The Part of Your Name That Could Only Be Expressed in a Novel
- Interview with Director Makoto Shinkai (Part I)
Director Makoto Shinkai’s newest animated film “Your Name” was released on August 26. With 13.54 million tickets sold and over 17.6 billion yen in box office revenue, the film is already one of the biggest hits of the year and has appeared at the top of movie rankings in Japan for nine consecutive weeks. Moreover, the film is already being talked about all over the world for winning Best Animated Film at the 49th Sitges Film Festival in Spain. Unfortunately, the film is out of the running for the SUGOI JAPAN Award 2017 for anime*, but the novel “Your Name” specially written by director Shinkai has been nominated in the entertainment category. The novel, yet another new work by director Shinkai who was fastidious about showing a “form of expression that can only be achieved through a novel,” sold 500,000 copies even before the film’s release, and after its release sales soared to 1.3 million.
In celebration of the nomination, we sat down for a two-part interview with “novelist” Shinkai. In this second part, we ask director Shinkai about the music used in his work and how “Your Name” is being received overseas.
Filling each section of the text with fragments of consolation and encouragement - all to create a novel in which people can find what they are searching for
The process of writing the novel Your Name added even more depth to the film
-- In the afterword of the novel “Your Name”, you explained how you didn’t originally intend to write a novel, as you considered an animated film to be the most suitable media for this title. Did you make any new discoveries after you started writing?
Shinkai - My first discovery would be the fact that I really do enjoy writing. The experience made me remember just how much I like composing texts and creating stories that are based on those texts.
In the past, I’ve written novels including “5 Centimeters Per Second” and also “The Garden of Words”. But in both cases, I only started writing after the films were finished. After hearing the feedback and the impressions of those who saw the film, I would move in a new direction for the novel and focus on offering something that differed from the film. Honestly, I was hesitant about working on the novel and the film simultaneously this time. With that being said, I do believe that writing the novel allowed me to add more depth to the film in the end.
As I wrote, I gradually became aware of how little I knew about Taki and Mitsuha. In the case of films - without taking the occasional monologue into consideration - the plot can progress even with just simple conversation. Novels, on the other hand, require a variety of additional details and descriptions to illustrate exactly how each character feels, and what they are really like inside. This means that readers of the novel can naturally gain a better understanding of the characters’ emotions compared to viewers of the film, who can only follow along with what is written in the script. I felt as if the thoughts hidden within each line, as well as the feelings of each character in each scene, were revealed to me again through the process of writing the novel. By carefully linking together the emotions of Taki and Mitsuha, I was able to understand who they were.
-- Could you provide a more specific example of what made you feel that way?
Shinkai - It’s written in the afterword as well, but Mitsuha’s optimism made quite an impression on me [laughs]. Even after being thrown into the life of someone of the opposite gender in Tokyo, she’s able to quickly adapt without thinking too much, and enjoy the experience to the fullest. The same cannot be said about Taki, though. He’s just a boy who doesn’t understand how to treat women properly at all. Honestly, I didn’t know he liked girls with long black hair so much until it came to me in the novel [laughs]. When I was working on the script for the film, I didn’t think too deeply into how surprisingly strict Mitsuha is with financial matters, or the fact that she only indulged herself in her dreams because everything was paid for using someone else’s money. There are other elements as well - such as the websites that Mitsuha shared with Taki for his date with Okudera-Senpai - that would come around to serve a different purpose later on in the novel [laughs]. Coming across possibilities that I would never have imagined if I hadn’t written the novel made the process particularly interesting.
In a novel, a single sentence can add so much potential to any character. In comparison, even adding a single cut to the film would require the assistance of many others, and also take an extended amount of time. While working on the novel, I was free from such constraints. I loved having the freedom to pursue the reality behind each character.
-- How did the process of writing the novel affect the process of creating the film?
