Makoto Shinkai has been at the forefront of Japanese animation since the release of his 2016 film, Your Name. Not only was the movie a huge commercial success as the highest-grossing anime film worldwide historically, it also received critical acclaim with a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend it and you won’t regret spending two hours on it. However, in this post, I want to look at all five of Shinkai’s feature films and hopefully convince you to take the time (7 hours total) to watch them.
That said, this post will be spoiler-free, as part of the enjoyment of many of these films is to experience the emotions of the stories firsthand.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)
Length: 90 minutes
Trailer: “Just like I promised that day after school, I will go to that Tower.”
Setting: The story is set in 1996 in an alternate post-WWII Japan where Hokkaido is occupied by the Soviet Union.
Artwork: In Makoto Shinkai’s first feature film, he established his style of highly-detailed and realistic backgrounds alongside simple and cartoonish characters and faces. You can see one of the backgrounds above of a Japanese countryside field with clouds and the “Tower” in the horizon. Makoto Shinkai’s art is all digitally hand-drawn (on a tablet) and the details in his animation make even a 13-year-old film like The Place Promised in Our Early Days stand out compared to modern counterparts. While Shinkai’s art has improved over his five films, I believe that this work has some of the best scenery art of all of his films.
Music: “Sayuri’s Theme” is a beautiful violin piece that serves as the leitmotif of the film. It and the rest of the soundtrack of The Place Promised in Our Early Days is composed by Tenmon and just about every track on the OST will make you cry or smile as they fit perfectly with both the dramatic and melancholic moments of the film.
Theme: The Place Promised in Our Early Days is an introspective story about three friends and their distance across dimensions, dreams, and reality. It starts out as a beautiful slice of life story and finishes with an intelligent and dramatic ending.
Why it’s worth watching: It’s a piece of art. Taking in the beautiful scenery while listening to the soundtrack is an enjoyable experience in of itself. The deep and touching story is driven by characters who excel in expressing raw emotion.
5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
Length: 63 minutes
Trailer: “At what speed must I live…to be able to see you again?”
Setting: The story is set in various parts of Japan, beginning in the 1990s through 2008.
Artwork: Unlike The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second spends more time in Japan’s cities (Tokyo, Tochigi, and Tanegashima) and Makoto Shinkai shows that his animation style translates well to an urban setting as well. We see more trains, train tracks (like the picture above), and train stations; it’s clear after his second feature film that Shinkai has a soft spot for including trains in his story telling. In addition, as suggested by the title, cherry blossom petals play a big role in the movie, and they are also shown beautifully throughout each of the three “episodes.”
Music: “One more time, One more chance” is the main theme of the film and like for most of Shinkai’s films, Tenmon was the composer for 5 Centimeters Per Second. This time though, Tenmon made extensive use of piano melodies throughout the soundtrack. Many of the pieces are slower and tear-inducing, but also make for great background music when it’s raining and snowing out!
Theme: 5 Centimeters per Second portrays a multitude feelings such as loneliness, uncertainty, hope, and love. It also recognizes the harsh reality of distance in life in its three episodes. The first episode looks at physical distance, the second highlights distance in feelings, and the final episode illustrates distance in time.
Why it’s worth watching: If you’re used to traditional love stories, 5 Centimeters per Second will draw you back into reality and make you take a step back to reflect. After watching this movie, if you’re like me at all, you’ll likely be encouraged to reflect upon your life so far and the story may also help some people move on from their pasts. Like usual, the art and music are beautiful; plus, it’s only an hour long!
Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)
Length: 116 minutes
Trailer: “In Agartha remain the gods that disappeared, and knowledge yet unknown, and it is said to be a place where any kind of wish can be fulfilled.”
Setting: Children Who Chase Lost Voices is partly set in a rural town in Japan in the 1970s, and partly set in the fantasy world of Agartha.
Artwork: This is Makoto Shinkai’s only feature film that is (mostly) set in a fantasy world. That said, Shinkai really gets to show off his creativity in his animation as he uses this opportunity to step away from the more realistic scenes of his past two movies. He creates fantastic lights (as seen in the photo above), zombie-like god-creatures, island cities, night demons, magical cats, and much more in Children Who Chase Lost Voices. While it’s certainly different from his other works, this film’s animation still ranks high among anime in its level of detail and beauty.
