Pedro Gonzalez Sagaidak’s review published on Letterboxd:
Project Shinkai 6/6
"Emotional Shot of Train or Railroad Crossing" Count: 5 (for a total of 38)
Makoto Shinkai is, if nothing else, an interesting director. He skipped the rigid process that usually leads to becoming a big-name anime director by largely working outside the studio system, and became a megahit director at the relatively young age of 43 with Your Name, the current best performing anime of all time. For this, he's acrued a large amount of praise, often being called "the new Miyazaki" - a title that he himself has expressed disagreement with having, not thinking himself anywhere near the level of that master - but he's also had his share of detractors. I'm one of them. Shinkai is certainly not a master, or at the very least not yet, and his films have a generic quality to them that prevent any of them from being truly great. He's also very stuck in his formula in a way that Miyazaki never ever was.
But I think Shinkai is legitimately talented. Ever since getting a decent budget for his third film, 5 Centimeters Per Second, he's demonstrated a truly stunning ability as a director of animators. In this field, and nowhere else, I may concede Shinkai's superiority to Miyazaki. 5 Centimeters may be the most beautiful animated film I've ever seen, with The Garden of Words (also a Shinkai film) close behind. But 5 Centimeters is hugely betrayed by Shinkai's massive failings as a director. Where he often creates images of stunning beauty and expressiveness, ones that speak for themselves and are meaningful and beautiful and emotional, Shinkai is not a good writer. Every single one of Shinkai's films is both written and directed by him, and it's the writing that is universally the greatest flaw in every single one of them. In the process of this project I've gotten sick and tired of repeating my opinion on Shinkai's writing. He can't write believable people, and he adores writing long internal monologues that sound deep on the surface but immediately fall apart upon the slightest scrutiny. The best Shinkai film is almost without a doubt The Garden of Words, because that's the film where he allows his breathtaking animation to do most of the talking for him. The incredibly gorgeous 5 Centimeters, which could have easily been carried by its visuals into being one of the best animated films of all time, is an absolutely unbearable slog due to its characters constantly philosophizing about nothing.
What's the most frustrating about Shinkai is how he appears to be limiting himself. The problem with his inability to write can easily be remedied by simply having someone else write his scripts. I understand how this may upset his sensibilities as a creative, especially one who worked his way into the industry by doing a film single-handedly, but a more skilled and experienced writer would be able to take full advantage of Shinkai's astounding capabilities when it comes to animation, or at least make themselves invisible and not actively worsen the animation's impact. As mentioned, making the writing near invisible is what Shinkai did in Garden of Words, and it worked out completely in that films' advantage.
Secondly, Shinkai keeps doing the same story with the same themes and the same visual motifs. Aside from Children Who Chase Lost Voices every Shinkai film is about two people in love separated by some vaguely mystical plot device, be it a cloudily explained connection to the universe in The Place Promised In Our Early Days, the decision to only meet on rainy days in The Garden of Words, or the body-swapping in Your Name. I can respect a director coming back to the same themes over and over, as perfecting one story is just as worthwhile as branching out into a whole variety of new ones the way Miyazaki does. The problem with Shinkai's story of choice is it's a horrible choice given his strengths and weaknesses. Romances are stories where character writing and a proper sense of pacing are key, and animation can often take a backseat. It's not that you can't make a poorly written romance with great animation work - The Garden of Words is proof of that - but I can't help but shake the feeling Shinkai's work would be better served by him trying something else. The one time he did - Children Who Chase Lost Voices - worked out pretty well, and I'd like to see him try to improve that formula.
