deeply. And yet, there’s this huge distance between us—it even has a nothingness to it—but it’s still between us. I think that’s what’s going on with Voices of a Distant Star. It’s these universal sorts of emotions, emotions that we can relate to—distance and longing, and played out on this huge, massive scale. And yet, much like Chobi and his owner, there are just two people, basically, in this entire universe. It’s really, really fascinating the way that works.
JUSTIN HARRISON: It is. One thing that I find interesting is that a significant portion of the conflict for Voices’ leads comes not from the fear that they won’t care about each other but the knowledge that they’re both changing in ways they cannot see. And so, there is dissonance between the person that they remember—the person who they are speaking to in their text messages—and the person who receives those text messages. For Noburu, that’s a bit more literal, and he ages from a teenager to a young man. While Mikako’s change is more internal, she becomes significantly more isolated. And not just mentally and emotionally but physically. I don’t think we see her outside the cockpit of her mech at all in the back half of the film barring the out-of-body experience.
And at least as I read Voices, Shinkai draws a very clear line between an enduring love that can consume someone unhealthily, which he makes explicit via the teenage Noburu’s fears that he’ll become someone who exists only to receive Mikako’s increasingly rare messages. And a love that acknowledges distance and change and chooses to be active in doing the work. in this case, that’s visualized by Mikako, pulling herself out of despair and wiping out an army of invading aliens to protect the fleet she belongs to and by Noburu choosing to go into space by himself.
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: It’s very effective. And as you mentioned, it’s not just about the relationship between the boy and the girl, but also their own relationships with their own paths and with their past selves. Do you know what I mean?
JUSTIN HARRISON: Yes, I do, exactly.
MICHAEL GUARNIERI: And at the same time, there’s another element that can really be brought out of stories that involve space travel in that same way because it has that same concept of experiencing time in different ways. It’s exaggerated in Voices’ case due to space travel, but it’s something that happens to real people every day on Earth. We do experience time in different ways. Someone who is older is going to experience time than someone who’s younger. Somebody who has a life that’s filled with incidents is going to feel differently than someone whose life is more tedious, and so on and so forth. And in both shorts, Shinkai’s really getting at the way that different individuals interpret each other. Even across species.