12 Days of Anime – Day 6, Shinkai Makoto & the Search for the “Next Miyazaki”

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Kotonoha no Niwa / The Garden of Words

Note: yes, I’ve missed a few days due to a migraine and general laziness. I do have posts for days 4 & 5 in draft form, but I am not happy enough with them to post them just yet.

One of the anime I am most looking forward to watching in the coming year is Shinkai Makoto’s Kimi no Na wa, aka Your NameKimi no Na wa is easily the industry’s greatest sensation of 2016 – with a worldwide gross of over 288 million USD it is not only Shinkai’s most succesful film, but the second-highest grossing Japanese film of all time after Spirited Away. It is no surprise, then, to see another uptick in the comparisons between Shinkai and Miyazaki Hayao, the famous Ghibli director responsible for Spirited Away and many other famous films.

Regardless of whether Miyazaki is actually planning on ever retiring or not, it is clear that he can not keep on making movies forever. This has spurned the obsession over the concept of a “next Miyazaki.” That concept is vague, of course, as Miyazaki means different things to different people, but it seems to me that in the west the whole idea of a next Miyazaki refers to an anime director who can manage to break it into mainstream western film discourse in a way that, well, only Miyazaki has managed. The two candidates talked about the most for this role are Shinkai and Hosoda Mamoru.

So, will Shinkai be the next Miyazaki? Personally, I doubt it. Shinkai himself has of course repeatedly stated that he dislikes the comparison. Whilst some seem to believe that Shinkai is merely being humble, his reasoning is really quite a bit more complex than that.

And one more thing. The Miyazaki works that people know abroad and my own works are very different in style. I depict the local world of Japan. My backgrounds are full of Japanese traffic lights, Japanese vending machines, commuter train lines like the Saikyō Line, everyday buildings around Tokyo. I think it’s because my “touch” is so different from the worldview and imagery you see in Studio Ghibli works that I’ve been lucky enough to register as a “next-generation” director.

Even today, though, I think I’m still perceived overseas as something of a cult figure that people who are into niche or relatively unknown works can enjoy. So for instance, even if Your Name is a hit overseas and pushes up my audience figures, the core essence of my work is not going to change. That’s why I personally don’t think my works are going to reach a different kind of audience in the future than they have already.

Quite simply put, Shinkai and Miyazaki are two very different directors. Miyazaki’s visual style is far more influenced by the west: the influences of western fantasy, animation, art, and architecture are easy to see in almost all of his works. Miyazaki’s films feature lush storybook settings, in contrast to the hyper-realistic depictions of 21st century Japan found in Shinkai’s films. Miyazaki’s character design style has changed little since he started his animation career working on anime such as the obviously European-influenced Heidi, Girl of the Alps, resulting in designs that seem familiar to western audiences. Shinkai’s characters on the other hand are far more close in style to the contemporary norm in anime character design.

The differences is more than just skin-deeps. Miyazaki’s most succesful films – Spirited Away, Castle in the SkyKiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, et cetera – are made to appeal both to children and to adults by invoking memories of a sense of childhood wonderment. In contrast, Shinkai reflects not the wonderment of childhood but the romance and the melancholy of adolescence and young adulthood in 5 Centimeters per Second and The Garden of Words.

In a way, Miyazaki reflects the origins of anime: a medium born from the work of artists such as himself who, following the defeat and destruction of WWII, looked to the outside world for inspiration and exploration. Shinkai instead reflects a far more Japanese artistic strain: anime today is more mature than it was in the days of Heidi, with well-established artistic styles and tropes. Shinkai also reflects modern Japan as a whole, a nation that is aging yet proud in its traditions and aesthetics. There are exceptions, of course, for both directors – Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is no kids’ movie, whilst Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices is downright Ghibli-esque, replete with fantastical settings and designs – but the overall preferences of the two men are quite clear to see based on the works they are most famous for.

Any notion that Shinkai’s anime are too Japanese to be succesful in foreign markets has clearly been put to rest by the immense success of Kimi no Na wa in East Asia (particularly China), but I personally don’t think that it will enjoy quite the same level of popularity in the west as Miyazaki’s films have. Miyazaki’s combination of western visuals and childhood stories are simply a better fit for the market than Shinkai’s stories of Japanese teenagers.

If not Shinkai, however, who else – Hosoda, perhaps? Hosoda’s films are tonally more similar to Miyazaki’s, after all. However, in my view, there probably won’t be any “new Miyazaki.” Think about this: how many non-American, non-Western European directors – animation or otherwise – are genuinely mainstream? Not many. Very few directors of any kind from Asia have become big names in the west.

The only Japanese live-action director to become properly mainstream was Kurosawa Akira. Kurosawa dominates western discussion of Japanese film industry. He was hugely influential in the west in a way that no other Japanese director can match. The Japanese film industry did not end when Kurosawa retired, but there was no “next Kurosawa.”

The western anime fandom is a fandom that is still in its childhood, and as such craves approval from both the western film critic community and the western mainstream as a whole. Miyazaki offered a road to such approval in a way that no anime director managed to do beforehand. Ironically, Miyazaki is perhaps the closest thing we have to a “next Kurosawa” figure.

The “next Miyazaki” role is one that is incredibly difficult to fill, and will probably never be filled. That’s OK. Shinkai is not the next Miyazaki, Shinkai is Shinkai. I actually am not a huge fan of most of his films apart from The Garden of Words, but I enjoy the fact that he offers a style and tone in his films that is very distinct from both Miyazaki and anything in the west. Rather than pigeonholing people into specific roles and craving acceptance from the mainstream, we should embrace the diversity found in anime. If someone can truly follow up on Miyazaki’s style and achieve the same success as him, that’s great, but the current crop of anime directors should not be disparaged for not continuing his legacy.

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3 thoughts on “12 Days of Anime – Day 6, Shinkai Makoto & the Search for the “Next Miyazaki”

  1. “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken.”

    Yes, there will be no “next Miyazaki” and that is for the best.

    Shinkai offers a unique perspective and is appreciated for it.

    “Whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

    He actually does not want his new film to become too popular.

    However, the futile search for the “next Miyazaki” is good in itself because it may force people to examine the scope of the modern anime more carefully.

    Yes, there will be no “next WoW”, but there will be FFXIV, DFO, and Cyberpunk 2077.

    Like

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