Influence of the I-Novel (私小説) on Makoto Shinkai’s Films


The I-Novel is a term that has probably eluded most people. Roughly translated from the Japanese words watakushi shōsetsu or shishōsetsu (私小説), the I-Novel refers to a literary genre that was conceptualized in Japan. Derived from the word ‘watashi’, one of the many words for ‘I’, the I-Novel’s main purpose is to explore the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the self, the author in the case of the written word (Dodd, 2012), therefore sometimes called a ‘mental state novel’ (Mack, 2010). The I-Novel was birthed in the middle to late years of Taishō emperor Yoshihito’s rule, more commonly referred to as the Taisho period of 1912–26 (Pletcher, 2009). Although debate on the beginnings of the genre exist, Hanshell (2013) claims that Tamaya Katai was the first author to write an I-Novel The Futon in 1907. While his stories originally started as purely autobiographical material, when he ran out of ideas the books began to overlap with fiction (Hanshell, 2013).

Influential, albeit now deceased, authors in this genre include Sato Haruo, Kasai Zenzo and Nagai Kafu (Mack, 2010). Popular novelist Haruki Murakami has given the world a fresh look at the I-Novel, although he has been criticized for using the word ‘ore’, a non-polite form of the word ‘I’ in his books (Mack, 2010), and the characters being incredibly Westernized (Wu, 2013). Since the best selling publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987, Murakami’s influence has reached far beyond that of the written word but also into anime in Makoto Shinkai’s films. This article intends to examine the features of the I-Novel and examine what elements are present in Shinkai’s movies.

5 Centimeters Per Second Trailer (with Eng Subs)

The I-novel goes beyond a first person narrative, a writing style that was popular in Japan before the genre’s inception. The careful weaving of autobiographical and fictituous material was supposed to be done in such a way that it confused the reader about whether the story was based on reality or was a product of the writer’s imagination. As such, it has sometimes been considered part of the reading experience and an “ideological paradigm that established the way in which a literary work should be judged and described” (Suzuki, 1996, as cited in Dodd, 2012). Murakami is a perfect example of this.

“Many of my readers thought that Norwegian Wood was a retreat for me, a betrayal of what my works had stood for until then. For me personally, it was an adventure, a challenge […]. I borrowed the details of the protagonist’s university environment and daily life from those of my own student days. As a result, many people think it is an autobiographical novel, but in fact it is not autobiographical at all. My own youth was far less dramatic, far more boring than his. If I had simply written the literal truth of my own life, the novel would have been no more than 15 pages long.”

Criticism of the genre was delayed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, as it wiped out 90% of Tokyo’s housing and the trauma of the event on Japan’s history and people can not be done justice on paper (Dodd, 2012; Denawa, 2005). Since the I-Novel is an exploration of self, an assumption of the genre is that the narrator is honest and genuine about the experiences and the sentiments behind them, however this very idea has been questioned by Dodd (2012) in examining an early literary work called Watakushi. The story revolves around theft in a University dormitory and the main character and narrator is found to be the one committing the crimes. A more common complaint of the I-Novel is that since it relies on a stream of consciousness it can sometimes lack story, character detail or structure (Mack, 2010). While these criticisms may have been true for earlier works in the genre, Murakami’s writings have been loved for their inclusion of humor, in depth characters and critique of society or political events, even if the story is created to evoke mood and emotions rather than be intensely complicated. It is these features, along with “themes of alienation and loss” that are seen in Murakami’s (Wu, 2013) and Shinakai’s writing.

Makoto Shinkai’s first animated work was Other Worlds in 1997 although his work got more attention when She and Her Cat (1999) and Voices of a Distant Star (2002) won a number of awards, which he made entirely on his own using himself and wife for voice talent. The films have been greatly loved by anime and non-anime fans alike for their colorful artwork, fluid animation, impressive lighting effects, soundtrack and of course, his writing and direction. Shinkai draws inspiration from film maker Shunji Iwai, famous for All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). As the trailer below shows, the anime film director seems to have been inspired by story, musical and visual elements, such as the font and style of titles across the middle of the screen, seen in She and Her Cat and Voices of a Distant Star. Shinkai has made four major features since those with a studio called CoMix Wave Films, and Shinkai noted in an 2011 interview from Anime News Network that his writing is greatly influenced by Haruki Murakami’s works, a writer with a modern take on the I-Novel genre.

