The president of Crunchyroll, Vincent Shortino opened the panel by announcing that over the following week, several of Shinkai Makoto-sensei’s works will be streaming for free: Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second. They show a video showcasing some of his works, 5 Centimeters Per Second and then Hoshi o Ou Kodomo. No matter how many times I’ve watched these scenes, the colors and music always touches my heart. *sniff* *grabs tissues*
‘Japanamerica’ author, Roland Kelts hosted the panel, setting the relaxed atmosphere for the conversation with Shinkai-sensei. Similar to other interviews, Kelts shared a common sentiment that he is “one of the few anime artists who is compared favorably with Hayao Miyazaki in Japan, even though he doesn’t accept that at all.’
- Kelts: As some of you may know, Shinkai-san doesn’t come from a conventional illustrators’ background. Anime in Japan is still very much a 2-D labor-intensive artform. Shinkai-san has a background in computer graphics and the gaming industry. How does that affect you as an artist? How does that make you different from a conventional or traditional anime artist?
Shinkai: *in English* First of all, I want to say, thank you. My English is very bad so I need a translator to help me. Thank you for coming here. This is my first time coming to NY. It’s a very big city and it’s amazing. After this panel, I want to go to the Apple store. *audience laughs* I hope you enjoy this panel. *in Japanese* As you say, my background is in digital whereas in traditional places like [Studio] Ghibli, they do everything handdrawn. When I first started making these videos, I was an amateur working at a gaming company. I really wanted to make animation. I didn’t have any special tools at my disposal, so I used what I had like Photoshop and that’s how I started.
Kelts: You also created She and Her Cat on your own. Do you think having the background you had in CGI enables you to be a more generous artist? Shinkai-san is a triple threat: he writes, illustrates, animates, directs. He does the whole things. He is an Anime Auteur of the highest order. Do you think your background in computers and digital graphics helps you?
Shinkai: This was around 1998 when I started making She and Her Cat. At that time cameras became really cheap and I started using them. I started going around with my digital camera and I took photos of cityscapes and streets and I used those images, uploaded into my computer and used those as the foundation of the drawing that I have made. Since I was working alone, I had to draw alot of pictures but it all came together.
Kelts: There are alot of people in the audience who wouldn’t mind becoming animators themselves, if they aren’t already. Since we’re on this topic, what kind of advice would you give to someone today who sees your works and accomplishments and would like to pursue the kind of art that you make?
Shinkai: Compared to when I started 10 years ago, now the technology is amazing. There is so many things you can use to support and help with your animation. And you can easily just give out the information to just about anyone in many different ways. Because of that, I think the time people take to really develope their ideas has gotten shorter. I think it’s important to not only take advantage of these tools you have at your disposal, but also to really take the time to develope your ideas and think about what you want to animate and then use these tools to create what you want to create.
Kelts: It’s interesting to hear you talking about using photographs and walking around with a digital camera taking alot of pictures for the illustrations. What drew you personally to create animation? I mentioned about you using photographs to a friend of mine in Boston and she quite innocently said, ‘Why didn’t he just use the photographs? He is taking these great photographs so why not just be a photographer and just use photos.’ Instead you use the photos to make animation.
Shinkai: Another reason why I actually started doing is that I live in Tokyo. And like any other major city like New York, people say they’re not really a beautiful city. However, I really wanted to think of my city as a beautiful city. So things like images of the sky, the buildings or bunch of letters sticking out of a mailbox, little moments like this I think are really beautiful and I wanted to capture that. So I take photos of the cityscape and use that as a foundation to draw something even more beautiful. I wanted to not only create a beautiful city in my mind, but also in reality.
Kelts: Would you ever consider setting a film in the ugly city of New York? *audience laughs*
Shinkai: Well, New York is already the location for alot of things that exist so even if I do that now, it’s not really much….
Kelts: At least there is an Apple Store. *audience laugs*
Kelts: Let’s talk a little bit about storytelling and writing. We’re looking at gorgeous visuals on the screen, but as many of you know who have seen Shinkai-san’s films, it’s not merely a beautiful thing to look at, but the stories are quite moving and quite profound. When I was in Tokyo, I show 5 Centimeters Per Second to a writer friend of mine and he felt that the quality of the stories themselves which is three-linked short fictions exactly was astonishing. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? How you start drafting a story and how it comes together?
