In a review for Makoto Shinkai’s The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Peter C. Bowen and Charlie Prince write, “The press release for the film says Shinkai has been referred to as ‘the new Miyazaki’ but we think this is unfair to both Shinkai and Miyazaki. They are exploring very different worlds even though they both work in animation. The comparison is apt only insofar as both directors are good at giving genuine emotion to their characters.”1 Both directors are known for their broad, passionate films, but it is easy to recognize that Miyazaki and Shinkai have unique tones to their directing. What exactly determines these tones, and how do they relate to the worlds of anime and Japanese film?
Shinkai’s films are marked by a continuous awareness of seasons and weather. In his five-minute short film She and Her Cat (1999), following a long tradition of Japanese film that goes back at least to The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), the passage of time is noted quietly by the change of the seasons, moving through a full year of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Although Voices of a Distant Star has no need to jump between seasons this way because of the vast span of time the characters go through, the seasons provide a Japanese backdrop. They buy popsicles in the summer, watch the snow in the winter, and get covered with cherry blossoms in the spring.
As obvious as this film technique might seem, the prominence of the seasons is found very rarely in Western film. This makes it all the more unusual that Miyazaki does not use this technique as well. The length of time covered in Miyazaki’s films ranges from a couple of eventful days (The Castle of Cagliostro, Princess Mononoke) to an undetermined number of weeks (Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle), but he neither feels the need to demonstrate the passing of time using the seasons, nor are his characters affected by the heat of summer or the cold of winter. In fact, upon closer examination we find that most of Miyazaki’s films take place in an undetermined summer month, without any of the colorful autumn leaves, winter snow, or blossoming cherry trees which might give some balance to a dramatic story.
In fact, Miyazaki does not include the seasons as part of the unchanging realm of Nature, but exploits them at his will. This is most noticeable in Princess Mononoke (1997) when the camera watches grass and flowers slowly grow on the ruined landscape. Yet this is all taking place in the same undetermined summer month in which Ashitaka arrived at Iron Town. The message is not one of a natural springtime but of growth or rebirth in general. While Miyazaki appreciates the natural world, he does not jump ahead to the following spring for this scene, which would indicate an acceptance of the way Nature goes about its business independent of the little dramas of mankind, but forces it into the timespan of his film. This is not to say that Miyazaki is impatient with nature: take, for example, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), which depicts an extremely slow process of rebirth when Nausicaä discovers the hidden cavern underneath the Sea of Decay. However, unlike Shinkai, Miyazaki’s natural world is slightly supernatural and seems to play an active role in human affairs rather than a passive and independent one. In both Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke, humans feel that they have to take a stand against the natural world, and the natural world manifests itself in various ways to fight back. In Spirited Away, while we do not see the human characters impact the environment, we can observe the negative effects of humanity on Nature through the anthropomorphized river spirits which Chihiro heals (Haku and the “stink god”).
In the first episode of Shinkai’s newest movie, 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), the seasons continue to act as a backdrop, but they also become a challenge to the main characters as Takaki Tōno’s train is stopped by a blizzard, preventing him from meeting his girlfriend Akari Shinohara. Yet Shinkai portrays this blizzard as an unavoidable encumbrance. Takaki does not struggle against the blizzard but merely accepts his fate and hopes that Akari will go home without waiting too long in the cold.
The pattern of these films is unmistakable. Miyazaki is reluctant to portray the passive influence of nature, but has made several films where nature plays an active role and confronts the human characters. Shinkai, on the other hand, never has his characters struggle against a fantasy version of nature, but all of his movies, even the five-minute sketches, use the beauty of nature to provide a transcendent effect. The two directors both go to unusual lengths to include the natural world in their films, but they are the polar opposites of each other in the realization of this desire.
Weather and scenery is just one aspect of Miyazaki and Shinkai’s different approaches to cinematography. Miyazaki pays careful attention to how his characters move and react, in quite a delightful way, but the events of his films take place either in midday or at night. In contrast to this, roughly half of the scenes in The Place Promised in Our Early Days take place in the late afternoon, allowing Shinkai to pay close attention to long shadows and make simple scenes of a hospital bed or loft into complex images with many diagonal lines.