The similarities between Murakami and Shinkai’s writing becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has experienced their work. In line with the I-Novel, Shinkai’s films are largely driven by introspective narration of the main character, which focus on the loneliness they experience, although since it is not confined to a book Shinkai’s movies take more creative liberty in the settings, distancing themselves from the naturalistic element present in the I-Novel. As noted by Shinkai on Anime Diet, “[My films] were about the characters searching for who they are inside, for their self-identity. I had wanted to write stories that explore the kind of inner emotions a character might have.” When asked why he keeps returning to these same themes, he said, “It’s hard for me to explain even to myself, why do I keep depicting this strong yearning or unrequited love? Well, if you want to psychoanalyze me, there might be various reasons, but even I don’t know what they are that clearly. I just seem to be constantly drawn to it.”

Only two of Shinkai’s seven films have that slice of life element, with others including fantasy or science fiction. Shinkai admits that he does not have a preference for either genre, but simply likes to alternate and vary the stories he tells. This is not unlike Murakami. By pure coincidence, both She and Her Cat and Kafka on the Shore (2002) include sentient cats. Murakami’s stories like 1Q84 (2009) and Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) have supernatural elements. In addition, After Dark (2004) and The Place Promised in Our Early Days include female characters who sleep for years. This is also a complete coincidence as they were both released in the same year. From the more flexible format of a film, unlike an I-Novel, Shinkai tells his story from a multitude of perspectives. Only two of his films are written solely from the perspective of a male character. Both Shinkai and Murakami seem to leave their stories open ended, which is done deliberately by Shinkai, “that’s because I wanted to have the audience think about the ending themselves. In Japan that isn’t the major style of how films end, and for my films I wanted to make something unique.”

Like the I-Novel genre Shinkai's movies focus on the emotional and thought processes of the characters in narration, with similar themes to Haruki Murakami's works.
Like the I-Novel genre Shinkai’s movies focus on the emotional and thought processes of the characters in narration, with similar themes to Haruki Murakami’s books.

The main feature that separates an I-Novel from a first person narrative is the inclusion of autobiographical elements blurring with fiction. One small detail that is driven from experience is Shinkai’s inclusion of cats in a number of his films, “Ever since I was a child I always had cats with me. I’m from the Nagano prefecture, and while living there I had cats, and after I came to Tokyo I also picked up some strays and started raising them.”. The relationships depicted in Shinkai’s films do not appear to be from anything specific, although this could be the director wanting to keep his private life quiet. In Electric Sheep Magazine Shinkai answered the question with, “I can’t pinpoint any particular experience to share with you and to be honest, this theme hasn’t come from watching any particular film. It is just something that has come out of myself.” In this sense, Shinkai is deviating strongly from the I-Novel style, although the descriptions of emotions are believable and descriptive enough to be drawn from experience. The two writers stories also seem to jump back and forth between referencing the past and present in a sometimes erratic pattern of thought, another feature of the I-Novel.

Makoto Shinkai
Makoto Shinkai

It is clear from the focus on longing, isolation and love in the main characters that Shinkai’s stories and writing style have far more in common with Haruki Murakami’s modern spin on the I-Novel than from its original inception. The anime director’s films do not have an obvious autobiographical element that the I-Novel is known for, although the writing is derived from unspecified emotional experience. Both Murakami and Shinkai both share a likeness for surreal and fantasy, with a number of amusing coincidences in the releases and plot points of their works, although Shinkai’s stories often use technology to create connection and separation to the characters. However, the two are both loved for very similar reasons so anyone who is a fan of Haruki Murakami might find a lot to like in Shinkai, and vice versa.

Works Cited

Denawa, M. (2005). Behind the accounts of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship. Retrieved 9th December 2015 from:

Dodd, S. (2012). History in the Making: The Negotiation of History and Fiction in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s Shunkinshō. Japan Review (24), 151–168. Retrieved 9th December 2015 from:

Fitch, A. (2008). Interview with Makoto Shinkai. Electric Sheep Magazine. Retrieved 9th December 2015 from:

Gendomike. (2013). The garden of thoughts: An interview with Makoto Shinkai. Anime Diet. Retrieved 7th December 2015 from:

Henshall, K. (2013). Historical Dictionary of Japan to 1945. Scarecrow Press.

