Taki and Mitsuha leave their apartments. They enter different subway stations. Taki looks out of the train window at the speeding locomotives. Mitsuha gazes out of her train window as well. Miraculously, the two trains become parallel in their trajectories for a fleeting moment. Mitsuha and Taki see each other, their faces barely inches apart. Their eyes widen with recognition and their jaws drop in amazement… but before they have fully registered the moment, the tracks diverge and their trains split into two different directions. The inches turn to kilometres as unforgiving distance fills in the gap, which goes on widening.
Arguably the most successful anime filmmaker of this century, Shinkai shot to global fame with his 2016 teenage romance/fantasy film Your Name, which remains the third highest grossing anime film of all time. Since then, Shinkai’s past projects as well as his latest Weathering With You (2019) have garnered copious love from dedicated fans around the world. Some common themes prevail in his bittersweet stories of adolescent love and longing, set against meticulously animated backdrops of glistening cityscapes and painterly countrysides. However, more than anything else, his work is afflicted by the crushing omnipresence of distance.
Makoto Shinkai is obsessed with the idea of distance, and one can see this obsession reflected in everything he creates. Even his first commissioned project from 2002, Voices of a Distant Star, is little more than a heart-rending montage of a boy receiving irregular communication from his childhood love, who travels deeper and deeper into space to engage in intergalactic battle. Since then, he has often made films about young friends growing apart with time, moving away from each other, or taking arduous journeys together. In many different, exciting forms, the theme of distance has always worked its way into Shinkai’s stories to the extent where the quintessential idea of Shinkai always involves the concept of physical space or temporal displacement tormenting his characters.
Shinkai has a tendency to dramatize the conflict between (and inside) his characters by rendering physical manifestations of it in the form of distance. In 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), Takaki plans to travel to his friend’s city over the course of an excruciatingly long evening before they are separated, seemingly forever. The difficult journey has a heavy personal meaning for Takaki: it represents his will to continue making efforts to keep their love alive even as they move away further from each other. Shinkai depicts this determination, and the trials and tribulations of the coming journey, in a single shot of Takaki’s fingers tracing the train’s lengthy path across multitudes of stations on a map of metro routes with a marker. Here, it is not just the intimidating and metaphorical distance that lies ahead which is of significance, but also the threat of an unconquerable distance that will soon exist between the two lovers.
This is precisely what makes Shinkai’s infatuation with distances so enticing. He has a different interpretation of distance for every novel instance or situation. Sometimes, it is a looming distance which threatens to separate two lovers forever. At other times, it is a journey of growth that a character must traverse. In the immensely popular Your Name, the distance is temporal, with the two connected characters stuck in different times rather than time zones, apart from being situated in distant and highly contrasting environments of bustling Tokyo and a sleepy little town. This overbearing prevalence of vast spaces masterfully extracts feelings of longing, transfixing viewers in a melancholic reverie that feels like reaching for something you deeply desire, but cannot touch. On top of that, ample shots of expansive and beautifully variegated skies mirror the feelings of yearning, isolation, and cosmic insignificance that his stories inspire.
And that brings us to the sky.
Every master craftsman has his set of preferred tools, and Shinkai’s most used is the sky. Perhaps it is so because there is nothing else that captures his stories’ relentlessly grand emotions quite like a boundless stretch of vibrantly painted airspace filled with enormous cumulonimbus clouds. This constant use of stunning long shots of mesmerising skies is perhaps most prominent in Weathering With You, where the sky is no less than a living character. Interestingly, Shinkai separates his characters in this film with vertical distance, when the heavens amidst the clouds steal away the protagonist’s love from him. In Your Name, however, the effect of the sky is opposite. It’s almost reassuring for the film’s two leads to know, no matter how far they are, they are looking up at the same sky arching over both of them.
Shinkai often depicts solitary birds flying in various moody skies, depending on the sentiments of that particular scene. In fact, he loves to launch high velocity projectiles, man-made – like satellites and rockets, or natural – like meteors, cutting through his picturesque skies. He attributes a lot of significance to these starry travellers, often suspending time in moments of arresting beauty which totally captivate his characters and viewers alike. In a way, these rockets and meteors shooting through the universe are a perfect metaphor for his characters’ troubled relationship with distances. They can represent complete freedom, or an unending voyage with an imperceptible destination, or an insignificant spark in an immense universe, depending on who is gazing at them. In 5 Centimeters, Takaki’s eventual moving on from his childhood love is mirrored by a space probe exiting the solar system, whose launch he witnessed several years ago. In Voices of a Distant Star, the space-travelling mecha-robot piloted by a young girl will always leave her closest friend back home looking longingly to the stars. If not rockets, clouds, or meteors, it is trains which streak across Shinkai’s scenic horizons. What instrument is better to portray the transience of bliss than trains, terrible agents of distance who take away those you cherish across fields and mountains in a matter of minutes.
The ever present distances in Makoto Shinkai’s art are a stunning challenge that his characters are doomed to struggle with. His visuals of vast expanses are often contrasted with dreamy shots of nonchalant objects. By giving the same value as his characters to ordinary things, Shinkai contextualizes the diminished significance or powerlessness of his protagonists in the face of immense distances. He uses these physical deterrents to realise their desperate efforts to maintain connection, or undertake laborious individual odysseys.
‘Even after thousands of message exchanges, our hearts have grown closer only by 1 centimeter,’ Takaki reads on his phone.
Shinkai’s formidable distances are not undone by modern technology either, which serves only a perverse purpose in his films: accentuating the lack of connection between his characters. ‘When did I start writing messages that I can never send?’ Takaki thinks to himself, before hitting DELETE instead of SEND on his cellphone. Shinkai’s characters could be so close, yet they remain far apart. There is always a crushing, romanticised distance that exists in between.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.