The quest to connect: Interpretation of open-endings in Makoto Shinkai movies

Mikako - Voices of a distant star(Courtesy of CoMix Wave Inc.)
Mikako from Voices of a Distant Star – Her story is one of isolation lights years away(Courtesy of CoMix Wave Inc. Makoto Shinkai)

“We are far apart, so very, very far apart but, thoughts may be able to transcend time and distance.”

Mikako(Voices of a Distant Star)

The incessant need to connect is a virtue we all suffering from being a human boast of. From the dawn of civilization, mankind has always been trying endlessly to connect: to his surroundings, to nature, and to heaven (Makoto Shinkai). The evidence lies in the constructions of huge temples, the elaborate rites, the myths surviving the ages. With the first attempt to understand and effectively connect to nature, myths came into being explaining the cause of floods, the rising of the Sun, the thunder in simple terms of a powerful being’s handiwork, with the shamans and priests acting as the bridge between these two.

The 1900s saw the unstoppable progression of technology leading to the first space exploration in 1957. This was followed by sending the first man into space in 1961. Events such as these regarded as scientific breakthroughs in essence are just mankind’s quest to connect to that which is beyond the known realm and to know the vast unknown of the space. It could be said that this inherent nature of human beings to make connections drives these great strides of advancements in the first place. After all, humans are afraid to be by themselves. Makoto Shinkai movies are just a reflection of these very human feelings but on a much smaller scale. Told through the eyes of adolescents and young adults, they reflect a human-ness that we ignore or fail to notice.

A transcending connection of the hearts - makoto shinkai movie collage
A transcending connection of the hearts: Left – Sayuri and Hiroki. Right – Mitsuha and Taki

The taste of isolation (Makoto Shinkai)

The characters of Makoto Shinkai movies live in a world encased within a world of their own. Chobi the cat, from his first short is oblivious about the world outside the apartment. Concerning himself with only what his owner(or adult girlfriend) feels and does, he rejects the world and is content in doing so. This same trend of rejecting the world around them is exhibited by all of his other characters. Akizuki didn’t even know that the mysterious woman was a teacher at his own school. Similarly, Taki living a fast-paced Tokyo life was too caught up with his school and a part-time job to notice the obvious. The girl from Shinkai’s short “Someone’s Gaze” continued to live the urban life while avoid vising her father, even lying to avoid him.

Sayuri and Mikako suffering in their own isolated worlds- makoto shinkai movie collage
Sayuri and Mikako suffering in their own isolated worlds

More literal isolation is seen in the movies Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days. Our heroines from these movies(Mikako and Sayuri respectively) are trapped in a world far away from the present reality. A quote from The Place Promised in our Early Days makes this notion of the characters being isolated in their own world even clearer.

“Something huge had happened in the world and in history, right in our backyard. But (at least at the time) the only world I could grasp was small and limited, a modest, palm-sized thing.”

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Maybe this is human nature. To be so preoccupied with what we are going to eat for dinner, that we fail to see what’s really happening in the world around us. The characters of Makoto Shinkai movies are no better. They are as human as humans can be. Therefore, more often than not they are preoccupied with only what concerns them. As a result, the stories are largely devoid of other supporting characters. And even if we see other supporting characters, they are there more for the sake of our main characters than for anything else. Not so different from the supporting characters in our own lives, if we think about it.

Some stills from Makoto Shinkai movies dwelling on the nature of human isolation
Some stills from Makoto Shinkai movies dwelling on the nature of human isolation

Through the usage of beautiful cinematic shots and cleverly placed objects, this notion of isolation is further enhanced. Loneliness clings to the clothes of the characters, the empty sink in the kitchen, their cold bed. As the world around them changes its season and pacing, their lives remain stuck in their old rooms. Yet, there is a yearning to connect.

The Birth of Miracles (Makoto Shinkai)

The supernatural elements found in Makoto Shinkai Movies
Some supernatural elements found in Makoto Shinkai Movies(clockwise from upper-left: Voices of a Distant Star, Children who chase lost Voices, Weathering with you, Your Name)

Most of Makoto Shinkai’s movies are abundant in supernatural elements. From invoking Gods of days past to changing destiny, to fighting light-years away, to going to the underworld to bring back a loved one. Yet the truest form of supernaturalism in Makoto Shinkai stories arises from moments. A moment of quiet, a moment of seeing, a moment of resurfacing. A moment created with the formation of a precious bond. The lives of our characters change forever in such moments. Living tragically ephemeral lives, they experience eternities in such fleeting moments. So with the first taste of a psychological connection, where they could finally relate to someone who is as much removed from the world as them, our characters are violently thrown out of their isolation.