Mack, E. (2010). Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value. Duke University Press.

Manray, G. (2011). Interview: Makoto Shinkai. Anime News Network. Retrieved 7th December 2015 from:

Pletcher, K. (2009). Taishō period: Japanese history. Encyclopaedia Britannica: School and Library Subscribers. Retrieved 9th December 2015 from:

Rubin, J. (2000). Translator’s Note, as cited in Murakami, H. (1987). Norwegian Wood. Vintage Books.

Wu, J. (2013). Colorful Haruki Murakami and His Ever-growing Popularity: Why do People Like His Works?. The Artifice. Retrieved 9th December 2015 from:

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. slacker

    Looks like I need to watch more of his stuff.

  2. I’ve only seen two of this guy’s films, but I’m not a big fan of them. Maybe it’s partially because I’m just not a fan of the theme of love and I’m not as interested in seeing it explored, as others. But even taking that into account, I find that Millenium Actress, by Satoshi Kon, does a far better job of dealing with the theme than what I’ve seen of Sninkai’s films. I think the fact that 5cmpersecond features child characters, is something that makes it hard to accept any kind of romance or care that much for it. If a romance is to satisfy me, I find they should involve adults, or people in their late teens. I do find the animation in his works to be great, but I wouldn’t put it on the same level of visual masterpieces like Redline or Akira.

    • DarcyDeeAySea

      I can partially agree with what you stated about Shinkai’s portrayal of love feeling quite juvenile due to the ages of the characters involved, but to say that they aren’t visual masterpieces at the same level of Akira or Redline is doing his team of animators serious injustice. I’m not sure if you watched them online or on DVD or blu-ray, but when watching his films you MUST go out of your way to find the highest quality video/audio version you can otherwise you just can’t appreciate and judge them at the level they should be.

      • Jordan

        It’s interesting you mention Millennium Actress. I wouldn’t even compare the two. Millennium actress is much richer in terms of its story and characters. It is also far more complex and has more than just a romance story. I don’t think Millennium Actress tries to play off one or two emotions, but multiple ones. Shinkai’s films are more simplistic, but in a way I think that is why they are effective.
        It is completely fine to not like them – especially if you are not a fan of romance in general. I would hate them if I didn’t like romance. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Except 5 Centimeters Per Second is not about the theme of love and it doesn’t explore it. The romance was simply a vehicle used to get across the film’s message of learning to let go of the past., as evidenced by how the 2nd and 3rd acts were showing how the main character was wasting his life away until he finally learned to let go The main character after a point was no longer in love with the girl, but just his memory of her. This is specifically why it showed them as children, you really weren’t meant to take it as some sort of “true love” and moreso just a fling between kids. However nostalgia clouds our judgement and makes things seem like they were more meaningful than what they actually were I also wouldn’t consider Millennium Actress as something that explored the theme of love because by the end of it, we come to find out that the main character was no longer in love with the painter (if she ever really was) and really just loved the thrill of the chase.

    • I actually think that the so called “theme of love” in his films are moreso a vehicle for the message of the films. As in, I think the films are less about the romance as people think. I see a lot of people claim 5 Centimeters Per Second to be a romance and I don’t agree. The romance only lasts for the first act and it was used to bring home the message of the film, which is to learn when to let go of the past. The main character was less in love with the girl and more his memory of her. It represented a “perfect” point in his life and instead of moving on with his life, he was constantly hung up on it and allowed his life to pass by him. It wasn’t until the end of the film where he finally learned to let go which gives hope that he will finally turn his life around instead of simply living in the past.

  3. Aletha Wampler

    I think that the movie Childeren who chase lost voices from deep below is his best work, it’s just mysterious and kinda sad. I loved it, best anime movie ever.

  4. He is truly inspiring. An honest, hard working person which I bet has such a wonderful personality. No wonder I love his work so much! I can relate to many of the things I saw in his movies and I respect and appreciate everything he is doing. Makoto Shinkai thank you for existing and thank you for creating such beauty.

