Makoto Shinkai’s latest animated film coming to Chinese mainland
In Japan’s animation world Hayao Miyazaki is a master. His classics account for around half of Japan’s top 10 highestgrossing hits, but his status is now being challenged by a rising star.
Makoto Shinkai, hailed as the “new Miyazaki” by the foreign media, recently saw his latest animation feature Your Name knock two of Miyazaki’s blockbusters off their slots on box-office charts.
The movie, which overtook Princess Mononoke to become the third-highest grossing domestic film in Japan of all time, will open in the Chinese mainland on Dec 2.
In addition to its popularity at home, the film has already proved its mettle beyond Japan. Latest statistics show that Your Name has broken Japanese film box-office records in Taiwan and topped Hong Kong charts in its premiere weekend.
“Personally, I don’t quite like animation films, but I watched Your Name not to be seen as out of touch,” says Alec Su, a well-known Taiwanbased singer-actor, during his recent Beijing tour.
Xu Zheng, the famous Chinese actor-director behind the Lost franchise, wants every frame in the film to be paused to give a zoom-in look, as the background scenery is breathtakingly beautiful.
For diehard fans, Xu’s comments resonate wide.
Shinkai’s nickname among Chinese fans is “emperor of wallpaper”, a tribute to the scenes featured in his movies. They are seen as good options for screen savers.
Unlike most Japanese animators who started their careers as apprentices following a veteran, Shinkai began as a graphic designer in a video games company.
His early works were mostly one-man projects using personal computers.
One of the highlights of his work is that he digitally transfers photos to create picturesque scenes in the animated world, which are real and fantastic at the same time.
On a promotional tour in Beijing, Shinkai, the director, says his scenes are not created to meet aesthetic demands, but for the story.
“I want audiences to believe that everything is possible. Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, you may meet the most important person in your life,” says Shinkai, while speaking about his filmmaking.
In the 107-minute tale, two teen protagonists — a schoolgirl from the countryside and a Tokyo boy — unexpectedly swap bodies, which gives both fresh experiences and a chance to explore new lifestyles.
But after they gradually develop a chemistry, the plot takes an unexpected twist — the girl was actually killed in a disaster three years earlier.
Most of Shinkai’s previous titles ended on a sad note, but Your Name is different.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan’s history, is one reason why Shinkai changed his style.
“Before that (the earthquake), Japan was a stable society. The public believed that daily life would go on as it had in the past, with no hint of turbulence,” he says.
“But the earthquake made everyone nervous: Now, the city or town, which they had lived in for decades, could disappear suddenly. So, I needed to inject some color or optimism into the movie,” he says.
In his work, Shinkai, who has been an animator for around two decades, favors adolescent romance. And this can be seen in The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) and The Garden of Words (2013).
Many fans say they are touched by the “pure love” they find in his work, and find that Shinkai’s style has hit a new level in Your Name, in which he skillfully weaves time travel and romance into a suspense-filled tale.
Meanwhile, animation film experts say Shinkai’s popularity also has social and industrial significance.
Cao Xiaohui, vice-president of the animation institution at the Beijing Film Academy, says: “Every 10 years or so, Japan produces a world-class animator. Before Shinkai, there was Tezuka Osamu, Miyazaki, Otomo Katsuhiro and Kon Satoshi, but few of their animated classics were screened in China.”
He also thinks the growth of cultural communication between China and Japan has led to growing domestic demand for quality animation films from Japan, one of the world’s largest animation producers.
This view is echoed by Zhao Feng, an animated film researcher at the Chinese Film Association, who says that China has seen dozens of Japanese animation films being screened since last year.
Stand by Me Doraemon, shown last year, became the highest-grossing, non-Hollywood foreign film of all time in China, thanks to its protagonist, a robotic cat, which aroused sweet childhood memories in millions of Chinese.
Zhao also says the commercial success of such animation films has made Chinese distributors purchase more Japanese movies, especially considering the lackluster film market this year.
“Almost all the famous animation works — from One Piece Film: Gold and Chibi Maruko-chan: The Boy from Italy to Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare — have had film versions screened in the Chinese mainland this year,” says Zhao.
But none of them were able to recreate the box-office magic of Stand by Me Doraemon.
Your Name could prove to be different, say industry watchers.
Taking another track, Cao says that Japan’s animation movies can also be inspirational for Chinese animators. “China is not short of technology, but has a way to go when it comes to emotional and thought-provoking content,” he adds.
Makoto Shinkai’s animation film YourName, featuring two teen protagonists, will open in mainland theaters on Friday.
Makoto Shinkai in Beijing for a promotional tour.