Spoiler warning for Your Name. and 5cm per Second.
“I’m not sure if I’m searching for a person or a place, or if I’m just searching for a job.” These words from the end of Your Name. are as close as Makoto Shinkai ever comes to making a clear thematic statement. Shinkai has an incredibly distinctive voice in his work, but unlike other writers with such strong voices, his work doesn’t have a clear idea at its core. Most creators with such clear styles have some sort of central idea or theme that can roughly be turned into a thesis statement of some sort. Shinkai, on the other hand, ties his work together with an emotion that’s present in every film he makes. It’s this particular emotion that’s the reason Shinkai was able to maintain a presence in the fandom, even before the massive success of Your Name.
Even as far back as his first work, Voices of a Distant Star, Shinkai had a clear focus on stories about two lovers who couldn’t be together because of circumstances outside of their control. You could call these romances, but romance isn’t quite accurate. Most of Shinkai’s films don’t have strong romantic chemistry or big declarations of love before the two characters are separated. The focus isn’t on the longing for love as much as the longing for some sort of connection and a place to belong. Voices, which is arguably Shinkai at his rawest, doesn’t even have any characters beyond the main couple. When they’re apart, they each exist alone in the world, always waiting to reunite, even as they drift apart. This thread is picked up in his later works as well, most notably 5cm per Second. The exact events and genres of each film vary a lot, but this longing for companionship is always at the core of Shinkai’s films. It’s this emotional weight that kept people coming back to his films, even when his plots occasionally stumbled (Place Promised in our Early Days).
The world can be a hard and lonely place. Everyone knows that. The reason Shinkai’s films always resonated with some people is because he depicts that world while simultaneously saying that it doesn’t have to be. His characters always have that loneliness when they’re apart, and always long for the one person they belong with, that one place that they belong in. They always have some small amount of time with that person, but circumstances seem to conspire to separate them, leaving both longing for what could have been. When Taki wonders what he’s always been looking for, he’s thinking about a place to belong, whether it’s a person, a location, or something as simple as a job. As he is there, he’s adrift in the world, unemployed, single, and unsure about where he belongs, always haunted by the faint emotions left from his time with Mitsuha. This is a desire that we can all relate to on some level. Everyone wants to belong in some way, to find that thing that makes them complete, regardless of what it is. Shinkai imbues every film he makes with this emotion, this longing.
In the wrong hands, this could come off as exploitative and emotionally manipulative. Simply depicting an emotion doesn’t make a story good, but Shinkai’s films always have an air of authenticity. He’s not saying “look how sad this is,” rather, he’s asking his audience if they can empathize with these characters and their emotions. I don’t know if it’s because he’s experienced this longing before or if he has some innate understanding of it, but Shinkai’s films have always been honest and genuine. Each work has a slightly different view on this, from the desperation of Voices to the nostalgia and regret of 5cm per Second. At the same time, the underlying emotion and the honesty with which its presented are undeniable no matter what. Shinkai’s films remind us that the world can sometimes be a sad place to live, but it doesn’t have to be.