Shinkai - Well, it certainly had a significant impact on the voice acting. When the novel was finished, we were also approaching the end of the film production. At that time, we hadn’t started on the dubbing process at all. Although the novel didn’t lead to any modifications to the images, it did have a notable effect on the instructions provided to Kamiki-kun (Ryunosuke Kamiki), Mone-chan (Mone Kamishiraishi), and the other voice actors and actresses. A deeper understanding of each character from the novel made the intentions behind each line easier to grasp, and made each line even more significant in meaning. It led me to think that maybe working on the novel and the film at the same time isn’t such a bad idea. It sure was an exhausting process, though [laughs].
Just a few words can spark sensations and expand horizons
-- In your first interview with “SUGOI JAPAN” back in 2014, you explained how you strive to present what is unique about each form of media, such as movies, novels, and commercials. Is there anything you focused on this time with “Your Name”?
Shinkai - Even for my other works, I tend to focus on figurative expressions. “Like a breastfed infant gently caressed in the bosom of their mother, I had not even a trace of uneasiness or loneliness”. That’s what is found at the very beginning of the novel, “Your Name”, and I consider the possibility of including such expressions to be the allure of writing. Through this single sentence, memories of one’s mother, the soft scent of milk, and fleeting scenes of childhood can all be summoned and revisited by the reader. The same cannot be done in films, as a nostalgic image is often not enough to revive the infantile memories of the viewers.
Another example would be Mitsuha’s reaction in Taki’s body when she is held by his friend Tsukasa. While her squeal demonstrates her surprise, the novel does much more to show those particular feelings of space and tension that are exclusive to those at the age of puberty. In the text, Tsukasa was “smiling just close enough for his forelocks to barely brush against my own”. Through these words, the text is able to spark sensations that readers have felt in their previous personal experiences. I do believe the opportunity of using figurative expressions like this is a privilege available only to writers. Therefore, I decided to include them at least once every couple of pages.
-- How do you feel about the imagery in your works? Your films are celebrated for the incredible beauty of each scene, and your novels are known to assemble visions that are brimming with emotion. How different is the process of presenting ideas through images compared to that of presenting through words?
Shinkai - To be honest, imagery is something that I find quite troublesome when it comes to novels. Showing the audience an image is much quicker, and with the help of other staff members who specialize in film production, I can present images that are as elaborate as I can imagine them to be. Trying to show readers the same image through words just isn’t as cost effective [laughs]. I don’t want the audience to praise only my films and consider my novels as a downgrade. So, I make sure to express my ideas through words to the very best of my ability.
Regarding the differences in expression and presentation, well, I don’t believe there is much of a difference. As Taki stood alone on the pedestrian bridge, he observed the sunset “as if he were the only one left behind by the passing of summer”. When an artist draws out this particular scene, even without the involvement of words, their thoughts should be very similar to those of the writer who described the scene through text. The output format would be the only difference. This is because the emotions that are felt remain alike, regardless of whether the final result is an image or novel. Even if director Shunji Iwai and other directors were to write a novel, I believe their approach would stay unchanged. Similarly, novelists who decide to create images through film or other media formats would have a strong grasp of the emotions that are involved and also required. For me, it just happens to be that my experience in writing allows me to process thoughts into words with more smoothness and ease than other forms of output. I think the ability to create and present imagery itself is one that transcends the boundaries of media formats.
-- How have your experiences with your two previous novels affected “Your Name”, your latest title?
Shinkai - My experience with “The Garden of Words” was especially beneficial, as the process of writing it allowed me to recognize my personal literary style. As for “5 Centimeters Per Second”, the impact that my favorite authors - such as Haruki Murakami and Mitsuyo Kakuta - had on my work was so great that I feel slightly embarrassed to even mention it. Even now, the novels that I read continue to influence my work. I have now become capable of generating my own type of flow that I feel comfortable working with, though.
