Makoto Shinkai movies always have outlandishly beautiful skies. If you think this is what a shooting star looks like in real life, prepare for disappointment.

Your Name is the most exciting animated movie I’ve seen in years

This is not a review of Your Name (Kimi no Na wa), the film by Makoto Shinkai that came out last year and is finally showing in theaters in the US. If you want a review here it is: The movie is a excellent and you should seek it out if it is playing anywhere near you (and soon, as it’s almost at the end of its US theatrical run). That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though given that more or less everyone has loved the movie and it’s sitting at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Your Name hasn’t just been a critical success though. The real news has been its incredible box office run. Your Name is now the highest grossing anime film ever, which has prompted numerous comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki’s international critical fame and commercial success. I expect much of that comparison stems from the fact that Miyazaki is the best known anime director and international readers would have a harder time with a comparison to say, Oscar-winning director Kunio Kato. To me, Miyazaki and Shinkai are extremely different directors and the comparison isn’t particularly insightful. I’ll do my best to place Your Name in a more illuminating context in anime, animation, and movies in general.

Note: Minor spoilers follow. Honestly, I think the trailer might spoil more, but if you want to watch this movie completely blind, stop reading and watch it now!

Makoto Shinkai is an interesting director because his films are pretty similar to one another. They touch on common themes of longing, distance, communication, and especially time. With the exception of Children Who Chase Lost Voices and Voices of a Distant Star, all of his films take place in contemporary Japan. What set Your Name apart for me is how (to use an incredibly cliche phrase) epic it feels. Shinkai has always loved immense sweeping shots of the sky but the shots in Your Name of the comet streaking through the sky feel more dynamic than anything he’s done before. The plot of Your Name is intricate and twisting, instead of the extremely straightforward narratives of his previous movies. The soundtrack feels huge as well. Japanese rock band RADWIMPS provides music for the film, a jarring contrast to the restrained piano Shinkai has used in his previous works. Shinkai has occasionally used vocal music to highlight emotional moments in past films as well, but the vocal music in Your Name is far more pervasive and aggressive than the soft ballads used in prior works. Not only does Your Name feel bigger and bolder than any of Shinkai’s past films, but it feels bigger than any other animated film I’ve seen in years. I’ll examine the film in ever-broadening layers, comparing it to other anime, other animation, and finally other movies in general.

The soundtrack is more energetic and orchestral than in previous movies which used more piano tracks

Your Name is an epic anime movie about contemporary Japan. That’s never been done before.

Shinkai’s spectacular animation enhances the movie’s feeling of grandeur. His penchant for giant wide angle shots is well known. But while his previous movies were intimate character studies, Your Name expands into a much larger and wilder story. Thus the huge shots set the tone for the movie, rather than being pleasant eye candy while two characters have a conversation.

Other anime directors rarely utilize these sorts of giant shots. Mamoru Hosada has been making brilliant movies about families and relationships, and Satoshi Kon made films exploring psychology and media but none of those feel massive. Katsuhiro Otomo made Steamboy which had lots of explosions (and was incredibly expensive to make) but it still feels like a generic action movie. Probably the only anime director that achieves a similar feeling of scope is Hayao Miyazaki. He’s made several famous epics such as Princess Mononoke, but many of his movies are much smaller and focus on smaller stories. Additionally, Your Name feels like it gets bigger and bigger. It starts as a high school romantic comedy and by the end of the movie those early scenes feel like they’re from a different movie. In a movie like Redline by Takeshi Koike, the film starts with a giant, explosion-filled scene. Sure, there are more explosions by the end than in the beginning, but the sense of progression isn’t as vast.

Your Name also feels huge because it takes place in contemporary Japan. Miyazaki’s epics like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind all take place in exotic fantasy worlds. While that movie builds and builds to a crescendo, the audience is more ready for it. You are more likely to expect a giant battle in a movie that takes place in a fantasy world than a romantic comedy building into the events of the later parts of Your Name.

Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata presents the most interesting contrast to Shinkai. As I mentioned before, very few of Miyazaki’s films take place in contemporary Japan, and those that do, like My Neighbor Totoro, have such an element of the fantastical that they clearly don’t take place in the real world. Even a film like The Wind Rises, which is a biography of a actual historical figure, has a strong fantastical element. By contrast, Takahata set many of his films in realistic Japanese settings. Yet Takahata consistently embraced minimalism in his animation. Contrast these two similar wide shots, one from Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and the other from Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second:

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
5 Centimeters Per Second

Takahata’s shot is stripped back, with the most essential elements of the shot highlighted in color while the rest of the frame is grey. Shinkai’s shot is ridiculously colorful for a scene at night, complete with a giant lens flare. Here’s how they handle medium range shots — see if you can guess which director each movie belongs to:

Garden of Words
Only Yesterday

There are a variety of reasons one might use animation instead of conventional live action to tell a story. A classic reason is that the story is extremely difficult to portray convincingly in live action (for example, any tale about talking animals). When animation is used to tell stories that could just have easily been told with live action, it still offers advantages. Since animation can be edited with frame-by-frame precision, you can pull off tricks that are impossible in live action. Director Satoshi Kon for example used impossibly quick motions to highlight important details, and set up chains of match cuts which would be extremely challenging to execute in a live action film.

Every Frame a Painting discusses animation tricks far better than I can

Shinkai appears to favor animation for a different reason. Your Name could have been filmed in live action (and there are already rumors swirling of live-action adaptations). Filming it in animation allowed the film to be bigger, more beautiful, and much cheaper to film. Animation transformed a movie that would likely have been shot as a conventional romantic comedy with several constructed sets into a movie with massive vistas that takes place in numerous locations across Japan. Shinkai’s embrace of computer-aided animation techniques allows him to make gorgeous movies while on a tight budget.

Your Name embraces CGI

Animated films in the past have been limited by the challenges of hand-drawn animation. It’s hard to do an epic movie like Lord of the Rings in traditional animation because drawing ten thousand orcs in a giant battle isn’t really viable. That’s why Mulan for example only ever shows about ten soldiers at a time — whenever there’s a larger group of people in the movie, they are computer generated. That’s also why Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s grand traditionally animated tale set against a backdrop of war, was at the time the most expensive anime movie ever made.

As Hollywood has moved entirely towards CGI films, traditionally animated movies are now essentially only made overseas, typically with much smaller budgets than their Hollywood counterparts of the 1990s. For example, Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second came out in 2007 with a budget less than one tenth of The Simpsons Movie (up to 250 times less, depending on what source you look at), another 2D animated film that came out that same year. Last year, the only American 2D animated movie that came out in theaters was Batman: The Killing Joke, which was originally planned as a direct-to-video release anyway.

Disney has embarked on a campaign to transform previously traditionally animated movies into CGI-filled live action extravaganzas. Meanwhile, animated CGI movies dominate the box office. Traditional animation currently faces an existential dilemma. Why make traditionally animated movies on tiny budgets when computer animation is now both incredibly sophisticated and incredibly successful?

A depiction of a forest from Song of the Sea by Cartoon Saloon

One common approach in contemporary animation has been to emphasize artistic qualities that are only possible in 2D animation. For example, Cartoon Saloon has created a unique highly stylized look that emphasizes the two-dimensional nature of the medium. Sylvain Chomet makes his movies look like deliberate caricatures, with intentionally cartoonish character designs and settings that have scrawling line work. Interestingly, last year Isao Takahata’s minimalist style enjoyed something of a resurgence with The Red Turtle and Long Way North both earning praise from the director.

One of many minimalist shots in The Red Turtle

In Japan however, traditional animation seems better established and remains very popular. Outside of a few animators like Maasaki Yuasa, most animation looks less stylized. Making traditional animation that looks “normal” demands one of two approaches. The first, followed by Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki and Takahata’s studio) and almost nobody else is to hand-draw as much as possible, with some cost-saving assistance from computers. Studio Ghibli is the most famous anime studio in the world, so only they have the budget to attempt this approach. This is prohibitively expensive however, even for Studio Ghibli. The studio is in financial trouble and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the most expensive anime movie ever made.

