In this series, Yu Kawa Shizuka and Ryunosuke Goji discuss the meaning of watching Ghibli works on screen in the age of streaming. Here is the third part.

MI : Let me detour the discussion a little bit. In 2016, Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name. (君の名は。, 2016)” was a sensational box-office hit. I read that many fans actually saw this movie multiple times in theaters. I guess the fans must have felt the theatrical experience was a very important part of the appreciation. In recent years, theatrical releases of anime feature movies such as “Weathering with You (天気の子, 2019)” are making headlines and actually doing great in box offices.

Compared to the theatrical experience of the Ghibli works, what was your impression about this “dynamic range” in theatrical release such as “Your Name.”, “Weathering with You”, or “In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, 2016)“?

RG : I saw these three movies in theaters. From the point of view of “dynamic range”, as well as other issues, honestly, I have mixed feelings, – concerns, bewilderment – about “Your Name.” and “In This Corner of the World” in particular. I thought these two movies have structures that put audiences under control, and enslave them under the work, by this theatrical dynamic range.

These two works contain various “seeds of pleasure” to the audience in themselves. These may be elements of sexual allurance, details of “Otaku” origins, or world view and images that are supported by attitude toward historical accuracy or detailed research. These “seeds of pleasure” sprout in the audiences themselves, and some of the audiences under this spell went to the theaters many times (more than dozen times, for enthusiastic fans) as if they got fever. It made headlines.

In these works, “Your Name.” in particular, how to control the audience’s feelings is extremely important. Visuals and sounds you experience in the theater, sprinkled with pleasures, are poured over us like shower. A friend of mine told me she actually cried when she saw the meteor hit the earth in the beginning. He doesn’t know why, but he was so moved by this beautiful scenery, image, he said. This “I don’t know why, but so immensely beautiful” visual experience must have been realized by the “dynamic range” of the theatrical experience.

Another friend of mine told me that he has been a big fan of RADWIMPS from his high school days. RADWIMPS’ music is prominently featured in the movie. He said he felt as if his mood in those days synchronized with the movie. I came to know RADWIMPS for the first time I saw this movie.but I think there are many people who had a similar experience. I think the filmmakers must have designed the soundtrack, thinking that at least some part of the audience would appreciate such experiences.

Seats at the 红星电影世界 movie theater in MixC, Shanghai

But I had an impression that “Weathering with You” did not emphasize the aspect of controlling the audience’s feeling as much as “Your Name.” I just talked about. For this movie, I think that the filmmakers created the film relying on the ideas on impromptu themes, discomfort with the world outside, or a sign for a fantasy story, and just breezed through to the completion without slowing down. At least, the story told in the film is not necessarily as comfortable.

Even though Tokyo is beautifully drawn, they did not intentionally pick only certain aspects of Tokyo to create a beautiful image. It contains something obscene, sometimes even ugly. They utilized “dynamic range” very effectively to express, while maintaining a certain distance between the work and the audience. Though what is told and happens in the movie is grand in scale, what is implicated or conceived is relatively modest.

I don’t know why, but I was very impressed by “Nausicaä” in the theater through the details expressed in the film and the feel of experience “in the world”. In “Your Name.” and “In This Corner of the World”, the experience may be similar in nature, but I felt annoying discomfort and wariness. It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of difference in my attitude toward acceptance, and the difference may be subtle

One of the reasons I felt as I did is certainly that the worlds I encountered in these two films are not particularly “new”. It is a difficult question what is “new” and what isn’t when we discuss artistic works, but you wouldn’t find the world described in “Your Name.” particularly novel or new if you have access to Japanese anime or manga. In fact I think it is very familiar.

Also, though Katabuchi has labored meticulously on historical accuracy and never compromised to the tiniest details in “In This Corner of the World”, he owes a lot to Isao Takahata and other animation filmmakers who had pioneered such an approach to animation filmmaking. That is, many filmmakers had already tried the idea of creating realism in the work through emphasizing meticulous details, and the audiences had been exposed to such realism to a greater extent. If I may elaborate further, Takahata had spent much of his energy to explore the reality within a film for the particular work he was working on, not to present the work as if it is a real world in general.

