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Makoto Shinkai’s Weepiest, Wettest, Most Intricately Animated Movies

A ranking.

Animation: Vulture; Videos: GKIDS, Media Factory, Toho,

Makoto Shinkai is known for doing it all. After two decades of making anime features, he is always credited as his films’ director, writer, and storyboard artist, and — on his earliest shorts — he sometimes performed as a voice actor. For his latest film, Suzume, out in theaters this week, he spent 15 months completing the video storyboards. As he recently explained to an audience at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image, he’ll draw every scene, then record a fully acted out, emotional audio scratch track performance for every single character in the two-hour film.

“When I would scream or shout like this, my 12-year-old daughter would knock on my door and ask, ‘Dad, is everything okay?’ My neighbors would almost call the police,” he joked. For him, though, it’s an essential part of creating his visually stunning movies — which are known for their vibrant, photographically referenced art and highly charged emotionality. Shinkai’s best movies animate his characters in shimmering, richly detailed situations that externalize their thoughts, whether it means putting a depressed boy stuck on an inert train in Five Centimeters per Second or using a symbolic red string to tether the two leads of Your Name to each other.

With the release of Suzume, his first since 2019’s Weathering With You, it’s the perfect time to familiarize yourself with all of Shinkai’s animated films. We’ve ranked his major releases below, from the early 2000s sci-fi efforts, like Voices of a Distant Star, to the magical-realist fantasies he’s best known for today, like Your Name and Suzume. (We intentionally omit his films shorter than 25 minutes from consideration; while delightful, it wouldn’t really be fair to weigh them against his features.) One thing seemed clear as we watched each film back to back: For the most part, Shinkai’s films are getting better and better with each new release.


The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

This might be Shinkai’s most baffling movie: His feature-length debut about kids growing up in an alternate history in which the Soviet Union occupies the northern Japanese island Hokkaido. The Place Promised in Our Early Days serves hard sci-fi, stuffed with dream sequences, mentions of an alternate universe, futuristic aircraft, and a monolithic tower. Its casual exposition dumps and jarring time shifts would be nearly unmanageable without the helpful interstitial cards peppered throughout the movie, but the prismatic imagery in the scenes between those cards makes up for it. Throughout the film, dots of light glint off of moving trains, sunsets wash landscapes in orange color and lens flares, and a simple tower looms above it all — a flat, thin column framed as ominous, beautiful, and ultimately destructive. The Place Promised in Our Early Days ends explosively — over-stuffed with ideas, but stirring nonetheless.


Voices of a Distant Star (2002)

If you ever wondered what one guy armed with a Power Mac G4 and some consumer software could animate on his own, this 25-minute short film is the answer. Voices of a Distant Star springs from an exciting concept: A boy and girl text as she fights aliens in the outer reaches of the solar system, and because the expanse between them is so vast, almost a decade passes between their messages; he grows older on Earth, and she doesn’t. It’s an impressive, diverting episode-length film and is one of his most significant works, albeit undeniably also one of his least polished, suffering from ugly character designs, unfinished backgrounds, and a story that doesn’t go far beyond its premise. Still, Voices of a Distant Star showed promise and teed up the rest of his career, as he would return to its themes of star-crossed characters and communication failures over and over again.

Stream on Crunchyroll


The Garden of Words (2013)

The Garden of Words likes to keep you guessing. In some scenes, its characters are drawn in a way that’s typical for animation, with black lines, and in others they’re outlined with the color of their skin, or in an otherworldly green, their forms popping against the overcast backgrounds. At one point, Shinkai’s two protagonists communicate with Japanese tanka, a form of poetry, in a backdrop of Tokyo’s rain-soaked Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. (Their little shelter in the garden exists nearly exactly as it was crafted onscreen, with a combination of photography, hand-drawn animation, rotoscope, CGI, and good ol’ Photoshop.) The central relationship — between a 27-year-old teacher and 15-year-old student who play hooky on the same park bench on rainy days — has been debated over the years: Will they remain friends or one day become lovers? Doesn’t the whole film address how problematic that is? And how do we square Shinkai’s comments that he intended it not as a conventional love story, but as an illustration of a Japanese concept for love called “koi,” or “lonely sadness”? The ending’s answers aren’t clear-cut, but either way, they don’t detract from the film’s visual beauty.