The alternative approach is to use computer technology to make traditional animation easier, cheaper, and better looking. Most contemporary directors do this. Yet nobody has embraced computer-enhanced animation as skillfully as Shinkai. The key to Shinkai’s look is that he makes computer generated aspects look more like they are hand drawn, and hand-drawn aspects look more like they are computer-generated.

A scene from 5 Centimeters Per Second

For example, look at the above scene. How much of this is CGI? In fact, almost all of it. The train is computer generated, but cell-shaded so that it looks more like it is drawn. Shinkai has also layered a ton of computer generated lighting effects, lens flares, and environmental effects like snow in this scene. He uses those same effects when there are more traditionally animated figures. Here is a shot shortly afterwards where the focus isn’t a CGI train, but drawn characters:

The characters are created using a completely different technique than the train, but look similar

Here we have hand-drawn characters but once again, Shinkai layers a ton of lighting and environmental effects on top of them. As a result, the 3D train and the 2D characters look completely congruent even though they were animated with very different techniques. The reason this works is that Shinkai uses computer effects constantly throughout his films. He makes entirely computer generated objects look as traditionally animated as possible, and traditionally animated objects look more like they have been computer generated. Shinkai is a perfectionist who reportedly checks every frame to make sure the lighting effects are consistent. In an excellent interview, he discusses how to manipulate CGI so it fits clearly into either the foreground or the background:

Animation is created from two elements, the characters and the background. Since the intrinsic feel of 3DCG is different from either of those elements, if it’s just used as-is it introduces an unwanted third element to the animation. In other words, it prevents the animation from feeling like a unified whole. To prevent this, when using 3DCG, I try as much as possible to make it look like either part of the cel or the background… When using CG models for a flock of swallows, I use cel shading to make it look like the models are part of the cel... For a turning windmill, I use texture mapping with background art to make the 3D object appear more like the background.

In the past, CGI has been used only when traditional animation techniques were insufficient. This approach means that CGI almost inevitably sticks out like a sore thumb. When most of a movie has no computer effects, any computer effects look weird. If the entire movie has lots of computer effects, you can vary the amount of CGI in any given scene and still maintain a consistent look. Contrast the shots from 5 Centimeters per Second with this famous scene from Beauty and the Beast:

The famous dance scene from Beauty and the Beast

The Beast and Belle are traditionally animated, as they have been throughout the whole movie, but the background and grand piano are obviously CGI. The problem here isn’t just that none of the background looks like it could have been drawn at all — it’s that Belle and the Beast don’t look like they could possibly have been computer generated. The dance sequence features extensive CGI because it was too challenging to do entirely by hand. While it looks amazing, it doesn’t fit aesthetically with the rest of the movie.

Disney used the “CGI-only-as-needed” approach throughout their animated classics of the 1990s, where everything is traditional except when it randomly isn’t. Disney stopped making traditionally animated movies in 2009, but a lot of Japanese animation continued that failure of integration. Even The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, with its spectacular dedication to traditional craftsmanship, at one point abruptly starts using CGI for a particularly complicated scene. It is unsurprisingly jarring and out of place.

The look Shinkai achieves by blurring the line between CGI and traditional animation isn’t just incredibly pretty — it’s also incredibly cheap to make. I haven’t been able to find an accurate budget for the movie, but Shinkai himself reported (link contains potential spoilers) that expectations for the film were low so the budget was minimal. For example, there’s one scene (not spoiling which) which is generated by rotoscoping (a technique to render complicated animated movement cheaply), then edited to make it look animated. I had no idea that scene was rotoscoped until I read about it later because Shinkai is so good at making everything look consistent (and consistently good) while using whatever technique is cheapest.

The movie A Scanner Darkly is made entirely with rotoscoping. This technique can make animation cheaper but often leads to an “uncanny valley” effect.

