Makoto Shinkai: Learning to be Human

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It’s 2007 and two old friends catch each other’s eye at a train crossing, neither able to turn and say something for fear of their years of distance having irreparably pulled them apart.

It’s 2016 and two young adults with a shared past they can’t quite remember keep narrowly missing their chance to reunite until the urge to say something becomes stronger than any fear of its fallout.

It’a 2019 and two old friends separated by time and tragedy are running into each others arms without a second thought.

Makoto Shinkai is a filmmaker who has become widely known for his otherworldly stories, charming characters and stunning images. In 2016 he released Your Name, which went on to become the highest grossing Japanese film of all time, this is where I admittedly somewhat late boarded the hype train. I found myself not only moved by his storytelling but by his incredibly comforting approach to what it means to be human and to connect to the world around us. The climax of Your Name being two people who know on some level that they won’t be complete until they reach out to one another still struggling to take that step felt like a genuinely hopeful outlook, that our natural state as humans is to want to connect with those around us even if it’s something we have to constantly work at. I think intentionally or not, on either side of Your Name, Shinkai has created a kind of trilogy with an underlying theme of learning who we are through who we choose to know.

Almost a decade earlier, Shinkai had released 5 Centimeters per Second, a barely feature length anime movie with an episodic structure built on the lives of two young protagonists, Takaki and Araki separated following the kind of close childhood that feels like it’ll last forever for 13 years at most. Unlike Your Name the conflict here was never supernatural, these two characters are torn apart simply by the whims of the world they’re too young to control. We see them separated as children but hopeful that they can stay in touch, writing letters and sending texts until the day they’re finally reunited and we see Takaki years later, weighed down by the knowledge that something is missing but unaware to put name or form to it while it eats away at his ability to live in the moment. The film’s final scene shows us the two crossing paths once more in adulthood, offering that same chance to reconnect that is acted upon to such great triumph in Your Name. They pass each other at a crossroads only to be separated for a moment by a train but when the line of sight is clear once more, Takaki is alone and the moment has passed. It’s no one person’s failing and there’s no telling what would have even come of their reuniting at this point but it feels like a loss in itself that we will never know, that a friendship once so deeply felt can become nothing in an instant for fear of it being any less than what it once was.

To follow this up with a film like Your Name is no accident. That same struggle to preserve the memory of a time because to reckon with it now means opening yourself up in ways you haven’t since is played so much larger in a story about how the people we have known make us who we are. However, from the beginning of Your Name there is a new underlying sense that the baseline experience of humanity is a kind of connection with the people around us. Even the concept, of two people hundreds of miles apart experiencing a spontaneous but impossibly powerful connection feels like a rejection of the ideas that bookended 5 Centimetres per Second, a film where that same distance itself is an insurmountable tragedy.

This new hopefulness about human connection carries all the way through to the film’s climax, a scene that very intentionally and explicitly replays the beats of 5 Centimetres per Second’s up until its final moments. Like its predecessor the film once again ends on two old friends passing by each other and despite the frantic chase that led there and the twitchy magnetism between them, it feels like once more it’s going to end on nothing but a missed opportunity and a continued sense of something being lost. Taki reaches the top of the stairs and both against his every instinct and as easily as taking his next breath asks “hey, haven’t we met”. Where 5 Centimetres per Second agonises over the value of reconnecting with someone who was important to a version of ourselves that we longer know, Your Name, a film whose central fiction is the question of what makes us who we are argues more straightforwardly that the only way to really know is to reach out to the people who know us. That the value of being human is that we have the power to answer that question.

In the summer of 2019, Makoto Shinkai released Weathering With You, a predictably supernatural romance about a mysterious girl who can control the weather and the boy who falls swiftly in love with her. Where 5 Centimetres per Second was distant and Your Name was anxious, from its opening moments, Weathering With You’s framing of a basic human connection as an unquestioned fact feels downright optimistic. Though not without tragedy, its characters are never afraid to reach out to one another for help, in whatever form that may take. This is a bigger film than even Your Name in both scope and the size of its cast and that new ability for a Shinkai protagonist to make genuine connections itself feels like an evolution. While the moving and grand finale that this cast of characters allows for is not free of conflict or individual baggage, there is a sense that at the very least there are people around its protagonists that mean they will never be alone in a way that was not present at all in 5 Centimetres per Second or to nearly the same extent in Your Name.

When the dust has settled and the world is on its way back to normality, once again Shinkai tears these characters apart. Hodoka is forced to return home to finish high school while Hina stays in Tokyo. The use of distance as a dramatic obstacle feels as Makoto Shinkai as any beautiful skyline or nervous teenager. Once graduated, Hodoka again travels to Tokyo, reconnecting with his former boss and first friend in the city and we learn that he has a new to this film but all too familiar reservation about reuniting with Hina. Hodoka’s boss encourages him to track her down and for a moment it feels like Shinkai is going to once more replay those same ideas, returning to the will they/won’t they of the finales that had come before. Until it just happens. Hodoka spots Hina in the distance in a place they both knew and without a thought for any consequence, the two are reunited.

Weathering With You’s finale is moving especially after sitting through those same moments to different results twice before but looking back on the film up to this point there is really only one way it could have gone. Weathering With You is resoundingly more faithful in the ultimate value of human connection than its predecessors. Even Tokyo itself as a setting which had once been framed as a labyrinthine parade of unkind or uncaring strangers is now home to friendly faces and the new potential of connection with everyone they meet. I would hate to guess why but between these three films it feels like somehow Makoto Shinkai has gained or would like to portray a new and increasingly more hopeful view of the world and what is to be gained by allowing yourself to know and be known by the people around you.

Looking back at 5 Centimetres per Second, its almost nihilistic loneliness does not feel cruel or angry, only misguided in an all too familiar way for anyone who grew up believing they were unable to connect with the people around them. What Your Name and eventually Weathering With You do so well is argue against that with the simple idea that there is nothing to be lost by trying.

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