My series on Da Vinci Magazine also had a considerable effect. Until that point in time, I would take two or three years to create stories that could be made into films. Images of the content would come first. For the serialized version of “The Garden of Words”, however, I had to provide a short story each month with different narrators for almost an entire year in an omnibus format. As I completed each story, I would feel increasingly capable as an author. For each main character, I interviewed real people who worked in the same position for information. They could be shoemakers, high school teachers, or businessmen working in telecommunications. The process was less like filmmaking and more about continuing to create numerous new stories. As time passed, I was able to develop my personal writing style, and also gain the confidence to create my very own stories from scratch. In my mind, the accumulation of all my experiences is what allowed for the creation of the film, “Your Name”.
-- What do you value the most when you interview others to gather information?
Shinkai - The questions I ask revolve around the best and the worst experiences people have in life, regardless of their profession.
I want to know what causes the strongest emotional reactions, and I strive to describe them to the audience as well. When I visit the theater, I’m always there in search of something. That something could be a diversion from troublesome situations at work, or maybe a hint that offers guidance to the mysteries of life. I have hope that films will present something that I need. When everything in life is moving along smoothly, I would never consider going to the theater [laughs]. The same goes for reading as well, since I read the most when I want answers. My goal is to create that something in films and novels that people are searching for. To achieve that goal, it is very important for me to understand the best and the worst, to know what causes joy and heartbreak.
-- Are there any differences between the moments when you want to watch a film and the moments when you want to read a novel?
Shinkai - What I look for in novels is a sense of assurance. In “The Garden of Words”, Yukino states that “we are all slightly odd in our very own ways”. From that statement, I feel assured that it’s acceptable for me to be odd as well. Mitsuha also offers assurance in “Your Name” by regaining composure after a fall, and convincing herself that there is nothing to be afraid of - that everything would be fine. When I read novels, I want to know that everything is going to be fine. I want to experience something that pushes me forwards.
As for films, what’s important is the ability of a film to set off the emotions of the audience. Film is a form of media that conveys meaning over a progression of time. Since it’s assumed that one will watch a film from start to finish in one sitting, the director can apply devices and technologies to control what the audience feels. The director can shape their film to trigger feelings precisely when they want to, and cause waves of changing emotions where they prefer. This amount of control is not available to authors, though, as the number of pages that are read and the location in which a reader will pick up the novel differs for each person. In other words, those who write novels have no guarantee that the reader will experience their work according to their original designs. For this very reason, I want to provide my readers with enough consolation and encouragement regardless of the number of pages they read in each sitting. This is something that’s always in my mind when I write.
Interview conducted at the Toho Main Office on October 4, 2016
Text by Tachibana Momo
Photography by Tominaga Tomoko
Translated by Tokyo Otaku Mode Inc.
*The eligibility period for the anime category ran from July 1, 2015 to July 31, 2016. Since “Your Name” was released on August 26, 2016 it missed to cut-off date to be nominated this year.
**Box office revenue, tickets sold, and other figures are current as of November 3.
Born in 1973 in Nagano Prefecture. Animation director and novelist. Shinkai debuted in 2002 with his original anime “Voices of a Distant Star”. Since then, he has gained considerably high support both within Japan and abroad as a next gen director for his works including “The Place Promised in Our Early Days”, “5 Centimeters Per Second”, “Children Who Chase Lost Voices”, and others. In 2012, director Shinkai received a thank-you letter from the Cabinet Secretariat’s National Policy Unit for his role in energetically bringing Japan to the world. In 2013, his film “The Garden of Words” was released countrywide and went on to win the Grand Prix award in the AniMovie category at the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film in Germany. As of November 3, his newest film “Your Name” has topped film rankings in Japan for nine consecutive weeks, having sold 13.54 million tickets and earned 17.6 billion yen in box office revenue. Moreover, the novel “Your Name” sold 500,000 copies even before the movie’s release and jumped to 1.3 million sold after. The film also won the award for Best Animated Film at the 49th Sitges Film Festival in Spain in October and has been nominated for the Official Competition of the 60th BFI London Film Festival, a historic first for a feature-length animation.