That is why I have some reservations about the film.When I read some audience’s reactions, like, “the world described in “In This Corner of the World” is real because Katabuchi made sure it is historically accurate” or “these character’s movement looks real because the filmmakers made a big effort to the details”, I feel like asking, “Really? Do you really think so?” That’s where I feel uncomfortable and wary. The audience considers such a filmmaking approach bestows upon us the viewing experience of the ‘reality’ and the filmmakers also takes such an audience’s reaction for granted and may take an attitude that it’s OK to disguise the reality. I may be a little too critical because it is only entertainment, but these works are so successful as entertainment works, and that is exactly why I find it very strange. You know, of course sometimes there are animation films like that, and that itself is not a problem, but this trend of people being so susceptible to accept these works so positively, that worries me.

Then, as I think about this further, the issue of “dynamic range” becomes more complex and difficult to tackle. I should reexamine what Yu Kawa pointed out about Ohmu and Moro in Part II.

That is, ”these characters do not exist to be shrinked and reduced and to be played with on a small palm of a hand”. They are not a representation of something that is to be owned. They are some kind of excess in the world of representations of the cinema. They are the uber being that would never be consumed by anyone in the audience. And “dynamic range” in the theater plays a great role in creating such an existence.

Such an attitude toward film appreciation takes a completely different view from the attitude where the visuals and sounds overwhelm the audience and throw them into the experience of a virtual single world around them. Leveraging Ohmu or Moro as a “medium”, the theatrical environment emerges and functions as something of an “uber-power’, I should say. The existence of Ohmu or Moro becomes the theatrical environment itself.

However, in “Nausicaä” and “Princess Mononoke” at least, the characters in the film encounter and get confused by these uber-existence, while we the audience are outside watching this story. The dynamic range in the theater does not act on the audience directly, but represents itself indirectly as monsters who threaten the characters existence. That drives the narrative.

When we see these films, the overwhelming superiority reaches us as an overwhelming filmic experience of Ohmu or Moro. But people seem to appreciate “Your Name” or “In This Corner of the World” while overwhelming uber-existence like Ohmu or Moro is absent in the film. In these films, the power of the film emerged itself as a “direction”. These pairs of the films appear to have different structures where the power of the film resides. People tend to say, “there is nothing wrong with either approach”. But I have to say I am not appreciative of the films like “Your Name.” or “In This Corner of the World”, the films themselves emerging as an absolute power over the audience. I know, in this time and age, I am not quite sure if the films having a structure like “Nausicaä” or “Princess Mononoke” could be appreciated or produced in the first place even. Hayao Miyazaki recently remarked “in this age, it is difficult to create a fantasy”. His remark may have to do with it.

In “Weathering with You”, Makoto Shinkai deals with weather as its theme. The sky projected on the screen turns gray on a rainy day, and turns bright on a sunny day. The dark theater is directly affected by the brightness of the shot (i.e. the weather) projected on the screen in the film that deals with the weather itself. The film also describes a girl who can control the weather suddenly brings sunlight in Tokyo where it’s been raining for days. People are rejoiced and sometimes ecstatic. I thought, in a sense, the structure of such a sequence in the film operates as an self-criticism to his previous work “Your Name.” The ending of the film, presented as the conclusion of the film, pays respect to an individual’s independence and decision with contrast to the importance of world affairs or weather. I don’t think this kind of solution can be the ultimate answer to the world we live in, but this may be Shinkai’s little exaggerated attempt to tackle the problem of validity of fantasy in this age.

MixC in Shanghai

YKS : Shinkai’s “Your Name.” begins with the beautiful and serene scene of Thiamato comet approaching the Earth. I was moved by this scene when I was watching the movie in the theater just like Goji’s friend. It is like Tanabata in Japan, it tells a story of a boy meets a girl and they fall in love, and an encounter of the comet and the Earth every 1200 years in parallel. This is a great story.

In the movie poster for “Your Name.”, the comet travelling above the sky and its fragment falling on the Earth are drawn above two protagonists. The comet exists on a grandeur scale beyond our knowledge, and it is in fact difficult to express such existence in animation. The director Shinkai apparently decided to present the comet as beautiful as possible as a fantastic presence. Though it brings the cruel calamity on the Earth, it is filled with “seeds of pleasure” and we, the audience are drawn into the world projected onto the screen.

I think the Shinkai successfully presented the uber presence of the comet, utilizing the dynamic range of the theatrical screen. On the other hand, he also employs a music-video approach in the scenes of Tokyo scenery viewed from Yamanote-Line synchronized with pop rhythms of RADWIMPS’ music. Music videos are meant to be watched on a TV screen, or on YouTube today.