Shinkai: I start with words. In 5 Centimeters Per Second, one of the lines one of the character saids is ‘I hope we can see the cherry blossoms again together next year.’ So using that line, I think about what sort of image and situation that you would have that line and the story grows from there. Another thing I do is that I take inspiration from the works that I like. When I was a student, I was actually a literature major but I really just spent all my time reading Miyazaki’s books which I really enjoy. Murakami’s also. This is actually a question that I’m asked often. So I draw inspiration from books I really enjoy.
Kelts: It struck me that recently after finishing the 4th Murakami Haruki novel, ’1Q84′ features a love story. A story of two people who are trying to get back together after an intial romantic encouter. Of course, when I was reading it I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds familiar.’ As many of you know who have seen Shinkai-san’s works, they often feature love stories. Often quite melancholic love stories about losing touch, losing contact with the person of your affections. Sorry to ask such a blunt question, but do you think love is doomed? *audience laughs*
Shinkai: I don’t think love is doomed, of course. In real life, love doesn’t always work out. Sometimes your first love, you don’t end up with that person you fell in love with and stuff like that. I think I’m just reflecting what life is like. Also in the stories, even if you don’t end up with the person you like, you can still enjoy life. You can still enjoy the beautiful things in life. I think that’s really the message I’m trying to convey.
Kelts: That’s good because I happen to think love is doomed.
Kelts: Another element of Shinkai-san’s films. Obviously we talked about visuals a little bit and story, but also the music is just so well selected. I think it merges at the right point in the film, it doesn’t overwhelm the film. A brillant selection of music for the soundtrack. Please talk about that process. How do you go about selecting the music?
Shinkai: It depends on the movie. For example, after 5 Centimeters Per Second I decided after creating the story that I want to use the song from the 90′s. So I listened to alot of popular hit songs from the 90′s, and ultimately the one that I liked is the one you hear in the movie, ‘One More Life, One More Chance’. Another example, you’ll hear if you go to see tomorrow, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, there was a singer named Komaki. I didn’t want to use a famous person’s song. So we found her and invited her down to the studio. She met the staff, she read the script and she really became a member of the team. Then she created the song from the feelings she developed as she was a team member for this movie. It was not an independent project, she was really a part of the creation of the movie. Also if you noticed from the movie, someone I used very frequently as the background creator for the movies is Tenmon. He is actually a senior member from the game company that I used to work at. Whenever I tell him we need a song for this, he would create it for us. Sometimes the songs didn’t quite match what we were expecting but no matter how many times we asked him to rewrite it, even if it was 5, 10, 20 times, he would always smile and just fix it. It always works out which is great.
Kelts: This raises a practical question. When you visit anime studios in Japan, they’re usually quite small with alot of cubicles desks crammed together with people hovering over them with florescent lightbulbs and cup noodles next to their desks. Vince actually took me to Shinkai-san’s studio when they were finishing the new film. You’re not working solo anymore. Roughly how many people are you working with and what your staff does?
Shinkai: At most we actually have 20 main staff. I personally am the animator and the background artist. Any small animation that needs to be done and individual character drawings, we have at most 200 artist/staff working at the studio. Our office is not that big, and since we don’t have that many people, it doesn’t feel that small. Actually, everyone there really does love ramen. When we were making Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, it was during the earthquake that hit Japan as you all know about. We felt some of that shaking down in Tokyo. One of the staff who was working in the studio was from Korea. She didn’t have many experience with earthquakes so she was really scared and was crying and yelling what happened. Actually her mom sent us a carepackage from Korea that had-among other things-a whole bunch of Korean ramen noodles in it. That really saved us since that time, food was very scarce and there were alot of problems so that carepackage really saved us.
Kelts: I have nothing against cup ramen.
Kelts: Switching to the new film since some of you will be attending it tomorrow. To some extent Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is a departure in a way from other Shinkai-san’s works. They’re still beautiful imagery, brillant rendering of brillant Japanese textures in this film as well. There is of course a love story of sorts in the story itself. But the narrative actually takes off into quasi-mythical worlds. Almost has an Orpheus-nature to it in it’s exploration to it, an underworld called Agartha. I wonder if you can talk a bit about why you took off to a more epic direction in the story?