Miyazaki’s recent films, Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, have a dreamlike quality in their combination of many different fantastic elements. In Spirited Away, for example, Chihiro comes to the bathhouse by passing through a foreign shrine with stained-glass windows, then through a bizarre amusement park full of bright, contrasting colors and strangely chosen Chinese characters. The bathhouse itself is similarly full of these inhuman architectural elements. It clearly has a basis in some sort of traditional Japanese and Chinese architecture, but rather than sticking to that style, it plays around with it in many ways, especially in Yubaba’s many-colored apartment at its top. Compared to Miyazaki’s earlier films, the effect is quite vivid. None of Miyazaki’s films have been grounded firmly in reality, but his most recent two are particularly fantastic.
Shinkai, on the other hand, has always had a passion for realism in his artwork and the settings of his films have moved steadily from sci-fi to reality, starting with Voices of a Distant Star, with mecha fighting in outer space, then to The Place Promised in Our Early Days, which takes place in an alternate history which is almost normal except for the monumental tower on the horizon, and finally 5 Centimeters Per Second, which is set in an entirely contemporary, normal Japan, with the anime medium providing merely an artistic effect. This most recent film deserves special attention. A superficial observer might wonder why Shinkai has chosen animation for his medium at all, since many of the scenes are painstakingly accurate paintings of modern Japan: a turnstile on a railroad line, the inside of a local train with advertisements covering the windows, and so forth. Actually, this hyperrealism provides an opportunity for Shinkai to use light and color in a way nearly impossible with live-action film. Many of his shots in the first episode of 5 Centimeters per Second have a cold quality, through heavy use of blues and grays, which allows him to skillfully put the entire episode in a wintry mood. The Place Promised in Our Early Days has many outdoor scenes with a high contrast and brightness, exaggerating the power of the sun, and the scenes inside the hospital and laboratory use clinical, sterile blues.
There is much overlap in Miyazaki films, but only with other Miyazaki films. The romantic World War I setting of Porco Rosso is readopted for Howl’s Moving Castle; the baby’s playpen in Spirited Away is reminiscent of the prison in The Castle of Cagliostro, and the violent form of No-Face resembles the demonic boar god in Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki does not, as a rule, borrow from film clichés, whether Japanese or American. Nausicaä’s setting is based vaguely on a rich sci-fi subculture, as he apparently wanted to make a movie about Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Tales of Earthsea” originally and began developing Nausicaä after those rights were denied,2 but a viewer ignorant of this information would not have recognized a bow to any particular subculture in Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic setting.
Shinkai, on the other hand, borrows freely and shamelessly from the worlds of sci-fi and otaku. Voices of a Distant Star launches directly from a normal classroom setting into the seat of a mecha in outer space, placing the story firmly within the world of mecha found exclusively in anime and manga. Augmented reality and a disembodied voice speaking in English interfere with Mikako’s senses, both staples of sci-fi series such as Battlestar Galactica. Place Promised is a work of political science fiction where, in an unlikely what-if scenario of the kind popular in soft sci-fi, the dreams of a young girl are literally used as an Armageddon device.
The stories of Miyazaki’s adult films have advice for the reader, whether in the morality plays of Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke or the bildungsromans of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Miyazaki also produced the excellent children’s films My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service which emphasize adventure and a lack of a malevolent force. The Castle of Cagliostro and Porco Rosso have the same themes as these children’s films, with an exciting but humanized force of evil which the main characters battle, accompanied by a “lone ranger” or “ronin” atmosphere which resembles Yojimbo and the spaghetti Westerns which followed it. Miyazaki’s movies have a wide variety of plotlines, but the feeling of adventure is constant, even in slow-paced, pleasant excursions like Porco Rosso.
Shinkai, on the other hand, has a persistent theme in all of his films so far: that of a young boyfriend and girlfriend separated from each other. While Shinkai is not hesitant to include action scenes, neither is he concerned with giving all the characters something important to do at all times. His characters are often forced to play the silent observer, such as Noboru in Voices of a Distant Star, or Sayuri in The Place Promised in Our Early Days, as the other characters take on all the action for themselves. In 5 Centimeters per Second, both characters are forced to wait it out as a blizzard delays their meeting. Despite the fantastic nature of some of Shinkai’s settings, his characters are not given similarly adventure-filled, heroic lives but are mere mortals, constrained by various things out of their control.