Also, Shinkai didn’t forget to insert romantic comedy scenes in daily lives, just like one you see in popular Japanese TV animation. At the very beginning, the film grabs the attention of the audience in the theater with a very dynamic comet scene, but it also has the formulaic approaches that reminds us of music videos and TV animations. This hybrid does favorably affect both Otaku and those who don’t actively watch animation regularly, stimulating their pleasure neurons and activating their memories. This is something completely different from Ghibli films.

These formulaic approaches that stimulate emotions or activate memories may invite the opportunity for the audience to be absorbed into the structure of the film as Goji discussed. I do have some concerns about it. But I think that is the result of the director’s approaches to create entertainment, and also exactly the reason why this film was a box-office hit all over the world.

In “Weathering with You”, Shinkai again employed TV animation formula, erotic elements  also seen in “Your Name.” (though not without some criticism), and narrative structure that evokes “Sekai-kei”, characteristic of the director’s early works. Extremely elaborate drawing, the background was painted in detail, this film was undoubtedly created with full impact and appreciation on the theatrical screen.

As the title suggests, the theme of weather is greatly inherited from Shinkai’s previous work, “The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭, 2013)“.  The weather has a close relationship with the “feeling of air” as I said before, and when the weather changes, the air around you changes as a physical entity. I thought, in “Weathering with You”, the elaborate drawing, and the associated effective expression, of rain inherited from “The Garden of Words” are very impressive. But I was more impressed with the sense of humidity in the streets of Tokyo when it rains and shines, transmitting through the screen.

I believe the way they express the “air” transforms itself, the dim landscape of the city which lost sunlight really synchronized well with the way we feel about humidity in the streets inside the Yamanote Line. It was unprecedented to experience the humid atmosphere of the streets of Tokyo in animations. If people around the world could feel this feel, it may be the experience that only the screen can offer.

The catharsis of the weather clearing up must have coe from this humidity and dynamic range of the screen. On the other hand, during the finale, where the protagonists have made their decisions, I thought the filmmakers succeeded in creating “Atmosphere of Tokyo”, which differs from the simple, obvious catharsis of clear skies. I think the atmosphere did answer well to the resolution of the young couple to let the dark, gloomy weather persist for a long time.

“In This Corner of the World”, directed by Katabuchi, is a study in how to express ‘motion’ in animation. This is also discussed prominently in Katabuchi’s interview by Kishino Saburi (link [Japanese]). I was indeed surprised by the animation when I saw the film in the theater.

However, I don’t think its expression of motion is something particular to the theatrical experience we are discussing here. I think the expressions in “In This Corner of the World” are an updated version of the series of development in nanimation language, from the animation language of the early days, through those of Japanese TV animation which had inherited them after the war years to the present.

In the interview above, Katabuchi discusses the use of outlines for drawing characters. But when you compare it to that of “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, 2013)“, which employs the animation language rarely seen in the theatrical animation films released domestically, Katabuchi still uses the outline for characters silhouette. The use of outlines is an old practice from the days of hand-drawn animation, using papers to draw sketches and originals. You can see these techniques are still used in “In This Corner of the World”.

A ticket for “My Neighbor Totoro” in the 德信影城 theater in Shanghai

When these outlines are used in theatrical animation films, sometimes you notice that the characters are a bit blurred because they are blown up on the big screen (this happens quite often, not only in “In This Corner of the World”). In live-actions films, or CG, you never see this phenomenon. Unless the narrative itself necessitates this blurring, I consider this phenomenon to be one of the major drawbacks found in the animation that uses this practice. I couldn’t help but be aware of this drawback when watching “In This Corner of the World”.

In “Princess Kaguya”, Takahata used rough strokes that resemble brushstrokes, instead of conventional outlines, to draw characters and objects. Further, he used draft papers of much smaller sizes than normally used for theatrical animation production, and enlarged them afterwards. Here, Takahata experimented how the animation language operates on a big theatrical screen and searched for the right technique.

When I saw how the life-size bamboo trees bend and sway on the big screen, I felt the mass of the bamboo trees and the pressure of the air travelling through the more realistically than real. If I elaborate a bit more, when the creators use these outlines, which are very characteristic of Japanese character-driven animations, they tend to focus on how to ‘move’ these outlines, – that is, the mechanics of the movement – rather than on what effect they have on the screen they are projected on.

As Goji said earlier, if we feel ‘discomfort and weariness’ in “In This Corner of the World”, it is probably because the creator’s idea about animation language and technique are so uncompromising that they are inconspicuous, even when we are viewing the film, and we are compelled to view the film under these restrictions. What the creators say has absolute superiority, so to speak.

