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A timeline of animator Makoto Shinkai’s best works, the greatest animator of his time

The first time I came across any media by Makoto Shinkai, it was spring of 2022 and my Japanese class was celebrating the beginning of the season with our quarterly anime watch party. We started it off by watching The Garden of Words and I was instantly in love with the beautiful animation. After that I made it my personal mission to watch as many of his movies as possible

The first time I came across any media by Makoto Shinkai, it was spring of 2022 and my Japanese class was celebrating the beginning of the season with our quarterly anime watch party. We started it off by watching The Garden of Words and I was instantly in love with the beautiful animation. After that I made it my personal mission to watch as many of his movies as possible.

Over his 24 years of releasing animated short-films and movies, Makoto Shinkai has blown viewers away with his magical concepts along with deeply gorgeous animation along with incredibly-detailed backgrounds with attention-grabbing concepts and bold colour palettes.

Makoto Shinkai started off as a graphic designer for a videogame company but continued on to write and animate some of the highest-grossing anime films of all time. He was ultimately critically acclaimed for his imagery, music, narrative, emotional depth, and animation.

Makoto Shinkai, born Makoto Niitsu in Nagano Prefecture in the town of Koumi, Japan, was deeply immersed in reading novels, manga, and watching anime when he was in middle school, which was what got him interested in the industry. Later on, Shinkai studied Japanese literature at Chuo University, and he was in a juvenile literature club where he drew picture books. After graduating university in 1996, he got a job in video game programming at a company called Falcom where he worked for five years.

It was in 1999 that he released his first animation which he wrote, directed, and created. At the time he was still working at Falcom when he released his short-film She and Her Cat. The 5-minute-long monochrome film follows the life of a woman and her pet cat, from the cat’s perspective. The poetic thoughts of the cat, named Chibi, beautifully portray the cat’s loyalty and devotion to its owner. The cat expresses that she thinks her owner is beautiful, and doesn’t like when she’s sad. The animation is very detailed and impressive despite the fact that it was made in the 1900s, and that it was his first work.

This short-film is what gave Shinkai his big break.

After his debut, Shinkai decided to stay at his job, but felt inspired to come up with more ideas for future animations. In June of 2000, Shinkai sketched a picture of a girl holding a phone in the cockpit of a plane, which inspired him to create his next work, Voices of a Distant Star. This 25-minute-long short film is in full colour, and follows a girl and a boy trying to maintain a long-distance relationship when one of them is in space. The film introduces Shinkai’s famous skyscapes and creative colour palettes, gaining him fans worldwide. This was his first sci-fi film of many, and has a fascinating dystopian war atmosphere. The movie is moving and heartfelt, but balances the action aspects well.

After his second short-film took off, Shinkai quit his job at Falcom to pursue animation full-time as a career. In 2004, Shinkai released his first animation that had a full production, a partnership with a studio, and was licensed by different companies for worldwide release. This 90-minute-long animated movie was called The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and takes place in an alternate universe where the Soviet Union has control of over half of Japan. It follows two childhood friends who drifted apart as children and are coming back together. The film ended up winning six big awards and was converted to a manga by Arata Kanoh.

After that film’s big success he stayed with the same studio and licensors to make his next piece 5 Centimetres per Second in 2007. This 65-minute movie consists of three ‘episodes,’ like three separate chapters within the movie: Cherry Blossom, Cosmonaut, and 5 Centimetres per Second. The romantic drama plot takes place from 1990-2008 and follows a boy named Takaki Tono and his journey to find his way back to his long lost childhood best friend/crush. The anime includes more of his fantastic skyscapes and detailed animation.

His next film, and one of his most famous films, was released in 2013. The Garden of Words is a slice-of-life drama that takes place for the most part in the gorgeous gazebo in the beautiful gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The 46-minute animation follows the lives of two people that often see each other at the gardens, and the film pays homage to the traditional Japanese definition of ‘love’ with beautiful imagery and circumstance. The plot is about a 15-year-old student and future shoemaker and a 27-year-old mysterious woman that shares nothing about herself with the boy. It makes a lot of references to different classic Japanese poems and the animation includes lush greenery and heavy rain, which gives the entire film a calm but slightly sombre atmosphere. The colour palette Shinkai chose was mostly pale and bold greens, but also included some darker greens to add to the slightly gloomy feeling that the rain gives. The emotional atmosphere of the movie is beautifully cultivated by the mix of calming music, dreary colours, and the gorgeous animation of the clouds, plants, rain, puddles, and the detailed and breathtaking backgrounds. In an interview, Shinkai stated that his inspiration for the film came from his appreciation for Tokyo scenery. 

In 2014, some of Shinkai’s artwork and storyboards from She and Her Cat, 5 Centimetres per Second, and The Garden of Words were exhibited in the Ooka Makoto Museum, along with a replication of some shoes that were shown in The Garden of Words.

In 2016, Makoto Shinkai released his biggest and best film yet. Your Name was a full-length romantic fantasy film that featured a lot of the animator’s fantastic cityscapes and skyscapes. The anime follows the lives of a small-town girl and a Tokyo boy, Mitsuha and Taki, who keep switching bodies. The boy eventually figures out that the girl is in danger when they suddenly stop switching, and goes on an adventure to save her. The plot is a reference to the catastrophic eastern Japan earthquake in 2011, and it won 23 awards total, big and small, and became the world’s highest-grossing anime film to date. The movie was captivating and enjoyable to watch because of its emotional depth, realistic detail, and beautiful imagery. Along with the entertaining plot and uses of humour, the movie also keeps our attention by switching between the point of view of both characters.

After Your Name’s big success, Shinkai started working on his next film that was released in 2019 called Weathering with You, another romantic fantasy. The story puts a lot of emphasis on the sky, clouds, rain, stars, and cityscapes, which he was famous for before. The movie follows a poor teenage boy in Tokyo working with an older couple to uncover the mystery of the alleged god-like being ‘Sunshine Girl.’ The movie about extreme weather is a reference to the future of climate change, and by making this film, Shinkai wanted to raise awareness about the issue using his story. The film was captivating because of its modern Tokyo atmosphere, religious aspects, heartfeltness, and details. This movie had an interesting main character that viewers can relate to, and a plot that was easy to follow. The sci-fi themes also make this movie captivating and interesting.

Makoto Shinkai’s next work is set to be released internationally in April of this year. The action fantasy film is called Suzume’s Locking-Up and will follow a 17-year-old girl travelling across Japan to try to close the ‘Disaster Doors.’ Shinkai started planning for this project in January 2020, but it was also put on hold due to the pandemic.

Over his years of animating, Makoto Shinkai started from the bottom and has built a name for himself in the anime industry. He raised the standards of animation by taking his concepts to the next level by working hard so that all of his frames are crisp, clear, and smooth.

Because of his amazing talent and astonishing details in his animation, many people online have been calling him ‘the new Miyazaki,’ who is arguably the most successful animator of his era, and is known for creating the Studio Ghibli productions.

In 2018 an astronomer paid tribute to the animator by naming an asteroid he had discovered after him.

“I want the audience to feel satisfied after watching the film, but at the same time I want them to have certain questions about the time frame so that they want to watch it a few times more and get more detail,” said Shinkai in a 2011 interview.

“I think that if we can keep making great films that people think are great, then maybe we can increase the number of people interested in making animation”.

cover image:  Festival Annecy

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