So, we have seen all these differences. How do they link into the history of Japanese film, or did earlier Japanese films have any influence on these anime at all? It is easy to recognize the Japanese cultural influences on the settings of these films, but is there something about the way they are directed and planned out which makes them uniquely Japanese?
Taking the various differences we have just examined, let us compare these aspects of film to how they are treated by the Golden Age directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Like Miyazaki and Shinkai, Kurosawa and Ozu never had a rivalry, but they were very different directors. Ozu was often considered a “very Japanese” director, while Kurosawa was praised for his epic scale and universal, Shakespearean themes.
We turn first to nature. Kurosawa occasionally exploits nature for a certain kind of symbolism, such as the overpopulated flowerbed in The Seven Samurai (1954) used to exaggerate the romance, or the springtime fields at the beginning of No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) matching the innocence of the college-age characters lying down in them. He also uses the natural world as an active extension of the physical world in No Regrets for Our Youth, in one memorable scene where Yukie seems to be mocked and laughed at by the trees themselves. But for the most part, the seasons of the year are ignored in films such as Ikiru, The Seven Samurai, and Ran. There are much grander themes to be explored in all of these films. Ozu, on the other hand, embraces a passive natural world. Many of his films are named after the seasons. His characters talk about nature and the weather constantly, and there are many opportunities to observe natural life in his slow-moving scenes and pillow shots. Even in a shot that could be generalized, such as the bicycle-riding scene in Late Spring (1949), is closely matched up to its eponymous season by the presence of the beach nearby. So we see in general that Kurosawa avoids portraying a passive nature, and even once portrayed it actively despite the lack of a fantasy setting where this would make more sense, whereas Ozu embraces passive nature and does not introduce it as an active character.
The cinematography of Kurosawa and Ozu also has parallels to Miyazaki and Shinkai. Ozu is famous for how “boring” his camera is. He places it inside a traditional Japanese home, at right angles to all the walls and doors. His tracking shots are special events in his films because there are so few of them, and they are often used to show more of a scene rather than follow a character. The viewer is always aware of the details of the setting through how it contains and confines the characters. The setting is also brought out through pillow shots which portray only the scenery and no characters at all. Kurosawa, on the other hand, uses a highly melodramatic camera with many tracking shots, close-ups, and emotional angles like the downward-looking camera in one of the gate scenes in Rashomon (1950). He allows us to focus on the expressions and movements of his characters. Unlike Ozu, Kurosawa occasionally uses a camera gimmick to bring the characters’ feelings to the foreground, such as the darkness of Watanabe’s home in Ikiru (1952) when he sits alone in his depression, or the use of wipes in the same movie to show that Watanabe’s journey takes place in one endless, dreamlike night. Ozu and Kurosawa do not use the same set of tools as those found in the anime medium, but like Shinkai and Miyazaki, one of the directors takes advantage of the camera mainly to emphasize the characters, while the other director uses that same camera to emphasize the setting.
Finally, we arrive at the storylines of Kurosawa and Ozu’s films. Like Miyazaki and Shinkai, a comparison is difficult because one of these directors sticks to a simple theme whereas the other has a wide range of movies across the board. Kurosawa’s films are often existential but also range from the “lone ranger” film Yojimbo to No Regrets for Our Youth, a story of democratic protest and female empowerment. Like Miyazaki’s films, there is often an individual hero who sets things in order, such as the main characters of the two aforementioned movies, or Watanabe in Ikiru. However, there are also films where there is clearly no one hero, such as The Seven Samurai, or no heroes at all, such as Rashomon. As Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto concludes, “There is simply no single approach that fully explains the significance, meanings, or relevance of Kurosawa’s films.”3 In Ozu’s films, on the other hand, there is an obvious theme of contemporary Japanese family life. He does not always portray nuclear families, but nearly all of his movies focus on either a couple or a family relationship. He does not venture out into the worlds of fantasy or historical films.