The moment of a miracle : Upper - Creation of Adam(Michelangelo), Still from Garden of words
A moment of miracle: Upper – Creation of Adam(Michelangelo), Still from Garden of words

Thus, while God breathing life into Adam might be the single greatest moment in the history of miracles, Yukino’s encounter with Akizuki made her experience her personal miracle in the secluded garden that helped her walk the life path again. Yet o the other hand, we have two adolescent kids sharing a kiss on a frozen night which anchored them to that place and moment forever. These moments are nothing short of a miracle to these characters. Grasping at the world before them, they take on the challenge of life’s journey. Changing along the way and becoming a whole different person even unknown to their own selves.

Suffering a goodbye

As the journey continues, the inevitable happens. A departure with the very person who held their hands as they faced the world. It is no less of a tragedy to be unable to protect them from the grasp of circumstances. The circumstances come in various guises for each of our main characters. For Akizuki it was as Yukino transferring schools. For Tohno Takaki tragedy struck when he moved to a city further away from the one his childhood friend lived in. Mitsuha and Taki faced their own departures on the day the comet strikes. Sayuri, Takuya, and Hiroki have faced their own tragedies as well when Sayuri fell into a deep sleep and the boys went on their separate paths. Similar tragedies follow the characters of other Makoto Shinkai movies as well.

Still from Five centimeters per Second (Courtesy of CoMix Wave Inc.)
All the essence of that person stays right where they belong, that is, next to us.
Still from Five centimeters per Second (Courtesy of CoMix Wave Inc.)

However, this is the truth of life that we all as human beings have to face. With the ebb and flow of life, not everyone that we meet will stay with us till the end. There will come a time when the departure shall happen. But it is only in the material. In the moments created with them, in their quirks privy only to us, in their laughs at an awkward joke, or in the way their eyes shone while talking about their dream, the person remains with us. The essence of that person stays right where they belong, that is, next to us.

The art of moving forward (Makoto Shinkai)

The beautiful depiction of moving forward with the usage of trains in Makoto Shinkai movies
The beautiful depiction of moving forward with the usage of trains in Makoto Shinkai movies

Trains and changing seasons and feet have always made recurrent appearances in Makoto Shinkai movies. They denote the passage of time more harshly than a clock can ever do. After all, time is only relative. But apart from that they also give us a sensation of moving forward. Departures almost always anchor us to the past. In the blink of an eye, years have passed, seasons have changed and the world hasn’t stopped moving.

Left - Akizuki(Garden of Words), Right - Takaki(Five centimeters per Second)
Left – Akizuki(Garden of Words), Right – Takaki(Five Centimeters per Second)

In this way, somewhere lost among the daily commuters, our characters continue to make their journeys. The absence of their muses manifesting as a tangible pain of remembrance. Maybe they won’t see the cherry blossoms together again, or maybe they won’t meet in the garden on a rainy day again. Yet they continue with baby steps on the path that they have learned to walk on. At times falling, at times stumbling, but getting back up every time and walking. Continuing with the belief that someday they will be able to reach the place where they could accept the person they have lost. Or maybe, more toward accepting themselves and their journeys as human beings. Maybe this is the ultimate goal of our life’s meaningless journey towards an inevitable end. To connect with others, to connect to the world and in doing so finally, connect to ourselves.

“I’m on my path, MY path, and one day that path, will take me to her.”

Takao Akizuki(Garden of Words)

In Retrospect

Makoto Shinkai movies have always drawn largely from real life. A celebration of the daily mundane, it tells the tale of self-discovery, of falling in love, of loss, and acceptance. The tale of a journey whose vastness far exceeds the scope of a few hours of screentime. So, more than often Makoto Shinkai endings have left us craving for a happy ending, a concrete conclusion. But this is not what his stories are about, never have been. They are about small eternities that come into being and are instantly swept away in the hustle of daily lives. They are about the fleeting moments, the streets, and little objects in their perfect positions that no one notices. Most importantly, they are about human lives and their aloneness. The stories are selfish in nature with the characters almost always acting out of their own self-interests.

Mikako(Voices of a Distant Star) - Makoto Shinkai movies
Mikako(Voices of a Distant Star)

The main criticism of the movies lies in their lack of side characters and the stern portrayal of heteronormative relationships, be it among a cat and his owner or the three childhood friends. But we cannot deny that somewhere we find ourselves in the stories themselves. Makoto Shinkai movies force us to look into our own lives. What we then observe is a lack of everything, and sometimes through the process, we find that which we ourselves lack. That is the reason these stories are so endearing, so immortal even in their unfinished states. They subtly teach us where the real joy of life should reside, and that, it is not in the conclusion but in the path taken towards the conclusion.

Saswati Majumder

Aspiring crazy cat lady, weeb of culture who loves to stay immersed in good animes, movies, books, manga, music, and dreams.

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