Music: Tenmon is again the composer for the soundtrack of Children Who Chase Lost Voices and uses his usual mix of melancholic piano and classical instruments to set the mood. The theme song is “Hello, Goodbye and Hello”, and is sung by Anri Kumaki while the instrumental melody is used as a leitmotif throughout the movie. As this film is more adventurous than some of Shinkai’s previous works, Tenmon also includes several pieces in the soundtrack that are more upbeat in nature.
Theme: Children Who Chase Lost Voices is at first glance about loneliness and the things we do to cope with it. But it actually goes much deeper than some of his previous films about loneliness with respect to distance; it touches on the loneliness that comes between life and death. At the same time though, Children Who Chase Lost Voices stays energetic with its characters’ adventures and strong resolve through hardship, making it enjoyable by viewers of all ages.
Why it’s worth watching: If you’ve seen many Studio Ghibli films, think of this as Makoto Shinkai’s tribute to Hayao Miyazaki. You can see elements of Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and Princess Mononoke in various parts of Children Who Chase Lost Voices. Also, it’s a good entry to Shinkai’s films as it’s easier to watch and understand than some of his other works and might not leave you in tears or in pensive thought.
The Garden of Words (2013)
Length: 46 minutes
Trailer: “A faint clap of thunder, even if rain comes or not, I will stay here, together with you.”
Setting: The Garden of Words is set in modern day Tokyo, with Shinjuku Gyoen, a public park in Shinjuku and Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan prominently featured.
Artwork: You will never see better rain animation in another anime. The picture above shows this rain in the context of the garden scenery, and Shinkai shows off his talent in The Garden of Words as you see this rain from various angles and distances. I was seriously in awe every time I saw rain in this movie! The characters’ faces and bodies are also more detailed than in Shinkai’s previous works, which is a welcome change as its important to the story. Overall, this movie was characterized by many as having the best animation ever in any anime at the time of the film’s release.
Music: The Garden of Words is the first of Shinkai’s films for which Tenmon did not compose the soundtrack. Instead, Daisuke Kashiwa wrote the piano soundtrack that according to Shinkai, made the movie seem “unlike other anime.” The theme song, “Rain”, was actually a popular Japanese song in 1988 and was rewritten for the movie under Shinkai’s cooperation with the singer Motohiro Hata.
Theme: While it seems like the obvious theme is forbidden love, The Garden of Words speaks to much more than that. Rain and its effect on scenery plays a large role in the film’s thematic elements and the result is a piece of art that speaks to the viewer about adulthood, solitude, love, and hope.
Why it’s worth watching: The Garden of Words is the shortest of Shinkai’s feature films at only 46 minutes long. However, in those 46 minutes you’ll see the two main characters develop in a way that seems impossible over such a short period. You’ll learn how images, music, and poetry are sometimes all you need to tell a unique love story.
Your Name (2016)
Length: 107 minutes
Trailer: “One thing is certain. If we see each other, we’ll know.”
Setting: The film is set in modern day Japan, in both Tokyo and the mountainous Hida region.
Artwork: Your Name has the best of many elements of Shinkai’s previous works when it comes to the art. There is the beautiful natural scenery of The Place Promised in Our Early Days, the trains of 5 Centimeters Per Second, the fantastical lights in the sky of Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and the detailed characters of The Garden of Words. It’s amazing that both of the following statements can be true simultaneously: Shinkai’s first work in 2004 has animation that still awes viewers today, and Your Name, 12 years later, has animation that is much better than Shinkai’s previous films. My personal favorite is his amazingly detailed smart phone animations; it’s impressive when the characters’ smartphones somehow look more realistic than real life smartphones.
Music: Again, Your Name‘s music was not composed by Tenmon, but instead by the Japanese band Radwimps and its lead singer Yojiro Noda. While there are many excellent themes on the soundtrack, “Theme of Mitsuha” is the leitmotif of the film and is a beautiful and catchy piano melody. The soundtrack also contains several original rock hits in “Dream Lantern”, “Zenzenzense”, “Nandemonaiya”, and “Sparkle” with full lyrics in both Japanese and English (Noda can sing in English) that add to the youthful nature of the movie. It’s a soundtrack that I’ve listened to many times on Spotify and I highly recommend it.
Theme: Shinkai comes back to the theme of distance in Your Name, except this time in a unique way that hasn’t yet been explored in his previous works. I can’t speak much more on the themes without spoiling it, but know that it is as complex as you want it to be, while accessible enough for the average viewer to find highly enjoyable.
Why it’s worth watching: Because It’s Your Name! If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably already heard the hype and I wouldn’t be the first one to tell you that it actually does live up to the hype. There’s a reason it broke so many box office records.