When Japanese director Makoto Shinkai strode Friday night into the TCL Chinese 6 Theater in Hollywood after the Animation Is Film Festival’s screening of “Weathering With You,” his follow-up to the phenomenal “Your Name,” he was treated like an animation rock star. Shinkai received a standing ovation from fans and aspiring animators alike, revealing why he’s taken animation by storm.
With 2016’s “Your Name,” Shinkai’s body-swapping anime breakthrough, he tapped into a special teen rite of passage/romance (smashing a box office record with nearly $358 million worldwide). J.J. Abrams is even producing a live-action remake (scripted by “Arrival’s” Eric Heisserer). Now, with “Weathering With You” (another runaway hit in Japan), in which teen runaway Hodaka falls for orphan Hina, the Sunshine Girl, who possesses the power to make the perpetual rain stop falling on Tokyo, Shinkai has a double-dose of Academy Awards buzz. For the first time in 22 years (since Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke”), Japan has entered his anime as its International Film Oscar entry, while GKids has qualified it for Best Animated Feature.
But the director would rather talk about storytelling and animation than Oscar: “I really think it was an honor to represent Japan, but at the same time, I was hesitant because I started my career in a game company…and the whole thing about the Oscars is a different world to me,” Shinkai said. “And I didn’t even know beforehand that I was going to be selected to represent Japan. I found out about it on the news like everybody else, so I was surprised but also worried because I don’t know if I’m ready to take on that responsibility. I always feel like my responsibility is only to entertain the audience. And I really want to leave all the other Oscar stuff to the producers.”
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However, Shinkai has no such hesitation analyzing the allegorical theme of climate change in “Weathering With You” or the appeal of his latest lovers on the run, Hodaka and Hina. “I think having the weather connected to the character when the sunshine comes in, is so suited to animation,” he said. “If you’re going to do it in live action, you’re going to have to use CG and it’s going to look fake. So I feel like it’s the best medium for this. Having a story about a Sunshine Girl was interesting because this concept is common in Japan [along with a Rainy Guy] in the way we casually see people as types. And I wanted to depict Tokyo as realistically as possible.”
The hardest part was animating the rain, which was a hybrid of hand-drawn and CG and complicated by reflections on the ground. “That was a lot of hard work, especially for the animators,” Shinkai said, “so I really had to make sure the script was convincing enough to make them think that this trouble was going to be worth it.” Normal raindrops rolling down an umbrella were 2D, as were puddles on wet asphalt, which consisted of various circle patterns. For the waves, CG was incorporated to make them randomly appear. However, the more complicated water fish were first hand-drawn but then CG was used to attain the different colors of a prism to resemble a bubble effect.
Meanwhile, Shinkai described Tokyo as “a good blend of the chaotic and non-chaotic,” and relied on photographic reference, which the animators painted over and then applied CG enhancement, to attain graphic detail and authenticity. “It’s a real interesting city, but it’s constantly changing,” he said. “So you feel like: Is there urban planning involved in how Tokyo was created? We don’t know, because when I watch one of my old films, there are buildings that aren’t there anymore. And even in ‘Weathering With You,’ there’s the broken building that they climbed up, that was torn down in August. So I feel like my films always reflect the changing Tokyo.”
But, in “Weathering With You,” survival and sacrifice were integral to living in a Tokyo with perpetual rainfall. “Climate change has changed the world and it’s crazy and it’s not something that we can fix,” Shinkai said. “So I don’t think having an enemy coming to threaten the world and having a hero saving the world is a story that we can tell right now. In reality, that’s not the world that we live in. I wanted to have the audience enjoy these two people who survive in spite of the crazy weather and enjoy their life.”
Understanding his audience is important to Shinkai and he’s devoted to his fans. He sneaks into screenings and observes their reactions, and is learning to expand the generational reach of his characters to make them more relatable. When “Your Name” became a huge hit in Korea, during a promotional tour he promised to give Taki and Mitsuha cameos in his next movie, which he did. “But I really wanted to show what they do in their normal, daily lives outside of their film,” he added.
And, after recently watching “Joker,” the director took note of its blockbuster success in capturing the zeitgeist of incel violence. “To have so many people have an interest in such a dark hero, dark movie, I felt that maybe there was a lot of stress that the audience feels,” Shinkai said. “Watching ‘Joker’ also reminded me of ‘Weathering With You.’ What if Hodaka didn’t meet Hina? He still has an oppressed and suffocating feeling and he carries a gun. I don’t think he would’ve gone to the extent of Joker. But having suppressed people being the heroes of movies really says something about society right now. Everyone feels that kind of stress and suppression.”
And this has Shinkai thinking about his next movie and how he might incorporate both stress and social media. “I want to do something that has communication as a theme,” he said. “When you talk about social media, we’re connected all the time with people, but maybe we’re too connected, so the way we’re [dependent] on social media might be something I want to work on.”