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Otakon2011: Press Conference with Anime Director Makoto Shinkai

Just two months after its release in Japan, Makoto Shinkai’s new movie, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, had its U.S. premiere at Otakon with English Subtitles. Makoto Shinkai is a Japanese Director known for Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second. After its U.S. premiere, Toonzone had the opportunity to attend a press conference featuring Makoto Shinkai to discuss his past and present work.

MAKOTO SHINKAI: My name is Makoto Shinkai, I am animation director. Thank you for coming today.

Q: There seems to be a difference in titles between the Japanese and English for Hoshi O Ou Kodomo [Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below], something about a star. Would you be able to explain if that is an actual difference and why the decision was made to go with that direction?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: The Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is actually the subtitle of the Japanese title. Currently, when we are releasing it in the English market, we are using that one as a sort of temporary title. So there is in the future a possibility that the title might change to a more direct translation of the Japanese title.

Q: What are your literary and film influences?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: I’m getting a lot of inspiration from Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s work, particularly Castle in the Sky, Laputa. For the books, I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration from Haruki Murakami.

Q: You seem to have a very small staff now, I’m wondering if you wish you had any of that staff available when you did Voices of a Distant Star?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: Right now, as you have said, I have some staff people who are working with me. In comparison, when I was doing Voices of a Distant Star that was pretty much self-made. The fact that I voiced it shows that it was handmade by myself. At that time, I did feel a very good deep satisfaction that I was able to make this whole film by myself. On the other hand, currently I already have staff members, almost like my family. When I’m working alone right now, sooner or later I will be feeling a little lonely. I’d feel like going to the family studio. If you ask me if I ever think about the time when I was making Voices of a Distant Star, if I wanted to have the current staff with me, that’s kind of a ‘what-if’ type of question and that kind of question never came to my mind. So I’ve never really thought about it.

Q: Is there a goal or purpose that you wanted to achieve, both professional and personal, for your latest movie?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: I’m not sure if my answer will be an answer to your question. Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below was perfected early this March and it was released in May, so it has been only three months since it has been completed. Currently I’m still not sure what I should do from here on. Currently I get these opportunities to go see the reaction from the audience, including Japan and going abroad. I’m glad to use this opportunity to think and decide what I will do after this, both professionally and personally.

Q: Your previous films have had simple themes with complex emotions, such as distance or time, what would you say is the overarching theme of Children Who Chase Voices from Deep Below?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: It’s very difficult to put the theme into one word. If I could do that I wouldn’t be making two hour animation. However, if you want me to say it then that would be how to overcome from the things lost, ones sense of deep loss, how to overcome it. That would be the theme.

Q: What sort of films and other works have you looked at in establishing your action style?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: As I said earlier, of course I did study a lot of Miyazaki’s works. Since we were using the sword this time with action scenes, I studied a lot of Ruroni Kenshin Samurai X. I also studied Japanese chanbara, the sword fighting television shows. There is a particular one called Mugen no Jounin. It had been put into animation a couple of years ago, and I also watched that show to get the idea.

Q: Unlike a lot of other animators working today, you started your career animating on computers rather than hand drawn animation. What do you think of computer animation as opposed to hand drawn animation?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: Although it has been said commonly that I started working in computer animation, when I started out making the characters I drew with pencil and pen and I scanned it in the computer. By means of tradition, the method I used just happened to be the exact same as the method used today. On the other hand, yes, as you said 3D is totally different looking from what we do in 2D, like Pixar or Dreamworks are doing. There are more of those made right now, movie wise. I feel if that is the way the direction generally goes and maybe even some day 2D might disappear, it is unavoidable. But, personally I do love 2D animation style, that’s something I am more familiar with growing up watching it and I would definitely like to keep on drawing it with 2D animation.

Q: I understand that you studied Japanese literature in college and there is an introspective literary quality to a lot of your work, particularly in the way you use voice over and monologue. Are there any particular live action filmmakers or directors or cinematographers that you admire? Is live action a medium that you’d like to pursue in the future?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: Speaking of the live action, I do go to see the movies and enjoy it. I go as one of you, one of the viewers and enjoy it. I’d probably go see the Pirates of the Caribbean movie or Batman, something like that once a season. If you ask me if I’m ever inspired by it or any particular action movie director or in that field, that would be Shunji Iwai. His way of using light and shadow is very inspiring.