It would be going too far to call Miyazaki and Shinkai disciples of Kurosawa and Ozu. While these Golden Age directors undoubtedly influenced their films, it would be going too far to say that they follow in their footsteps. Besides the obvious differences between anime and live action, Miyazaki and Shinkai step outside of the box on setting, cinematography, and plot. In terms of setting, both anime directors regularly venture into the world of sci-fi, fantasy, and alternate history, which neither of the live-action directors were wont to do. When it comes to cinematography, Shinkai does not adopt Ozu’s signature pillow shot, but opts for what I call a “progressive shot” where a shot of scenery adds additional information and sometimes shows one of the characters, demonstrating a quiet beauty and moving the film along at the same time. This is especially visible in 5 Centimeters Per Second, where Takaki is shown leaving school and getting on board a train in a series of still-frame shots as follows:
A high school stairwell.
Takaki putting on his shoes.
Takaki on the street, looking up at the snow and putting on his hood.
The outside of a train station.
The turnstile and ticket booth inside a train station.
A snowy railway with a waiting train.
Takaki’s watch, from his perspective.
Takaki looking at his watch inside the train as it begins running.
The trip from the high school to the train is thus shown without us seeing Takaki once, but focusing on the beauty of the train station in winter. It is not necessarily the sort of cinematography Ozu would have approved of, although it is certainly closer to him in feeling. This sort of patience and willingness to tell a story without showing the character running through all these things could not have been derived from Kurosawa, or for that matter from Nagisa Oshima.
Finally, when it comes to differences in plotline, Miyazaki and Shinkai go their own ways. Kurosawa’s movies can end in violence, tragedy, or redemption. Miyazaki, on the other hand, is fond of happy endings and his characters never get into trouble that they can’t get out of. Similarly, Ozu focuses on the family, but the family unit has not figured into any of Shinkai’s films so far. His main characters so far have been either a boy and a girl (Hoshi no Koe, Other Worlds, 5 Centimeters Per Second), two boys and a girl (Place Promised), or a girl in some sort of difficult relationship and her pet (She and Her Cat and the short music video Smile). In fact, despite the youth of these characters their parents are nowhere to be found. This may be a reflection on the changes in Japanese society since Ozu’s time, but in any case it makes for quite a different kind of movie. Shinkai also includes some high-flying adventure in some of his movies, which Ozu never did.
What these two pairs of directors have in common, though, which determines many of their similarities, is the type of passion which gives them their direction; that is to say, the reason they want to make films. Kurosawa and Miyazaki have a passion for storytelling—not necessarily a Japanese story, but a great human story. The specifics of the settings are important, but not half as important as the drama of the plot. The directors are interested in the uniqueness of their characters and the interesting sorts of situations they get into, and their setting and cinematography revolve around this. Pans and tracking shots are there to follow the characters, not show off more of the scenery. Anything that Kurosawa can do with the camera, or Miyazaki can do with lifelike movement, to emphasize the characters’ emotions contributes to their goal for the film.
Ozu and Shinkai, on the other hand, have a passion for showing the reality of life as they know it. Their sense of beauty and their love of the natural world comes not from the role it plays in the story, but the mere fact that it exists alongside and within everything. While some of Shinkai’s films take us out of real-world Japan, all of the films by both directors take place inside some sort of Japan because the directors want to stick very closely to celebrating the landscape and culture they know. Their cinematography, too, strives to keep the setting prominent and prevent the characters from outshining it. And their plotlines, most of all, are stories of love and loss among couples and families, based on the sort of stories the directors know themselves. The excellence of all four of these directors can be found in their attention to detail, and which details they choose to focus on.
1 Bowen, Peter C., and Prince, Charlie. “Makoto Shinkai Arrives as a New Powerhouse in Animé Filmmaking.” Cinema Strikes Back. 12 June 2005 <http://www.cinemastrikesback.com/index.php?p=10>
2 “Gedo Senki FAQ”. The Hayao MIYAZAKI Web. <http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/earthsea/faq.html#rights> Accessed 28 May 2007.
3 Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. Kurosawa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.