Few animation directors have garnered the kind of attention so early in their career as Makoto Shinkai. He burst into the animation scene with a half-hour feature named Voices from a Distant Star. Its touching story about lovers separated by time and space was striking enough, but even more striking was the project’s genesis: Shinkai had created the entire film himself on nights and weekends on a home computer over the course of several months.
Shinkai continued to gain attention with his other projects: The Place Promised in our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second both continued the same trends of lush visuals and young, heartbroken characters in vaguely science-fictional settings. His newest film, Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, screened at Otakon 2011 to an enthusiastic audience and marked a new direction for him—one more inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s sprightly fantasies.
A special press interview panel was convened for Shinkai after the screening, where he answered questions posed by various press members. The following is a transcript of that Q&A, lightly edited for coherency.
Q: The English and Japanese titles for Children… were different. [The transliteration of the Japanese title is Children who Chase Stars.] Why was this?
Makoto Shinkai: Children… is essentially the subtitle. Currently, when we release the film to English-speaking markets, we are using that title as a sort of temporary way of attaching a title to it. There is the future possibility the title might change to a more direct translation of the Japanese title.
Q: What sorts of influences do you credit from film or literature?
Makoto Shinkai: First, from anime, I get inspiration from Studio Ghibli for their animation—in particular, Laputa / Castle in the Sky. For books, a lot of inspiration comes from Haruki Murakami.
Q: You seem to have a very small staff available. Would you have wanted that staff when you were making your solo project Voices from a Distant Star?
Makoto Shinkai: Right now, as you have said, I have a small staff who work with me. But in comparison, when I was doing “Voices,” that was pretty much a self-made project. I even voiced it myself; it was essentially handmade. I at the time felt a deep satisfaction that I was able to make the whole thing myself. On the other hand, my current staff is almost like my family. So when I work alone right now sooner or later I will feel a little lonely. I feel like I’m going back to the family studio when I return to them. If I ever think about the time when I was making “Voice,” if I wanted to have a staff like the one I have now, that’s kind of something of a “what-if” question. I think that kind of question never came to mind. I never really thought about it.
Q: Is there a specific goal or personal purpose you want to achieve with your next film?
Makoto Shinkai: I’m not sure if my answer would work, but Children… was finished early this March and released in May, so it’s been only 3 months since it came out. I’m not sure what to do next right now, but I get opportunities to see reactions from the audiences both in Japan and abroad, and I would like to use those opportunities to think and decide on what I will do after this, both professionally and personally.
Q: Your previous films have had simple themes and complex emotions, such as distance or time. What’s the main theme here?
Makoto Shinkai: It’s pretty difficult to put themes into one word. “How to overcome from things lost” would be a good way to put it, though.
Q: The action scenes in your new film demonstrate a new aspect of your filmmaking that we haven’t seen before. What references do you have for your new action style?
Makoto Shinkai: I studied a lot of Miyazaki’s works, but since we were using swords for action scenes, I started a lot of Rurouni Kenshin. Chanbara [Japanese samurai / sword-fighting] TV shows as well.
Q: What do you think off computer assisted animation vs. conventional hand-drawn animation?
Makoto Shinkai: Although it’s been said that I started working in computer animation, when I started out actually making the characters, I drew them with pencil and pen and scanned them into the computer. So the the method I used happened to be the same way conventional 2D animation is made. On the other hand, as you said, 3D is wholly different-looking from what we do in 2D. What we have is very different from what Pixar or Dreamworks do. It is true those types of animation are more of the trend today, and I feel that’s just the way things go. Maybe even someday 2D might vanish, and that might be unavoidable. But personally I love the 2D style, since I’m more familiar with watching it while growing up, so I would like to keep drawing it myself.
Q: Do you have live-action film influences? Do you want to do live-action films in the future?
Makoto Shinkai: Speaking of live-action, I do go to see the movies and enjoy such films, but then I go as one of you, one of the viewers. I probably go to see Batman or something like that once a season. If you want to ask me what I’m most inspired by or in awe of, that would be [Japanese live-action director] Shunji Iwai. His way of using light and shadow is very inspiring.
Q: You seem to be a notable exception in that you came from the video game industry into the anime industry. The trend seems to be the other way. What do you think the anime industry could do to attract talent?
Makoto Shinkai: Video game industry companies in Japan are stabler and treat workers better than the anime industry. However, the folks currently working with me are those who really love making animation, so I treat them so they can make a living doing this, but that’s about all I can do personally. If you ask about how the industry can change trends, that’s not something I give a lot of thought to since I’m hardly an industry rep or anything! But I personally think if we keep making great animation films, then perhaps we can increase enough of the people interested in making such products.