Back of the Envelope: Makoto Shinkai and Weather

Makoto Shinkai is well-known in the anime world for creating visually stunning pieces of art head and shoulders above any of the competition. However, the meaning of his works is the matter of some debate. While everyone agrees his movies are all incredibly artistic, many find his movies boring, dull, and confusing. I don’t think they’re wrong – just are looking at Shinakai’s works in a different way than I do.

Shinkai’s movies tend to focus on the everyday and the general atmosphere over other elements such as consistent plot progression and extensive character development. A defining feature of his work, and something I’ve at points discussed elsewhere, is the concept of the “hyperreal” – taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Special. Unique. Idealized. Dream-like. More than real.

Which brings us to Shinkai’s relationship with the weather.

Shinkai 1

The weather is the probably one of the most mundane elements of our lives. We take it for granted. We can watch it every night on the news, check it instantly on our smartphones, and go about our lives simply taking it as a factor that might influence our plans for the day. We usually tend not to pay much heed other than the “Oh, it’s nice outside – let’s go hang out” type of thing, or the random side comment. The changing seasons, such an integral and fascinating part of life, is seen almost as a routine that we endure year after year.

Shinkai 2

Weather is also used all the time in “small talk”, and thus has a special relationship with the especially mundane. “How’s the weather today?” or “The weather’s looking [descriptor] today!” is such a standard fare conversation opener or a space-filler that we sometimes forget that it actually is a huge part of our lives. We domesticate it into the trivialities of our everyday experiences through rituals like these that frequently lose their sense of purpose and depth. In Japan itself, weather takes on an even bigger role in this respect, since discussions of the weather are actually used regularly to open not only everyday conversations but even e-mail exchanges.

Shinkai 3

The human race indeed could be seen as universally connected through our experience of the weather. Mother Nature’s impact on our lives is a phenomenon that reaches all of us, regardless of any factors that separate us. It is thus one of the most relate-able phenomenon imaginable, one that ties us together across space and time, transcending all boundaries we attempt to impose upon it. And we experience it throughout the entire course of our lives, from birth until death, as we walk, run, and stumble through our lives in turn. We in fact dedicate an incredible amount of resources just to control the environment around us, attempting to bend the weather to our will, the better so we can live comfortably, or travel conveniently, or party unconcernedly. We relegate it to the realm of “nuisance”, hoping to remove its influence on our everyday lives so we can plan the rest of it better.

Shinkai 4

Shinkai uses on weather to really bring about this hyperreal effect and accentuate the amount at which we take this phenomenon for granted. His landscapes often take this most mundane aspect of our lives and make them into breathtaking artistic visions that dominate the majority of his movies. He spends a massive amount of time animating the weather in his works and accentuating the effects it has on the characters (e.g. The Garden of Words, 5cm/s) in an attempt to use to create a literary “atmosphere” that pervades the work, the same way that our physical atmosphere pervades our everyday lives.

Shinkai 5

Weather also is a transient phenomenon, a fleeting occurrence that we experience in the moment that is bound never to fully repeat itself. Look at Shinkai’s emphasis on rain, long used as a tool to capture an isolated moment away from the “real world” and push forward chance encounters, or his use of sakura trees, long used in Japan to symbolize ephemerality or transience. These ultimately serve to heighten the “hyperreal” effect as our memories of the past become colored by the present, at the mercy of our ever-shifting perceptions here and now, the “weather of the mind”.

Shinkai 6

All these feelings are combined, synthesized, and expressed in new ways whenever Shinkai uses the weather (and more broadly landscapes in general) in his work.

Shinkai 7

Well, hopefully this post gives some insight into the way I view Shinkai’s films and why I love them so much. I’m always curious to hear your guys’ thoughts on his work as well though, so feel free to leave your opinions on Shinkai and his work in the comments!

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4 responses to “Back of the Envelope: Makoto Shinkai and Weather

  1. First off, I just want to say that this is another really well-written article, so thank you for taking the time to post it up. :)
    I don’t have a very strong opinion either way when it comes to most of Shinkai’s works, and I think that in itself is a problem for me. I watch anime because I’m passionate about it, but there’s been nothing in the majority of Shinkai’s films that have made me feel much of anything. I can greatly appreciate the visual style – to the point where even if the story happened to be crap, I’d watch the whole thing just for the aesthetics of it – but I haven’t found myself very drawn in by his narratives. It’s not as though I’ve thought any of his films were bad… it’s just that I normally don’t find myself caring one way or the other about the story or characters.

    • Thanks again for reading and commenting! :)

      there’s been nothing in the majority of Shinkai’s films that have made me feel much of anything.

      Given that I think how most of Shinkai’s films are actually specifically focused on conjuring up feelings rather than on specifically moving the plot and other related things, this definitely seems like a fundamental disconnect and I’d say a failure of the films to have their desired impact on you. I agree wholeheartedly that the films are gorgeous (and I too would watch them just for the visuals!), but its true that his type of thing tends to subsume the story and the specific characters involved, and so you’re apathy towards them is completely warranted.

  2. When I first started reading manga, and hadn’t really gotten to watching anime religiously, I came across 5cm/s (the manga).
    I loved it.
    So when I found out it had an anime, I had no choice but to watch it :P
    What I find interesting is that I paid no attention to the animation, at all. It could’ve been One Piece-like for all I’d have noticed.
    And so, a few years later, I start getting more and more into anime, and find out that 5cm/s is actually quite hyped, while I thought that it was just another movie that not so much people had seen. Not only that, the director himself was generally well-regarded!
    So when The Garden of Words came out, I watched it and was completely overwhelmed by the beautiful animation of EVERYTHING. I thought “MOAR”. So I watched The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and was…disappointed. Not from the animation, no way, but from the story and pacing and blabla.
    So I rewatch 5cm/s, just to see if the animation was not so special after all…and this time I’m disappointed in myself, for not noticing it at all the first time.
    I forgot what the point I was trying to make was…but whatever. Shinkai is awesome.

    • I don’t know what point you were trying to make either, other than maybe that you don’t appreciate gorgeous animation until you have something to compare it against. But whatever, because I totally agree that Shinkai is awesome :D.

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