How Makoto Shinkai Perfects His Fantasy Romance in Every Film

How Makoto Shinkai Perfects His Fantasy Romance in Every Film

With the growing popularity of anime among Western audiences, it isn’t uncommon to find people who are familiar with the most recent titles, both series and feature films. Makoto Shinkai’s works, however, sit on another level entirely; the success of 2016’s Your Name, both in Japan and abroad, has granted him a fame previously held only by Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli’s films. Shinkai’s features have captivated viewers worldwide, their stunning visuals and deeply emotional plot lines earning him a spot among the greatest Japanese directors.

Most of Shinkai’s success comes from the effort made to perfect the ‘fantasy romance’ formula of his films. If one watches his works, especially in chronological order, it becomes apparent that he is trying to find the right way to tell a certain story, film after film, until he finally makes it with Your Name. After that, it’s a lot of tweaking and experimenting, adding details and depth to what is essentially always a romance drama about finding and losing each other and helping each other grow. It is a fascinating journey from The Place Promised In Our Early Days to Suzume, and one that involves quite a bit of trial and error, proving that success really needs to be earned.

Released in 2004, quite a long time before Your Name, The Place Promised in Our Early Days was Shinkai’s first feature-length film. The story follows three junior high school friends Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri as they spend an unforgettable summer together but then separate, the disappearance of Sayuri pulling them apart. While more of a sci-fi than a fantasy film, Shinkai was evidently already working toward the great romance drama that he would later succeed in writing. Sayuri and Hiroki are communicating through a portal in between universes, never really managing to find each other, their love story spanning over space and time.

Unlike Your Name, The Place Promised in Our Early Days fails at capturing the heart-breaking quality of missed encounters and lost connections. While the excellent animation and the beautiful scenes in the sky elevate the film, the sci-fi plot is unnecessarily convoluted and the three characters aren’t properly fleshed out, especially in the case of Sayuri. Because the plot struggles to take off and the first half drags slightly, the emotional payoff that the film wants to deliver doesn’t really reach the audience. If anything, the last few scenes, which should be deeply moving, are at times awkward and even funny.

After The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Shinkai seemed to steer away from the fantastical to better explore the intricacies of human relationships. In 2007’s 5 Centimeters Per Second, he experimented with perspectives and story time, creating a three-chapter narrative that is still interested in romance but ends up being more of a technical exercise than a fully accomplished work. If anything, it looks like Shinkai tried to distance himself from fantasy to try his hand at a more ‘adult’ film.

Similarly, 2013’s The Garden of Words is missing the fantasy element, with the addition that this is also technically not a romance. Again, it seems like the film is more preoccupied with how strange and lonely people can be, and how everyone is different and experiences life at a different pace. Romance drama and strong cathartic experiences are not in the book. Both through 5 Centimetres Per Second and The Garden of Words, Shinkai seems to be learning about writing complex, interesting characters who clash, join, part ways and learn to grow.

In 2014, merely a year after The Garden of Words, all the lessons learned through his previous attempts finally come together to create what is arguably Shinkai’s best work to date: Your Name. Your Name has The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ ambition and scope without the overcomplicated sci-fi plot and with the maturity of characters from 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words.

In Your Name, Mitsuha and Taki meet through the weirdest of circumstances when they happen to exchange bodies. While living the other person’s life, they learn to appreciate and grow fond of each other, finally falling in love. Their romance becomes a race against the clock, however, when they realize that Taki is actually in Mitsuha’s future and her life is threatened by a comet about to wipe out her village.

Unlike Shinkai’s first film, Your Name doesn’t wait to dive into the story the characters immediately meet and clash, going through the funniest of adventures. The light tone of the first part is then contrasted with the impending disaster revealed by the perfectly placed plot twist that the audience can’t be expecting. It’s exactly because of the ‘fun and games’ part of the film that the audience will root for the protagonists to survive and finally meet. When Mitsuha and Taki cross paths, it’s almost impossible not to feel emotional.

Your Name draws on the best parts of Shinkai’s previous works the beautiful animation, fantasy setting, compelling characters and meaningful relationship to perfect the fantasy romance formula. After that, probably aware that he finally got where he wanted to be, Shinkai started tweaking and adding but never deviating too much from the established structure. In Weathering With You, for instance, the fantasy element is more of an urban legend, which makes it slightly different. The stakes are as high as in Your Name, however, with Hina risking her life and needing to be saved. Unlike Your Name, this film deals with children who are forced to fight their way through existence without parents in a crime-ridden, dangerous world.

Last but certainly not least, Shinkai’s most recent work, 2022’s Suzume, rivals Your Name both in terms of character writing and animation. Interestingly enough, while it doesn’t distance itself too much from Your Name’s formula, a couple of elements seem to be influenced by Ghibli; the main boy, a college student named Sota, is turned into a talking chair, making him a peculiar character that could easily belong in the likes of Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away. Another compelling detail is the importance of Japanese history. The whole plot and final twist revolve around the real-life 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed almost 20 thousand people and caused the Fukushima disaster. The connection to recent history must resonate profoundly with the Japanese public and beyond.

Whether Makoto Shinkai will be willing to depart from his hard-earned fantasy romance formula in the future, only time will tell, but it is fascinating to acknowledge the effort and time it took to reach the peak of his creative journey so far. From The Place Promised in Our Early Days to Suzume, the writer and director grew as a storyteller, a director and certainly an artist, succeeding in captivating audiences around the world with his moving and simple yet universal stories.

Related posts

A Lord of the Rings Hints Tom Bombadil Was in Movies All Along

Zhivana Mikaila

When One Anime Girl Envies Another’s Bust Size


Pokemon Anime Will End Ash Journey With a Reunion of Old Friend