Of course, the creators often talk about animation language and theories. Like Katabuchi and Takahata, many of the creators love theories and talking about them. However, when these theoretically-fluent creators talk about their theories, that might precede the actual work themselves, and may dangerously plunge into a sort of power struggle claiming ‘novelty’ and ‘correctness’. A lot of people may feel that way.

In “Keep Your Hands off from Eizoken! (映像研には手を出すな!, 2020)” (aired on NHK, since January 2020), directed by Masaaki Yuasa, he protagonist watches some animation based on “Future Boy Conan (未来少年コナン, 1978)“, the TV animation directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and then babbles about trivia about its animation languages. When “Future Boy Conan” was aired originally on NHK in 1978, there was no VCR. The viewers could watch it only on real-time viewing.

It was much later, after recording media such as VHS and laserdiscs became widely available, that anime fans started talking about animation languages, and it was much, much later when the general public became aware. In “Eizoken”, “Future Boy Conan” knock-off is projected on the screen. I strongly suspect such discussion about animation filmmaking was even possible when “Conan” was originally aired.

Hayao Miyazaki excused himself from the production of “Anne of Green Gables (赤毛のアン, 1979)” directed by Isao Takahata, and directed “Conan”. Since then, he has never directed TV animation. The majority of his works has been conceived for theatrical presentation. I don’t know how he himself thinks of the  matter, but apparently his talent suits the theatrical presentation.

There has been a long history of anime language study among the creators themselves, professional researchers and non-professionals, while the mode of production and viewing revolved around theater, TV, VHS and other things. These discussions have become deeper and sometimes stiffer, and we may have to be careful about the way they become authoritative voices.

Though I viewed “In This Corner of the World” as a sum of the TV anime and animation feature films, what interested me the most was its approach to describe machine gun sputter from the fighter plane and bomb dropping from the bomber and their fragments. The filmmakers increased the number of animated frames per second in these scenes, and the way they appear and move on the screen was more strange and exogenous. They were creepy.

I think these scenes functioned as some sort of superior presence within the film, jus as Ohmu and Moro. As a result, this kind of superior presence actually destroyed the motion of the character.

I feel a bit hesitant to call “Shin-Godzilla (シン・ゴジラ, 2016)” as an animation, but Hideaki Anno’s work described the monster just like these. In “Shin-Godzilla”, the first form of the monster is depicted as something horribly grotesque. When it develops into the final form, though the monster overwhelms us with its immense size on the screen, just like Ohmu and Moro, the audience feels the grotesqueness is somehow washed out.

When they engage in a military attack on the monster, it clicks the audience applause. Many homages by the director to the history of Tokusatsu films function as gimmicks to satisfy Otaku minds. This total attack on Godzilla was successful also at the box office.

Toho released the original “Godzilla” in theaters in 1954. The Tokusatsu -Kaiju film was a favorite among the post-war Japanese audience. The sequels were even made in Hollywood. I seriously think Ohmu, Moro and the Giant Warrior as sons of Godzilla, but Godzilla rather invites sorrow than force or power despite its enormous size.

Though it had been a popular character everybody knows about, because the film was so successful that the character has become something to be consumed, something that can take aggressive force and violence depicted in the film. This may be the point we need to think about.

Sometime ago, I heard a rumor that Anno may take charge of the Nausicaa remake. I wonder how Anno feels about Ohmu, Moro, the Giant Warrior and Godzilla (and its sorrow).

Xinhua bookstore in MixC, Shanghai


Yu Kawa Shizuka
Musician. Photographer. Founder of music label cucuruss. Yu Kawa Shizuka’s music explores the possibility of a speech synthesizer, and de/reconstructs the sonic boundaries of text/speech/sound. His recent project is “Armadilllllllidium vulgare”.  His latest work, “minamiarupusunotennensui”, is available here.
Music: bandcamp, soundcloud
Photography: note, tumblr

Ryunosuke Goji
Artist (Oil Painting). Recent exhibitions include: “~” (Solo exhibition, Youkobo Art Space, Tokyo, 2018), “Pangea on the Screen” (Group exhibition, TAV Gallery, Tokyo, 2020).

Murderous Ink

The header image: MixC, Shanghai, Photography by Yu Kawa Shizuka.

All the images are courtesy of Yu Kawa Shizuka. Unauthorized use of the images in this post is prohibited.