Makoto Shinkai has been directing animated films since the early 2000s, but he's just now getting his flowers. While Shinkai had already racked up a serious resume up until 2016, it wasn't until the success of “Your Name” (the third-highest-grossing Japanese film of all time) that he became a household name in the states. Including “Your Name,” Shinkai's films have grossed close to $400 million at the global box office.
When you consider that his prior feature film, “The Children Who Chase Lost Voices,” wasn't even released in U.S. theaters, you can see how far he's come in the past decade. Now, people mention his name in the same breath as the legendary Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. While that may be a bit much, it does reflect the current sentiment about the creator and director — that he's someone whose films are worth going to the theater for.
In appreciation for Shinkai's works up to this date, I've compiled a ranked list of the animator's full-length feature films, as well as a couple of his shorter works.
1. ‘Weathering With You’ (2019)
Following “Your Name” must have been tough for the animator, but you wouldn't think that from watching “Weathering With You.” The pace is slower and the scope is narrower than “Your Name,” but it’s ultimately the better movie because of its star-studded English voice cast — the performances of Lee Pace (as Keisuke Suga) and Alison Brie (as Natsumi Suga) are dialed in — rich character development, and ability to ground the viewer in a slice of life of a couple of struggling kids just trying to make it in Japan.
I like this film for the same reasons I like the Academy Award-nominated “Shoplifters,” because it shows the other side of Japan — the side just behind the neon lights of Tokyo and tourist traps. But while Hina (Ashley Boettcher) and Hodaka (Brandon Engman) may have been dealt a bad hand, they're making the most of it. “Weathering With You” may not have the jaw-dropping reveal midway through the film like “Your Name,” but it works without it.
2. 'Your Name' (2016)
Shinkai was in top form with “Your Name,” firing on all cylinders, from the plot and narrative to the cinematics to the soundtrack by J-rock band Radwimps. “Your Name” is an epic saga of love across time, with a clever “Freaky Friday” premise in which the two protagonists switch bodies, leading them to fall in love with the person whose body they inhabit at unpredictable times. It's a wildly creative premise that keeps on building until the final scene on the stairs, which will have you pointing at the screen like the Leonardo DiCaprio meme.
If you're planning to introduce Shinkai to someone, this is the movie to do it — just get the tissues ready! When I saw this in theaters, there wasn't a dry eye in the room by the end.
3. 'The Garden of Words' (2013)
With a runtime of 46 minutes, this film is too short to be considered a full-length feature film but too long to be regarded as a short film. Regardless, “The Garden of Words” is Shinkai's most grounded work, leaving behind the epic love stories and fantasy settings that he'd later return to with “Your Name” and beyond. In this film, a high school boy and a 20-something woman strike up a friendship over several unplanned meetups at a park, where both of them spend their afternoons hiding from responsibilities. It's a powerful film that speaks to the impact a friend can have when one is going through a hard time. When you're feeling down, this is the film you want to put on.
4. 'Suzume' (2022)
“Suzume” has an interesting premise, but the plot ultimately falters. The entire third act seems unnecessarily long, introducing characters too late into the film for them to actually have an impact. Aside from Suzume (Nichole Sakura), the characters aren't that interesting or likable. The English voice cast also didn't wow me. I like Sakura for her role in “Superstore,” but hearing her voice Suzume took me out of the film since she uses her normal voice and seemingly didn't attempt to go for something different.
That said, “Suzume” is still fourth on this list because the animation is right up there with “Weathering With You” and “Your Name” and because it has the best soundtrack out of the three. The soundtrack, once again performed by Radwimps, has zero skips, which is the highest compliment I can give it — I listened to it at least once a week last year!
5. 'The Place Promised in Our Early Days' (2004)
Seeing this after watching Shinkai's three most recent works feels like whiplash. “The Place Promised in Our Early Days” is a melancholic affair set during a time of war in an alternate version of Japan. Along with a world-ending sci-fi premise and a promise made by three friends in middle school, the film is a lot more interesting than I thought it would be, diving much deeper into love and sacrifice. The reason why it's further down the list is because the plot is very dense and moves too quickly to make much sense of it the first time around. If you can manage to keep up with the plot and get over the gloomy vibe, you'll be rewarded with Shinkai's most pensive film to date.
6. '5 Centimeters per Second' (2007)
In “Your Name” and “Weathering With You,” the two male protagonists go to great lengths to save the girl of their respective dreams, allowing for the possibility of a relationship to develop. But in “5 Centimeters per Second,” that's not the case. This film is heartbreaking, exploring the lives of Takaki (Johnny Yong Bosch) and Akari (Tara Platt), two former elementary school classmates who, after over a decade, have unresolved feelings for each other. With this film, Shinkai doesn't give in to what the audience wants, instead choosing to depict how some relationships can die on the vine — a sobering, if not slightly depressing, take from the seemingly romantic Shinkai. But the reason this film is further down is because of its length, clocking in at just over an hour. It should have been much longer to allow the characters to develop further.
7. 'Children Who Chase Lost Voices' (2011)
Shinkai has mentioned Miyazaki as a big influence on his work, which you can clearly see in “Children Who Chase Lost Voices.” In this film, there’s another world underground called Agartha, where magical, Miyazaki-inspired creatures roam around in wondrous fantasy landscapes. While the film does nail the world-building, everything else falls flat, from the character development to the pacing to the winding plot that seemingly goes nowhere. If you had seen this film before Shinkai's most recent projects, you'd struggle to believe it was the same creator, because “Children Who Chase Lost Voices” is plain and nothing like the cinematic experiences he's crafted in the years since.