The World According to Makoto Shinkai

A few years ago, I watched the third-highest grossing anime film of all time, Your Name, by Makoto Shinkai. It was an intriguing love story about body swapping between two people who had never met before attempting to find each other in modern Japan.

Despite the film’s popular success, it didn’t make a lasting impression on me when I saw it. It was only years later when I watched two of Shinkai’s earlier films, 5 Centimeters Per Second and Children who Chase Lost Voices, that the director left his mark.

In both films, Shinkai explores nostalgia and childlike innocence, what it means to fall in love and lose that love suddenly and irrevocably, due to forces beyond our immediate control. It is in these moments, he suggests, when everything appears to be lost to us, that we must turn to a childlike wonder with the world, in order to survive. Being tough and brave is one option. But to stay true to ourselves, we need to reawaken our awe and nostalgia, the two ingredients that help us keep the past alive long after it dies away.

This is the world according to Makoto Shinkai.

Let’s start with Children who Chase Lost Voices. The film begins with the story of a young girl named Asuna. One day, while walking to school, Asuna is attacked by a mythical bear creature and only narrowly saved by a young boy. She takes an interest in the boy, Shun, who seems otherworldly, and speaks of coming to her world on a mission, from his own world, Agartha. Captivated, but saving her questions, Asuna promises to meet him the next day. That night, Shun, unexpectedly falls to his death, leaving her questions unanswered and their brief love disintegrated.

Searching for answers as to the mysterious boy, Asuna talks with Mr. Morisaki, a substitute teacher at her school. Morisaki tells Asuna myths about the underworld, a place called Agatha. A place between life and death that can only be accessed by special crystals, and is guarded by mythical creatures, like the bear.

In Agatha remain the gods that disappeared, and knowledge yet unknown, and it is said to be a place where any kind of wish can be fulfilled. Even resurrecting the dead!

– Mr. Morisaki

Mr. Morisaki tells Asuna of how he has lost his wife. Together, the two end up travelling into this underworld of Agartha. The aim of their trip: to bring back to life the loves they have lost.

The film depicts this journey in an awe-inspiring style. Shinkai’s animations are aesthetically beautiful. He depicts the underworld as a vibrant place of spirituality and mystery. Rather than a dark and ominous place, it is bright and teaming with life, with green trees, rolling hills and incredible skies that seem more open and alive than the world above.

The people of the underworld live a peaceful life away from the surface, until it is their turn to die out. They have sealed themselves away from the world above, because of the violence that outsiders bring – who seek to use the great powers hidden in their world.

Their philosophy is one of acceptance. They have come to know and understand death as part of life’s journey, and so they are not afraid of it. Each creature, they believe, serves a purpose in a broader cycle of life. Restoring someone to life from the dead is forbidden, and goes against their cultural and spiritual practices. Each death comes in its own time, for its own reasons, and it’s own purposes.

Becoming an adult is a slow process of coming to terms with this realization. It’s the reason why so many kid’s stories deal with death and sorrow, because growing older involves a fracturing of lost innocence and a recalibration with the difficult realities of independent survival.

(Spoilers ahead)

The moral of the film comes right near the end. To resurrect his wife from the dead, Mr. Morisaki has to sacrifice Asuna. The God of the underworld offers him a trade: a life for a life, and he takes it, in a manner of both cruelty and desperation. His wife briefly returns in Asuna’s body, before another character interrupts the transfusion process. “Find happiness,” his wife says, before dying, again in his arms. In the end, he has to let her go.

There are strong parallels between the story and the ancient Greek myth, Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice. The God of the underworld, Hades, tells Orpheus that he can take his wife back to the world of the living on one condition: that he does not look at her until they have both walked back to the surface and left the darkness of the underworld behind them. They begin their slow ascent to the surface, with the shade of his wife following close behind. Famously, close to the exit, Orpheus thinks Hades has fooled him, and that no one is following, and so he turns around to look. For a moment he sees the shade of his wife, before she is whisked backwards, trapping her in the underworld forever. He has lost his one and only chance, and ends up dying alone.

The idea of looking back has multiple meanings here. In my view, it’s a metaphor about death itself. Simply by going to the underworld, Orpheus is destined to fail in his quest, because he was ‘looking back’ at the past rather than moving on. There was no forward looking version of his wife to ever see. She only ever existed behind him, in the days gone by. To live with the death of his wife he had to look forward – in other words – not living with her at all.

The same is true of Mr. Morisaki. In a parallel to the myth, Morisaki was destined to fail in his quest from the start, because he was defying the entire process of life and time itself. To bring someone back from the dead, in Shinkai’s telling, is to play with the order of things, which is to mess up the spiritual balance of the world. Every death occurs in its own time, and so reversing this is a form of spiritual desecration.

This idea of leaving the past behind is repeated elsewhere in Shinkai’s films. In another film, 5 Centimeters per Second, he explores the idea of leaving behind our younger selves. The young version of ourselves, and young love, essentially ‘die’ away as we get older, replaced by the new version of who we currently are – with the imperative to make new decisions, rather than trying to reawaken the past.

The story starts with the young boy Takaki, becoming friends with a girl, Akari at elementary school. Upon graduation, Akari moves away with her parents. One night, during a severe snowstorm, Takaki travels by train to see her and they have their first kiss. He has brought her a letter, but it gets blown away in the storm. She has written him a letter, but she decides in the last moment not to give it to him. He reflects on the moment while they’re together:

“And right then, it felt like I finally understood where everything was, eternity, the heart, the soul. It was like I was sharing every experience I’d ever had in my past 13 years. And then, the next moment, I became unbearably sad. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. Her warmth, her soul. Then, right then, I clearly understood we would never be together. Our lives not yet fully realized, the vast expanse of time.”

The film is filled with these beautiful reflections. As Takaki grows older he settles down, into a relationship and job he doesn’t really want to be in. He still has the same longing however, for the beautiful parts of life, and for his younger self, and the young love he once felt so strongly.

“Reality is brimming over with beautiful things, scintillating feelings. How many of them have I been missing?” he asks at one point.

His new girlfriend has a sense that something is amiss, that he is not really in the relationship at all. “He’s always looking past me, at something far off in the distance. And he’ll never look at me. Not ever.”

And always, the voice of Akari haunts him. That time they met in elementary school, when the cherry blossoms were falling and she told him: ” They say it’s five centimeters per second. The speed of a falling cherry petal. Five centimeters per second.”

In the end, it all goes by so fast.


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