Your Name shows traditional animation deserves new attention in Hollywood

While I really enjoyed Your Name, the movie is somewhat of a mess. The first half hour rushes by before the audience can fully follow the story and the latter parts of the movie filled with plot holes. I’ve seen several reviewers comment that the movie feels like a 6–12 episode TV series got squashed into a movie without properly explaining how everything works. Despite all that, I appreciate that the movie takes risks, avoids a lot of clichés (which is pretty tough with high school romantic comedies) and remains unpredictable until the very end of its run time. Let’s look at the movies currently being produced by Pixar, the legendary pioneer of 3D animated movies:

  • Cars 3
  • Coco
  • The Incredibles 2
  • Toy Story 4

Maybe this list of movies excited you — I mean, who doesn’t want to see more of The Incredibles? To me, this looks incredibly safe. None of the movies that are getting sequels needed a sequel at all. Pixar’s most recent sequel, Finding Dory, was hamstrung by a waste-of-time plot between Marlin and Nemo. There was no reason for those two to be in the movie but it’s a big sequel so of course everyone’s old favorite characters have to have a scene or a character arc and waste time clogging up any new ideas the movie has to offer.

Pixar isn’t the only studio with sequel fixation. Disney is making piles of money off mediocre remakes of animated classics. Get excited for live-action remakes of Mulan, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Snow White, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and The Sword in the Stone, all of which are in various stages of development. This year Disney live action is trotting out the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie while the next movie from its animation studio is Wreck it Ralph 2. When the biggest non-sequel movies of the year are from Dreamworks like The Boss Baby and The Emoji Movie, it’s fair to accuse Hollywood of valuing safe revenue over innovation.

Finding Dory made over 1 billion USD on a budget of about 200 million USD, probably forty times what Your Name cost

I understand where the hesitation is coming from. Animated movies aren’t the only type of movie facing an existential crisis. With huge television screens and easy access to movies, people can just stay home instead of going to the theater. The omnipresence of Netflix (and Amazon Video, Hulu, etc.) means purchasing Blu-rays feels quaint. Audiences have lots of choices and if they’re unsure about a film it’s easy to stay home and wait to stream it a year from now.

But the mix of computer technology and traditional animation enables incredible looking movies to be made so cheaply that I hope someone in Hollywood thinks that there is tremendous moneymaking potential here. The Secret of Kells made a splash in 2009 when it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars in an incredibly competitive year, largely because it looked better than any Disney movie despite having a budget that was 4% of that year’s winner (Up). In fact, the average European animation today has about 10% the budget of an average Hollywood blockbuster and yet they look amazing (and are amazing). Unfortunately, they have no marketing budget and don’t make much money.

Your Name however, did make money. Earning over 300 million dollars internationally even without US movie sales is a tremendous accomplishment. The movie doesn’t feel like an experimental art house animation exercise but like a blockbuster. At a time when Hollywood seems so desperate for established franchises to adapt that they’re wasting their time making shitty live action anime adaptations that tank at the box office, why not try something new?

From Boy and the World — traditional animation is more creative than ever

Traditional animation is cheap, and you can do anything with it. It’s the perfect vehicle for bold movies. Animation today is filled with amazing experimental movies like Boy and the World that push the medium forwards, but there’s no reason for there to be no “mainstream” traditionally animated movies anymore. Studios are obsessed with finding the next big franchise to milk for sequel after sequel, spending hundreds of millions of dollars hoping to create the next megahit franchise like Fast and Furious. That’s fine, but why not also spend a fraction of that and make some really cool new traditionally animated movies? Why not take some risks? A big hit like Your Name would pay for dozens of duds.

Your Name isn’t my favorite animated movie of last year (even though I only saw it in theaters a week ago). The plot and pacing are messy at times and the movie never achieves the consistent excellence of a film like Inside Out or even Zootopia. But the movie’s flaws are the right kind of flaws — flaws born of over-ambition, of trying to cram six hours of plot into a two hour movie, of presenting a goofy high school romantic comedy as a sweeping drama. They’re the “flaws” that modern movies need more of.

Even Shinkai’s promotional posters have lens flares drawn in

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