I also need to talk about trains. I've been keeping a train count as I've been doing this project. The total final count is 38 emotional shots of trains or railroads. The total running time of all of Shinkai's films is 447 minutes. That makes an emotional shot of trains on average every 11 minutes and 45 seconds during his career. That's a frankly ludicrous amount of train shots. I've been having a lot of fun making fun of it, but it's a motif that Shinkai abuses like I've never seen anyone abuse a motif before. It honestly negatively impacted my enjoyment of Garden of Words and 5 Centimeters, these being the films that he overuses these shots the most in. He managed to get away with it in Your Name, since most of the people who've seen it will have not seen any other Shinkai films, but if he keeps going like this I can say from personal experience that people's reactions to his films will genuinely suffer due to the abuse of train imagery. After a while it becomes honestly hilarious, and this is a horrible fit for the type of film Shinkai appears to be most set on making. It's an honest to God awful habit of his that legitimately punishes long-term watchers for having seen previous films of his. I understand - and agree - that it's a great visual metaphor, but if he plans to have any longevity as a filmmaker he needs to stop leaning on it as his primary way to symbolize detachment and sadness.
Your Name is one of Shinkai's best films, but it's carried entirely by its first 30 minutes. In those first 30 minutes, we get a quiet introduction to our two characters where they don't really talk that much. We see them primarily through the eyes of their friends and acquaitances, and learn about them entirely through how they relate to others, and visually from how they react to circumstances around them. It makes use of the strong animation in the film, and doesn't get bogged down in the usual Shinkai writing habits, where characters say pseudo-deep things emotionally. It's textbook quality writing, doing everything near perfectly to set these two people up, and most importantly of all, putting the brunt of the storytelling on Shinkai's usual A-grade visuals. By the half hour mark, I was wondering if I hadn't been in a bad mood when I first watched Your Name, as what I was watching was a genuine 10/10 masterpiece, deserving of the praise I'd so resented the film getting.
Then, the plot happens, and it's everything I've come to expect from old Makoto. Characters behave stupidly because that's what we need for the plot to work. People stand around as emotional music plays and say things that sound pretty but mean nothing. It's Place Promised In Our Early Days all over again. It's not terrible, like Place or 5 Centimeters were, because I'd become truly invested in these characters through the masterfulness of that first act, but it wasn't very engaging and I found myself looking forward to the film ending. I think all the good will that Your Name has earned in the anime community comes from that first half hour and those last two or three minutes. Your Name has both the best and the worst of Makoto Shinkai in it, him working at his fullest potential and the culmination of his promise as a director, and him indulging in the very worst habits he's formed through his career.
Here, at the end of project Shinkai, I've always intended to give my final thoughts on Makoto Shinkai as a director, and specifically his new moniker, which has provoked much ire in me, that of "the new Miyazaki". The first part I've done. The second I expected to be very straightforward. I'd say "There's no way", "The comparison is ridiculous", "Shinkai doesn't deserve to lick the sole of Miyazaki's boots", and so on and so forth. I still as of right now believe this, but the first half hour of this film, as well as the quality of The Garden of Words, makes me think that it doesn't need to always be this way. There's a legitimate master somewhere within Shinkai. This is a man who has the talent to truly become something special. I don't think he'll ever be "the next Miyazaki" because I don't think there can be a "next Miyazaki", but if he drops his bad habits, hires a writer, diversifies his storytelling, and most importantly of all, gains the confidence he needs to have in the power of his animation to tell a story by itself, Shinkai may be able to at least be in the same league as Miyazaki. Hell, to widen the metaphor, Shinkai may be able to put himself in the league of Miyazaki, Takahata, Kon, Yamada, Watanabe, Oshii, Yuasa, Hosoda, and a score of others. All of those artists are currently completely beyond Shinkai's grasp, but it's encouraging that Shinkai has spoken harshly of both himself and his art. It shows a willingness to grow and an awareness that he's a flawed creator. I truly hope he does grow, does make films that I find worthy of the comparison to Miyazaki. I think he may have it in him, there's glimpses of it in two of his films. As many problems as I have with Shinkai's current work, as much as I don't think he's proven himself to be a great director, I am currently very excited to see where he goes next. Best of luck, Mr Shinkai.