If there’s one country I think I would rather have been born in, it would be Japan. Why, you ask? The green-tea flavoured kitkats and the cherry-blossom-flavoured ice creams, that’s because. The wonderful and intriguing world of the Geisha and the Onnagata, that’s because. But most of all, it’s their aesthetics that draws me to their culture. I mean who’d have thought three-line haikus could make such a splash (pun very much intended) in the literary scene? Or monster sex, for that matter (look it up, it’s a thing). But I digress. I want talk about the indie filmmaker, Makoto Shinkai, whose works I feel, deserve more attention than they get. Hayao Miyazaki is probably the best known Japanese animated filmmaker outside Japan. But eclipsed by the celebrity of Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro, are films like Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Garden of Words, Voices of a Distant Star and Children Who chase lost voices from down below. Whew, that’s a lot of big names, but the titles belie the sheer simplicity of the stories Shinkai chooses to tell.
Take 5 Centimeters Per Second for instance. The title is a reference to the average speed at which cherry blossoms fall in spring (yes.). I’d like to think of it as a three part poem on love and loss, presented gorgeously with such attention to details that you’d be tempted to pause the movie and look at Train signs (Spoiler: There will be a lot of trains, platforms and train signs in the movie), the buttons and lights on a washing machine, and two cartons of chocolate milk left behind by the protagonist Takaki and his friend Kaho. Every visual element in the movie is painstakingly created so you have a piece of concrete reality before your eyes as you watch the film. The characteristic ambiguities of poetry are woven into the plot, which remains tantalizingly open-ended. Takaki and Akari are best friends at elementary school. At the onset of puberty, they find themselves in love with each other. But loss and separation loom in the horizon and soon they move away from each other. But their lives are shaped by one assiduously planned meeting. A dark, leafless cherry tree, snowflakes wafting down from the clouds, a night spent together in a wooden cabin and the letters they never give each other. In the course of their lives they move to new places, meet new people, but a part of them remains in that snow-enveloped landscape waiting to watch the cherry blossoms in spring, together. It’s as heart-breaking as it is visually stunning. The way the film notes the transition of the seasons, the mists in the winter, the shimmer in the air in Summer, the pink shadows of spring – it’s all mesmerizing. Here’s the trailer:
Like 5 Centimeters, Garden of Words is also about chance meetings, instantaneous connections, an introverted protagonist who’s into designing shoes and breathtakingly beautiful scenes of monsoon in a park. The rain is an important character in the film, and it appears in so many different avatars: raindrops trickling down the sides of transparent umbrellas, splashing on the concrete – everything constructed in meticulous detail. Garden of Words takes the realism of 5 centimeters a bit further, as the details grow more striking, closer to reality. The shots here come to resemble regular film shots. There’s a lot of playing around with the focus, with textures and pace. And it’s only forty minutes long and that’s a pity!
The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Children Who chase lost voices from Down Below are a sci fi flick and a Miyazaki-style fantasy flick respectively. But Shinkai juggles with too many elements in them and unfortunately messes up. While the art salvages the cumbersome plot in the former, the latter is something of a drag. But aesthetically speaking, they are remarkably pleasing to the eye.
Each frame in his films is a work of art and I’m not even exaggerating here. They should be something of an iconic experience for movie-lovers, bibliophiles and people who are obsessed with Japan in an almost unhealthy way (Somewhat like me, I should add).
Psst… Do you know what the best part is? Most of these are available on YouTube (for free)! Feeling lonely on a beautiful April evening? Grab your laptop, phone or desktop (if you’re too enthusiastic, that is) and go binge watch.