Q: You seem to be a notable exception in that you are someone who came from the video game industry into the anime industry. It seems like the larger trend is for people to go from the anime industry into video games. What do you think the anime industry can do to either maintain or attract great talent?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: True, it is a big thing in Japan from what I see. Video game industry companies are much more stable and they tend to treat their workers much better than the way the animation industry treats their working people. However, the staff currently working with me are those people that really love making animation, so I treat them so they can live working in animation, but that’s about what I can do right now personally. When you ask about how the industry in general can change the trend that’s something I never really gave a thought about it since I am not the industry’s representation or anything. Personally I think that if we can make a great animation film that people in society really that is great then perhaps maybe we can increase the level of people who would be more interested in making the animation.

Q: The time frame in which Children Who Chase Voices from Deep Below takes place is a little unclear, is there a specific time frame that you were aiming for that to happen?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: Yes, there is an intention in the way I have established the time frame for this work. I put the time frame in a way that would be the minimum required for the audience to understand the time frame. I’d like the audiences to feel satisfied when they first watch. At the same time I want certain questions to remain in their minds about the time frame and then watching it two, three times more in order to understand more details about what they have just watched. So that’s purposefully complicated to understand.

Q: Your movies usually have a slightly ambiguous ending, is this intentional? What feeling do you wish viewers get at the end of your films?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: Yes, as you have said, in my works in the past, the ending was purposefully made kind of questionable about whether it was supposed to be a happy ending or supposed to be a sad ending. That’s because I wanted to have the audience to think about the ending by themselves, whether it was a happy or sad ending. In Japan that is not the major style of how things are ending, and upon making of my own film I wanted to make something that is unique compared to other works. On the other hand, on Children Who Chase Voices from Deep Below, we have made the ending a little clearer, compared to past works of mine.

Q: Looking back now that the film has been made and you’ve seen the reaction of audiences is there anything you would have changed about the film?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: I always have certain regret or rethinking as the time goes by. It’s been 3 months since I keep on watching the reaction from the audience. So if I say so then yes, if I try to remake it probably I can make something twice more fun. Even for the past work of 5 Centimeters Per Second, if I were to make that one over right now maybe I might be able to make it five times more interesting or the works older than that, maybe I can make it ten times more interesting. So as the past goes by I might’ve gained more skills, and thinking and thoughts on how to make it better. But the audiences, who paid and watch those works, have watched it already, so I try not to think about how I could have done better but rather that was the best that I could at the time.

Q: Could you describe the transition from making a one man project, like Voices from a Distant Star, and making a larger scale project with a team like 5 Centimeters Per Second or your new film?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: A big difference, when I’m making it alone there’s less stress. Basically, what I imagine and what I want to draw, I draw, and then it comes out, so there is no stress at all. On the other hand, if you are making it by one’s self then the outcome would not be more than what I have at all, it would stay within my limit. When you are working with a group there’s going to be tremendous stress. Sometimes, people might not come out with the picture I want and I have to re-write it or ask them to re-write it again. So there is going to be tremendous communicational stress in order to make my vision come true. However sometimes those staffs come up with much more brilliant talent than what I expected, so the work will go beyond my limit and become much better than my own limit.

Q: Throughout the course of your career in what ways have you developed as a director and what ways would you like to further develop?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: Ever since I debuted on Voices of a Distant Star I’m not sure really if I would call that directing, because I made it by myself and that’s it. Yes, it’s my work and I was co-director of Voices of a Distant Star. But it was self-made and I really didn’t understand what a director is at the time. All the works after that, yes I have been working together with other people in order to bring the works out but then still I was not so sure what Directing means. It was a learning process. After two years working on the current project finally I think I have vision of “Oh, so this is what being animation director is about.” So I have a feeling that this is my directorial debut. Now that I have learned how to be the animation director I feel like, yes I want to make the next movie as animation director. So I’m looking forward to what I can do as a director for the next show.

Q: With more powerful computers and software for animation now being available, do you feel as though the role of small independent animation films has changed over the last 15-20 years?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: True, today’s circumstances are much better- PCs are more powerful, you even have internet to distribute, there’s much better software. However, the truth is what you’d like to tell in your work is fundamental to your work. The tendency is, when you are self-making a film, you tend to put more effort how it looks, unfortunately. Even though the circumstances are better, if self-making artists don’t understand that you have to know what you really want to say with your work, then it has not really changed much from ten years ago.

Q: In your previous works you’ve used younger protagonists and in your most current movie you actually have a more adult, mid-thirties character as well. Is there any reason you’ve used young people to display your overarching theme of loss in the past? What does the introduction of an older character now mean for this work and possible future works?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: First of all, yes there is Morisaki who is an adult on this show but the main character is Asuna who is an eleven, twelve year old girl; I wanted to clarify about that. The basic purpose of the change was because I wanted a broader audience this time. Simply put, my past work was watched more by the 20-30 year old male audience. That’s fine, however, I wanted to challenge a little bit more this time, to the broader audiences might be as young as teenager children to watch it and enjoy it. So that was the main purpose why I have made a change to include an adult in my work.

