The director of Japan’s biggest box office hit of the year greets fans at the Los Angeles Laemmle Music Hall on Saturday night, speaking about his creative process and the inspirations behind his characters and their stories.
Director Makoto Shinkai’s body-swap time-travel disaster movie, Your Name (Kimi no Na wa), is stunningly gorgeous, with reviewers calling the 2D anime feature “dazzling” and “endearingly loopy.”
A story of two young souls journeying to find each other through time and fate, Your Name marks the first commercial success for the largely self-taught Japanese filmmaker, who began his career a graphic artist and illustrator. It follows high schoolers Mitsuha and Taki, two strangers living completely separate lives who suddenly switch places: Mitsuha wakes up in Taki’s body, and he in hers. This bizarre phenomenon continues to occur at random, but the two somehow manage to adjust their lives around each other. They build a connection, communicating by leaving notes, messages, and, more importantly, an imprint. But when a blazing comet threatens an entire town, Mitsuha and Taki must find a way to reach each other, and save the town.
Following its world premiere at the Los Angeles Anime Expo in July, Your Name has topped the box office for 13 of its 15 weeks in theaters since its release on August 26, taking in more than $197.5 million domestically to become the number-one box office hit of the year in Japan, and earing the peculiar distinction of being the first animated film not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to gross more than $88 million.
Shinkai’s 2002 short film, Voices of a Distant Star, was a true labor of love created almost single-handedly with a Power Mac G4 running NewTek LightWave and Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. The film, which employed the director’s signature hyper-realistic backgrounds, was enthusiastically embraced by the anime world, and Shinkai went on to release, in 2004, the critically acclaimed feature The Place Promised in Our Early Days. The director’s next project, 5 Centimeters Per Second, released in 2007, comprised three short films: Cherry Blossom, Cosmonaut, and the titular 5 Centimeters Per Second, followed by the feature-length Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, in 2011, and The Garden of Words, in 2013.
Surpassing Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, Your Name is now the second-highest-grossing domestic film of all time in Japan behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away ($300 million). It is also the fourth-highest box-office earner of all time -- imported or domestic -- behind Spirited Away, Titanic and Frozen. And in China, where the film opened in first place this past weekend, playing in more than 7,000 theaters, Your Name earned a whopping $41 million.
Produced by CoMix Wave, Your Name recently garnered a nomination in the newly-created Independent Animated Feature category for the 44th Annual Annie Awards, and is currently on the Oscar consideration list in the Best Animated Feature category that will be voted on for the 89th annual Academy Awards. The film kicked off its Oscar-qualifying theatrical run at the Laemmle Music Hall here in Los Angeles on Friday, with audiences lining up on Wilshire Boulevard for a chance to see the movie ahead of its nationwide release from FUNimation Films in January.
At a special screening Saturday night followed by a Q&A with the director, the theater was packed with fans, many of whom had previously seen the film but were hoping for a glimpse of Shinkai. Friendly and unassuming, the 43-year-old director fielded questions from Variety’s Peter Debruge before the floor was opened up to the audience. Speaking with the help of a translator, Shinkai commented on topics ranging from his creative process to the inspirations behind his characters and their narratives.
Despite some questions getting lost in translation (Oh, computer animation is better than hand-drawn in terms of efficiency, not quality. Oops.) what became immediately apparent was that he is deeply invested in the craft -- and magic -- of bringing his stories to life.
Here are some of the highlights of the discussion, and you can watch the full Q&A in the video player below:
- On the film’s intended audience: Shinkai hopes the film will bring people back to their high school days. Though the largest demographic in Japan was people in their teens and twenties, he feels it’s a film that can also appeal to people in their forties.
- On the inspiration for the story: Old Japanese fairy tales provide some of the inspiration for Your Name, but Shinkai also wanted to make a movie that featured dreams, and that was true to the idea that dreams are more than just dreams; they instruct and inform.
- Boy Meets Girl: The story of the boy and the girl was important too. One of the things Shinkai wanted to do was instead of having them meet at the beginning of the film he wanted them to finally meet at the end of the film. “So I say to myself, okay they don’t actually meet until the end of the film, how are we going to do this? Well, we can have the body-swapping, and the dreams, and then have it where they finally meet at the end.”
- Artistic inspiration: Along with the writer Haruki Murakami, Shinkai’s biggest artistic influence is Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Shinkai says the strongest correlation between his work and that of Miyazaki’s can be found in their blend of supernatural elements within the modern world. “It’s almost like this door that leads to another reality.”
- On blending hand-drawn and digital animation: All of Shinkai’s work begins with paper and pencil, but many artists are moving to the use of tablets instead. While digital production does provide certain efficiencies, character design is the one thing that’s done entirely by hand.
- On Shinkai’s collaboration with musical artists Radwimps: Shinkai was a fan of Radwimps and initially approached them about providing the soundtrack for the film. The group had never made music for a film before but they “decided that they wanted to go on the journey with him,” and that “they would not give up.” Once Shinkai sent them the script there was a lot of back-and-forth; instead of a one-way street where they would create the music and he would create the visuals, he would listen to the songs and change the script here and there to fit what they had written. Certain scenes were also created from scratch to fit the music.
- On being compared to Miyazaki: “even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.”
- On incorporating humor into his work: Shinkai began working on the film two years ago and felt a new confidence that he hadn’t felt before in his ability to make the audience laugh. So he went with it.
- On his attention to detail: every day, as he goes about his life, Shinkai thinks to himself, “This world is really well done.” He likes to surprise people with that attention to detail, such as in the movement of the lid of a rice cooker.
- On whether or not his fictional characters will all meet again someday and what follows for them: well, they’re fictional and their stories have already been told, so no. But yes, absolutely they will. Shinkai created these characters and he’s giving that to you. That’s his gift to you. The idea is that this film could be your life. The movie is finished but that doesn’t mean their story is finished. It’s important to think about them after the movie is finished.
- On his process for keeping track of all the narrative elements: Shinkai creates a timeline as he’s doing the story. At the end of the day, what’s most important is to keep in mind what the movie is about, and for him it was really about Taki & Mitsuha and their love story. As long as you stay true and authentic to that, at the forefront, then everything else could be a little more fantastical.
- On the comet’s name: The name of the comet -- Tenjin -- comes from the Sky Deity who is also known as the god of natural disasters in Japanese culture.
- On what Shinkai hoped to portray in his characters: What was important for Taki & Mitsuha was portraying their purity, innocence, as well as their determination, that they wouldn’t give up. “If I had been Taki, I probably would have given up.”