  5. ericg

    This I-Novel phenomenon seems to be pretty similar to slice of life (which you mention in the article at one point). I’ve always been a fan of that genre, so I should check out a couple of these I-Novels. I don’t know about Murakami, though–Kafka on the Shore was a bit too weird for my tastes. Has he written anything more… realistic? Also, do you know if there are any other contemporary I-Novelists that have books released in the West?

    This was a really interesting read. Great article.

    • Jordan

      Thanks a lot! To my knowledge there are not many ‘modern’ I-Novel authors out there since it is more of a historic phenomenon. I agree with you about the slice-of-life genre. It seems to share similarities.
      Norwegian Wood is a very popular Murakami novel and I found it (brutally) realistic. I would give that book a try, although I have not read many of his other novels so perhaps something else might suit you better. Hope this helps.

  6. Emily Deibler

    This is a highly informative read. Excellent work!

  7. Kevin Mohammed

    Excellent article! I am actually working on a novel based that seems similar to an I-Novel. I never knew that there was an actual term for the style of writing, but maybe I should look into this styles of writing.

    My favorite Makoto Shinkai work has to be The Garden of Words! The style of art and music is simply breath-taking.

  8. Marilee

    This guy is one of my fav directors! but his story are always about distance and love and sad. It maybe his life? imagine?

  9. Shinkai relates anime on True life . And the animation, man! So beautiful . Even though I only watched his 5 cm/sec , Garden of Words , She and Her cat and Dareka no Manazashi , He’s a great director for me. I hope someday he’ll make anime series.

  10. I love his works since he definitely observe details that a normal person
    wouldn’t even take a moment to look at (sky, trees, food….). And my
    favourite work is Children Who Chase Lost Voices.

  11. clarkii

    He lacks in most of his stories and characters.

    • Actually, he doesn’t lack at that at all, his’ are some of the most realistic depictions of people and situations, if you see Miyazaki’s films (which i love too) most of his characters’ personalities are not realistic at all, but Shinkai’s characters depict the every day man or woman. And his stories are almost perfect, for example in 5 centimeters per second, it’s a story about distance and undestarding loss, viewed mostly in Tohno’s eyes except for the second part, which is taken from Kanae’s point of view, so he doesn’t need to elaborate on the rest of the characters, that’s what makes it even more realistic, you only see one point of view, less exposition=more realistic.

  12. Brittanie Bautista

    The only Shinkai work I’ve seen is Garden of Words (which I really liked) but I’m now interested in 5cm per second. I’m like his style from what I’ve seen from that.

  13. Hickson

    I was greatly fascinated by his distinct style when I first came across his works (in summary: rich atmosphere, enchanting visuals, attention to detail, mature presentation, human characters, clean yet intimate romance, subtlety, bittersweet portrayal of life).

    He’s actually one of the main reasons I got into anime. You did an awesome job analyzing his merits!

    As for my personal favorites, my respect for anime directors depends on the degree to which I’m fascinated by their style (how much I like the way they think, direct or write), how many works they’ve produced, and how many of their works managed to deeply impress me. Osamu Tezuka currently stands at the top as my favorite anime director, after I watched his 15 experimental animations and the Metropolis anime movie based on his manga. Yuasa Masaaki is second, Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata is third and Satoshi-kon is fourth. Takahata is by the way a genius at using subtlety and writing strong slice of life stories with believable human characters, so I recommend his works highly! Especially Akage no Anne.

  14. What a genius. From my point of view this guy is far better than Miyazaki. I’m not much of a fantasy guy to be honest, but I think that his movies are aimed at older audiences and that’s why most people think he’s overrated, they’re not mature enough or have never experienced such situations so they couldn’t possibly understand. 

  15. korlynee

    Shinkai is overrated. I think Satoshi Kon, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii, and Mamoru Hosoda deserve way more recognition than he does.

    • Jordan

      I’ve seen Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Hosoda and Mamoru Oshii get plenty of attention. Katsuhiro Otomo kind of gets forgotten among those though.

    • Matchbox

      A little late but Otomo’s not very well known for his other work besides Akira. Kon’s great though, and i’ll definitely check out Oshii and Hosoda!