[Note: The below question and response involve massive spoilers for the ending of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below. This question was asked in Japanese and translated by the translator.]
Q: Will you continue using ambiguous endings in your work? This ending is very typical of Japanese work, specifically literature, and is known as the Japanese ending. 30-40 years ago it would have been unheard of to see this ending accepted outside of Japan, so will you keep on using it?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: The Morisaki is a very complicated character- he thinks his wife, who is dead, is more important than anything else. On the other hand Shin, towards the end, screams out that the person who is currently alive is more important than the dead. On the other hand, Asuna thinks this is a blessing, she does not deny either one of them, she does not make a decision on which one is true and that is how I feel too. I think about these things a lot, but I cannot come to the conclusion either. The more you think of it, you cannot come to a conclusion. With that in mind I left the ending to the audiences to decide, because I want the audiences to think too. If you ask me if there were any Japanese literatures that factor into the ending, then perhaps maybe because I have grown up reading all these Japanese literature. But if you ask if there was any particular work of literature that affected me coming to the ending of this, what you call an ambiguous ending, there is none. Upon seeing all of the audiences reaction outside of Japan I am getting the feeling that this style could be accepted worldwide. If the entertainment is more perfect then the ending does not necessarily have to be so clear. Technically it is possible to make even the current works ending to be a little bit more understandable. But if it is really required of for my future works, it is possible that I’ll make ending to be a little more unambiguous, a little easier to understand ending. I cannot change myself, I cannot change what I have already grown up with so perhaps the way I think, the ending will not change that much but technically it is possible.

TOONZONE NEWS: Your work typically centers on a theme of communication between humans- what is it about this concept that you find so interesting? Is there any particular aspect of humans, or society, that you get your inspiration from?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: I believe that in Japan, or the most of the world of the world today, the majority of the people are interested in communication. Today people do not watch television that much and they don’t play games that much. Communication is actually becoming more of an entertainment itself. So when the society that I live in has this tendency that communication is so important that it has become a place of entertainment then naturally it has become my point interest when making my works.

Q: You left a great deal about Agartha unsaid in the film, so I was wondering if it’s a setting you might want to return to later on or let other creators, directors or authors work in it?

[Note: Audio quality during this part of the recording was poor, so some portions of the answer have been paraphrased]
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I feel rather honored to have other creators use Agartha, thank you very much. In fact in Japan, Hoshi o ou Kodomo has two manga. There’s two totally different individuals who are artists drawing the manga. I did not put any particular request on how Agartha or the world would be pictured, so I really don’t mind creators using it. They can, there’s no problem with it.

Q: Your film has highlighted commitment as a virtue, but obsession, related to commitment, is a bad thing. Is the distinction between the two a lesson you would like to teach your audience?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: I think it depends on the time my work was made. Perhaps when I was making 5 Centimeters [Per Second] I was maybe thinking commitment was the virtue and obsession being bad. In my current work I have made the character Morisaki, who never gives up, who is totally obsessed, but even then I did not deny his existence. The character who keeps on thinking very strong might become his own power to keep on living. It is possible to make that obsession the source of his living will. This change of my thinking is reflected on my works. Maybe it will keep on changing as time goes by to my work.

Q: In stark contrast to what many other anime directors have said, your answers this morning suggest you put significant thought into international audiences. Many of those other anime directors are much younger. Do you feel as though one falls from the other?

MAKOTO SHINKAI: To be honest with you, I never truly thought about whether I have made my current work toward younger audiences oand whether my wish that it would be watched all over the world are equal. I wanted to make the work different from my prior works, where in order to fully enjoy them, people needed to know certain details of the Japanese culture and Japanese background. I wanted to make it different from 5 Centimeters Per Second so that people who do not know about Japan could also enjoy. That was my main reason to make something different this time. So it’s true that I wanted younger audiences to watch this and if those were accepted abroad as an end result of it then I am very happy to know that. But when I was making, in the process I really never intentionally thought about, “Okay I’m making this for the world market.” I just simply wanted to make something different from my prior works.

Toonzone would like to thank Mr. Shinkai for taking the time to conduct this press conference, as well as Otakon press operations for setting it up. I would like to thank staff members Todd DuBois, Juu-Kuchi and purplehairedwonder for help in research and forming questions. This press conference has been edited and condensed.

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