We spoke to Makoto Shinkai about gender swapping, miscommunication and the worry of losing ancient tradition.
Since Hayao Miyazaki announced the last of his many "retirements", all eyes have been on the Japanese film industry to see who's going to ensure the country's anime remains the best on the globe. Many have already decided that Makoto Shinkai is that talent.
His new film Your Name has been an extraordinary success in Japan, at the top of the box office for weeks after its August release. Hordes of teenage fans have been travelling to the real locations shown in the film and getting pictures of themselves in situ. It's a film animated with Tumblr in mind – its re-bloggable pastel skies, GIFable comets and falling leaves have been all over social media. Shinkai has said that Interstellar by Christopher Nolan was an influence, and you can tell from the cosmic otherworldly stills.
Complete with a pop-punk soundtrack and almost-adult jokes, Your Name is something like an animated teen movie. But in feeling, concept and high-sheen finish, Shinkai's work isn't comparable to anyone, which is probably why he's attracting the crude "next Miyazaki" label.
The story follows a teenage boy and girl who have never met, but who start to periodically wake up in each other's bodies and have to live each other's lives. Mitsuha, a teenage girl student, lives in a small mountain town, but longs for the excitement of Tokyo, Taki's home.
Gender swapping is cliché in American cinema – Freaky Friday, It's a Boy Girl Thing, Like Father, Like Son – while in Japan it's popular in novels, and Shinkai was honing in on that trend.
"The goal with the gender swapping theme is: how do they get back to what they used to be? I wanted to surprise an audience," he says through an interpreter when we meet at a hotel in Leicester Square. The implication from the start is that they'll eventually meet romantically, and just need to cross paths by chance to do so. "I think that's a universal theme, you know, we don't know who we're going to meet tomorrow," he says. "And that person might change your life entirely. There's always that possibility, and while you're not necessarily actively seeking it, you have that desire deep down."
The script took six months to write and began with a Waka poem, a classical type of Japanese poetry, by an author called Ono no Komachi. "
I was sat thinking about how to tell a story of meeting someone you'd never met before and reading this beautiful poem," says Shinkai. "It read something like, 'I met someone in my dream, and had I known it was a dream, I would have stayed there.' So I thought, 'Right, dreams can work here.'"
It's during the night, when asleep, that the two characters body swap and, later, dreams and life become entangled until you're not sure what's real and what's not.
Just as the pop-punk juxtaposes with the quaint landscapes, in Your Name a new modern Japan and a more traditional Japan are fighting each other for recognition. Mitsuha is involved in various ancient Shinto traditions practised in her rural home, but the teenagers in the film largely dismiss them.
"I was dealing with forgetting and not forgetting how to pass things to the next generation," says Shinkai of this theme. "The grandmother in this film, she's trying as hard as she can to give traditions on to her granddaughters, but inevitably you can't pass everything on. Nothing is perfect – there's fire, there's reluctance, there's this and that, things get lost."
The vulnerability of traditional Japan is shown in a more literal way by the comet that threatens to destroy Mitsuha's hometown. There's a line in the film – "You never know when Tokyo will go" – that reveals the safety that can never be taken for granted in a place where the threat of natural disasters is constant.
"One of the inspirations for the film was the earthquake in 2011," Shinkai explains. "It was the largest in a thousand years, and there was something similar 1,000 years ago, which we all forgot about. But if you look closer there were warnings, like stone inscriptions in the cave in the film: don't live in this valley. But we forget those warnings, or dismiss them as something 'from the ancient times'. We think they're just dangers from the past. When we have a disaster in Japan, I wonder, how can we prevent our lives and traditions and history from the disaster?"
The teenagers in the film are growing up in a changing world, and you wonder whether they'll pass on the few pieces of tradition they do know or rebel completely. That's a question left unanswered, although Shinkai did model the characters on himself, and he was definitely in the latter camp.
"The character Mitsuha, where she shouts, 'Right, I hate this countryside, I'm going to Tokyo!' That's actually me at high school. I grew up in the countryside and wanted to go to Tokyo. I had Tokyo complex. I didn't really research actual teenagers and I definitely didn't go to the countryside and speak to students. I'm 43 years old and I use my imagination to create the teens I want in my stories. Young people love my film, so I think I've done a good job."
In a similar way that Miyazaki focused on young women as his lead characters, Shinkai has created solid, believable girls here. "Some people say, 'Well you're a man, how do you write about women or girls when you don't know about them?' Well, I've got my imagination and I can write about women. Yes I'll never be pregnant and give birth to children, but I can imagine a bit of what it's like. When you create characters, it's just about making them really real to people."
His films might not be as sincere in tone as Miyazaki's, but if his characters remain as authentic as the ones in Your Name, it's inevitable he'll come to be an important figure in the modern anime canon.
'Your Name' is released in UK cinemas on November 24th.
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