Shinkai: This story is a little different. We have characters that go down to the underground. They’re trying to summon who has passed away. This is something you can see in traditional Japanese stories called Kojiki, a historical kind of story. You can see that in alot of epic stories as well. To answer the question, when we were doing 5 Centimeters Per Second, at that time, Japan was sort of in an era where nothing would ever change. So I wanted to create a movie that reflected that sort of feeling. However when we made the new movie Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, alot of things were happening in Japan. This was before the earthquake happened but things were happening around the world, like the earthquake in Chili. It started to have an effect on Japan. It made not only me but it made alot of people think that maybe things would not stay the same afterall. I really wanted to create a movie that reflected that change and realizing that ‘Yes, things are going to start changing.’ That’s why the main character in the movie has to go to another world. Eventually she’ll come back but there is that sense that maybe things will be lost, things will change and won’t remain the same.
Kelts: Shinkai-san has spoken before that he has a desire as an artist to try to give hope to people who are suffering in Japan right now, the victims of the awful earthquake and tsunami.
Kelts: We talked about the two big M’s, Miyazaki and Murakami. Are there any other specific artists that you consider influences on your works? Or artists that seem like models to you?
Shinkai: First of all, the creator Evangelion, Anno Hideaki. As you are aware, the last few episodes of Eva had a few interesting things departed from the rest of the series and when I saw that in college, I thought it was amazing. There were scenes where not much was happening. I thought, ‘Wow! This is also anime!’ It was animation. It doesn’t always have to be about crazy movement and alot of action. Sometimes it is also about the words or even the lack of words that are not being spoken. That really has a bit impact on me.
Kelts opened the floor to audience questions with the first 5 receiving a poster.
- Q: I’m going back to Japan and I want to pursue a career in animation, but I don’t know where to start. Where do you think is a good place to start?
A: In general, it’s great to just use your own life experiences. They can become the foundation for what you write. For example, as you know in 5 Centimeters Per Second, there is that scene where he is trying to get his loved one, but he can’t get there because of the train and the snow. That actually happened to me. This came from my life. I was trying to meet someone. But because of the snow, I was late by a whole day. I used my life experience in the story. Of course the rest of it is fiction but that is a great foundation.
Q: You mentioned that you worked at a video game company before you became an animator. What company was it and which works were you a part of?
A: The company was a part of was Japan Falcom. The games that I was involved in was Ys and Legend of Heroes. I created the opening animation for that.
Q: What creative software do you use? What is your workstation?
A: MacbookPro, Aftereffects, Photoshop, Lightweb which is a CGI program and Finalcut.
Q: If you had to pick one movie to watch over and over again for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?
A: Only one? Maybe Laputa.
Q: Out of all of your works, is there is a shot/moment/line that incredibly resonates with you? A line you’re most proud of?
A: In 5 Centimeters Per Second there is a scene where Akari tells Takaki, ‘I’m sure you’ll be okay.’ I always felt like I wanted someone to say that to me. I really like that scene.
Q: Referring to 5 Centimeters Per Second, everything is filled with the amazingness of the everyday. We filter out alot of the details so how go about finding inspiration in every day of your life?
A: Like you say, life is normal and very flat and nothing really happens everyday. But if you close your eyes and focus on your feelings, you’ll realize that there are alot of magical moments in every day life. I wanted to create a movie where you can get that sense of ‘Yes, it’s every day but it’s still very beautiful.’ Like the photos, its like everyday life where you can still create something beautiful.
Kelts: It’s something similiar in comparison to Murakami Haruki’s works. He often depicts a very mundane world with a kind of flatness and simplicity. But still with a magical things happen in Murakami’s novels.
Q: You used alot of your movies to teach us lessons. How did each work teach you? How did they affect you?
A: My first is something that I created all by myself. At first I thought to create something all by myself was better. I felt very comfortable and I thought that I had difficulty communicating with others. But after creating 5 Centimeters Per Second and Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, I really came to feel that it’s a good thing to collaborate and create something. I realize that after being alone for so long, I really want to go out and be in the world. A great way for me to make a commitment to society and participate is to do something as a collaboration to create something beautiful.
The panel concluded with applause from the crowd. I also enjoy this type of panel: a writer speaking with a creator usually produce questions that initially may not come up with usual fans. The questions address a deeper understanding of the person, granting listeners an opportunity to know more about the creative process.