There’s been an interesting discussion going on as regards Shinkai Makoto’s place in the echelon of great animators since the release of Kotonoha no Niwa. Much of it surrounds the technical side of his work, and how some feel it doesn’t measure up to the best in the field. While I feel Shinkai’s technical brilliance – fluid animation, cinematography, and especially the exquisite use of CGI not as a crutch, but an enhancer – can stand with anyone’s, for me that largely misses the point.
Any discussion of creative arts is necessarily subjective, and when it comes to visual art, all the more so. Nevertheless, the old saying says “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” – and we all know what we like. For me (as I said in the review of Kotonoha) Shinkai is in a class by himself as a visual artist in anime. It isn’t so much that his skill at giving images physical form is stellar, though it obviously is – I think he could have been an incredible oil-on-canvas painter had he so chosen. Like so many great artists, what I think really sets Shinkai apart is his vision.
What do I mean by that? Quite literally, as with someone like Monet, the true genius is in how he sees the world. Shinkai somehow has an innate ability to look at a place or object and see the essence of what makes that thing unique, special and beautiful – it’s as if he sees the Platonic Ideal rather than the physical form. When I look at a person drawing on a blackboard, I see a person drawing on a blackboard and hope the chalk doesn’t squeak. Shinkai sees the flow of the hand doing the writing, the pattern of the flakes of chalk as they fly off and descend to the floor, and turns this mundane moment into something sublime and unique. I’ve been to Shinjuku Gyoen twice (both times in the rain, as it happens) but when I saw Kotonoha no Niwa I felt as if I’d never really seen the place before. Shinkai not only sees what normal people can’t see, but he has the ability to make us understand what it is he’s seeing through his technique. That, for me, is astonishing genius.
When someone says, as Shinkai-sensei did, that Laputa: Castle in the Sky (for me the most under-appreciated Ghibli work, and probably Miyazaki’s second-greatest after Mononoke Hime) is their favorite anime, I immediately take notice. It’s like when a movie critic says Empire of the Sun or A.I. is their favorite Spielberg film – I know this is someone worth listening to, because they see beyond the superficial and aren’t trying to pander to mass opinion. This is where the subjectivity of art plays into the equation of course, and perhaps this is simply an indication that Shinkai’s sensibilities are somehow compatible with mine, and that’s why I respond to his visuals so powerfully. Be that as it may, for me in order to truly appreciate why so many of us revere him as an animator, one must look past frame-rates and rendering and simply focus on the vision of the man and his ability to communicate it.