Science fiction is Makoto Shinkai’s version of the ‘mystery box’

Tonight I was watching an interesting video on the notion of Hollywood director employing a rhetorical ‘mystery box’ as part of his work when it struck me that anime director Makoto Shinkai (yup, him of mega-hit Your Name fame) does something very similar in his incorporation of science fiction ‘elements’ within films that are for the most part not primarily science fiction movies.

The concept of the mystery box is that while the box stays unopened, its capacity to fascinate and allure remains intact – an irresistible draw that keeps the viewer ‘switched on’ and desperate for more information. The whole essence of the work becomes – for the viewer – an exercise in obtaining information. The TV series ‘Lost’ epitomised this mindset. For a literary example, I’d cite something like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.

How does this relate to Shinkai’s movies? Chiefly, I’d point in the direction of 5cm Per Second, The Place Promised In Our Early Days and Your Name – all films that employ science fiction ‘aspects’ as a smaller spot device within films that are arguably more located within the sphere of ‘drama’ or ‘romance’.

With these films, the science fiction element is never the overriding element of the film – for the most part, these films take place in worlds that are, aesthetically at least – identical or very similar to our own contemporary world. But by providing a ‘tease’ of a science fiction ‘otherness’, we are placed sufficiently on edge to require us to pay especial notice to the peripheral aspects of the film as well as its central elements.

In 5cm Per Second – what is the significance of the rocket launch? How far-along is humanity’s exploration of the solar system in this version of our reality?

In Place Promised In The Early Days – the ever-lingering presence of the tower on the horizon. Just how high is? How can it *be* that high? How was it constructed?

In Your Name – why is the asteroid on course to hit Earth? Would it really cause that much destruction? Did it not cause *enough* destruction?

With the addition of these elements, via the medium of science fiction, Shinkai conjures the allure of ‘fascination’ in much the same way Key visual novel adaptations like Clannad and Kanon do so via ‘magical realism’. Our human nature compels us to seek understanding in the face of the un-understandable.

As opposed to an out-and-out fantasy or science fiction setting, overloaded with the trappings of said genres, instead by utilising only slight elements in a largely realist world, Shinkai’s worlds are suffused with a tantalising nature of something half real, half unreal. A kind of unassuming, distinctly post-modern uncanniness.


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