  16. interesting topic

  17. most of his stories either fall short, lack charcter development causing you to care, and some key framing and inbetweening are incorrect when switching scenes (the only exception i have is 5 centimeters per second)

    • Jordan

      For his short films I think this is understandable since there is only a limited amount of time to express a particular idea or explore characters, although I agree that the pacing of his stories can have problems. For example, The Place Promised in Our Early Days frustrates me to no end because of the pacing, even though the story itself was interesting.

  18. Shinkai is like a sniper who always goes for the feels.

  19. Exie Sena

    This guy is a genius. He makes the most beautiful detailed animation I’ve ever seen…

  20. sembada

    He’ll be the next Hayao Miyazaki imo.

  21. You give very insightful commentary to anime, please keep doing this.

  22. Great observation, and I definitely need to check out his short films.

  23. One of the best directors around.

  24. I’ll never understand the hate Shinkai gets, for me his movies are like little poems, where every little detail from the lighting and cherry blossoms to the limited time the action takes place adds to the overall feel. Its no wonder that he studied literature in college, his productions many times feel like allegories or expressions of a momentaneous beauty, this kind of expressions are engrained in japanese literature. Their haikus are allways looking for a fading beuty in the natural movements of life. Thats why the conflict in his movies allways feel natural, like a common part of life, even the sci fi ones, and thats why there are constant representations of a kind of natural flow of things, for example the cherry blossoms falling, the rain, the trees moving, the trains moving, the birds moving, even the characters themselfs. Thats why I don’t see the point of criticizing his movies by a suppoused lack of a strong narrative, when thats not what Shinkai is trying to do, people are expecting a strong tradicional story, while losing the fading but beautiful poem like nature of his works.

    • Jordan

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I agree. 🙂 sounds like you’d enjoy Haruki Murakami’s novels. You should try find one if you can!

  25. Swisher

    i really like this guy…….. n love his animations…..and anime…….

  26. I really enjoy this kind of analysis style thing! Keep up the good work!

  27. Thank you so much for analyzing Makoto Shinkai, I have just watched some of his stuff and they are absolutely beautiful.

  28. I mean like I love his work, his story and anime graphics everything is just so beautiful the anime that he made like “5 centimeters per second… It’s just… Yeah he made them so happy and beautiful, until it he ending it’s so sad and emotional that every movies I’ve seen from him the ending is so bad like “the garden of words” and watch 4 of his movies and still has sad endings… I hope his next movie has a good ending, otherwise it would turn out like 5 centimeters per second and that was the most emotional, saddest, and best love story that I ever watched but the animr turned out to be a sad ending…

  29. I really love Makoto Shinkai’s movie even if I’m not a big fan of the slice of life genre. It is true that anime like 5 centimeters per second somewhat lacks character details, but they offer more in other aspects. I didn’know about the influence of I-Novel and Murakami on his works, so now I understand even more his style, and I like it as it is, as a specific and personal view of animated stories.

  30. ChristelleMarie Chua

    I never heard of I-Novels, and I love both Shinkai’s and Murakami’s work. I draw heavily from their mix of magic and reality. I’m glad to know that these supernatural slice of life stories can call a genre their own. I wonder how something like this would fare in more popular venues in the west?

  31. This a great article for introducing the I-novel to those who’ve never heard of it before.

  32. I do find that I-novels to be very interesting and I think that they have been a big influence on Japanese ligature. Most especially in the manga and aníme. She and her cat was just released in an aníme this year.

  33. Hello! Thank you for this informative read. I especially appreciate the citations! I am familiar with Murakami’s work and had a strong reaction to “All About Lily Chou-Chou”, but I was not familiar with the history of the I-Novel nor Makoto Shinkai’s work. I appreciate the lessons I received through this article, and I definitely know whose filmography I’ll be exploring next!

  34. JudyPeters

    Thank you for leaving my mind spinning with ideas that I will go and explore in much further detail. I love Murakami but you’ve opened up a whole new vista for me.

  35. The I-Novels origins in the Taishō Era seems to track fairly closely with similar literary trends occurring in China in this same time.

  36. Love his work! I once wrote an article about Shinkai’s film on another site.

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