Rent on Apple TV


Five Centimeters per Second (2007)

The combined pull of gravity, young love, and melancholy voice-over is strong in most of these films, but particularly in this trio of interconnected vignettes. Five Centimeters per Second, as its narrators tell us, is the speed at which cherry blossom petals drift down to the earth from trees — the idea being that like first loves, their descent can be beautiful, languorous, and highly unpredictable. Your mileage may vary on how well the film delivers on the thesis. It’s glacially paced, marked by (intentionally) adolescent internal monologues and extended sequences of trains stuck in the snow. Its balance of yearning to action, of discouragement to catharsis, often feels off, especially compared to his more dynamic efforts. But the animation is undeniably breathtaking, with extreme, heavily photo-referenced detail that would come to define his style.


Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011)

Not nearly enough credit goes to this feature Shinkai made between Five Centimeters per Second and The Garden of Words. It’s often compared to Studio Ghibli films, and its color palette, characters, and world all share similarities with Hayao Miyazaki films like Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Castle in the Sky. Frequently praised for its visuals, this is the film that feels the least distinctively Makoto Shinkai–y, though it is one of his strongest efforts. It’s a love letter to the types of animated movies he grew up watching, but it also indicated significant departures from his 2000s films that would reverberate for the rest of his career: a shift to feature-length adventure tales, to coping with death alongside his usual themes of romantic love, and to some of the visuals that recur across his later films. Much of Suzume calls back to Children — from design similarities in the films’ parallel universes to their grieving protagonist to both of their very last lines.


Weathering With You (2019)

Practically everything drips in Weathering With You — from the characters’ sweat to the physics-defying weather manipulation of its female protagonist, Hina. This was the follow-up to the box-office hit Your Name, and Vulture’s Alison Willmore summed its stakes up neatly in her review: “Its characters contend with homelessness, being orphaned, sex work, and gun violence. To say that it’s an allegory about climate change feels both true and a little reductive.” Hina’s powers might be able to fix the erratic weather pouring down on Tokyo, but at the cost of her own life. That bleak, even dreary premise works thanks to Shinkai’s light touch and lively characters. In some ways, Weathering With You is actually better than Your Name — an anime riff on real-world problems that teens like Hina stand to inherit, despite doing nothing to cause. The animation is some of Shinkai’s most sophisticated, and the climactic sequence, in which the protagonists’ bodies careen through the clouds, is rewindable over and over.

Stream on HBO Max


Your Name (2016)

Shinkai’s breakthrough film with U.S. audiences is a riff on body-swapping for the Gen-Z era, with hints of teen romance and landscape-shattering cosmic peril thrown into the mix. It’s also Shinkai’s first feature where everything works in lockstep, from the visuals to the emo-rocking music by Radwimps to the emotional and joke-filled script. Chaos ensues when Taki, a city boy from Tokyo, starts swapping bodies with Mitsuha, a girl from the postcard-worthy Japanese countryside, but slowly, a bond forms as the two learn what’s going on and begin to communicate. The high jinks would be fun on their own, but the film gets really exciting once a mid-movie twist drops a more threatening wrench into Taki and Mitsuha’s lives. “Your Name is a kind of explainer for all those beautiful sunsets and meticulously re-created train stations and convenience stores,” Emily Yoshida wrote in Vulture’s review of the film. As she points out in that piece, the film refers to the Japanese concept of natsukashii — “a kind of inherent longing; the fond recollection of past places and days is tied to the realization that you can never recapture them.” If you watch only one Makoto Shinkai movie, it should probably be this one.

Stream on Crunchyroll


Suzume (2022)

Shinkai opens Suzume with close-ups of the title character crying as a toddler, her tears matching the dew dotting blades of grass, all effervescently catching the light of the sun. Mom, we’ll learn, has died, a loss that will radically change her life. Years later, the teenage Suzume meets an older boy, Sōta, who accidentally introduces her to life as a “closer” — a person who shuts doors between the living world and the afterlife to prevent an impossibly huge supernatural worm from breaking through and causing cataclysmic earthquakes. Once Sōta is unexpectedly turned into a three-legged chair (one of the most endearing examples of character animation in cartoon history), Suzume becomes a full-on road movie. The two tour nearly all of Japan as they close doors, commune with magic kitties, and bear witness to pockets of the country scarred by disrepair and disaster. Like Your Name, this film was made partly as Shinkai’s response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and the design of both Suzume’s real world and its afterlife are based on images of that event’s actual devastation, including destroyed houses, ships stranded onto the tops of houses, and a landscape covered in flames. Despite the destruction, Suzume’s characters balance the film with endearing comic relief. It’s a capstone effort that combines decades of his experience, interests, and narrative tastes, while also paying homage to a national tragedy. All that and a three-legged chair.

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Makoto Shinkai’s Weepiest, Wettest, Most Intricate Films