Shinkai’s biggest fan – Noritaka Kawaguchi

 

A man who could be living the life in Roppongi driving around in an open air benz. Instead he made a 15 year bet on an amateur anime director who made a 5 min anime short about a cat and its owner.

 

The anime director’s name is Shinkai Makoto.

 

And the man’s name is Noritaka Kawaguchi.

 

Shinkai’s Biggest Fan.

 

A lot of people know of Shinkai’s story. Of how a modest, humble literature graduate who might have returned home to take up the family business, decided to instead join a game company. Work at day and then on his own animations at night, the man created a 5 minute short She and Her Cat, burned the CD-R himself and sold them at Comiket and mails. It was well received and not long after he made the fateful decision to quit his job, so began his journey as an anime movie director with the one man short film Voices of a Distant Star. From there he made a few others, had a few missteps along the way, but ultimately he made Your Name.

 

As I looked more and more into Shinkai’s footsteps, I found there are plenty others who travelled with Shinkai on his incredible journey, and one man among them, is Noritaka Kawaguchi. Shinkai’s biggest believer.

 

Kawaguchi is a businessman, after graduating university he joined Itochu, one of Japan’s largest sogo shosha (kind of like investment fund conglomerate). After a few years in the company, he was assigned to work in the group’s game related business in Akiba. In 1998 he was appointed to lead the newly formed Comix Wave Inc, at a age of just 32. [1]

 

In 2001 one of the staff at Mangazoo, an associated digital publishing business that had been merged into Comix Wave the year before, heard about Shinkai as the guy who worked 5 days a week and made anime in his spare time plus burning and selling CD-Rs. Too much work for one guy. So the company reached out, offering to at least press and sell the CD-R for him. [3]

 

That was the start of the relationship between Shinkai and Comix Wave.

 

Shinkai had been concepting Voices of a Distant Star for a few months then, however there were limits to what one could do in the short time outside of work [4]. Seeing this the people from Mangazoo offered to cover the costs and encouraged Shinkai to make a go for it. [3]

 

Kawaguchi described their first meeting. (The purpose of the meeting is unclear, described as soon after Shinkai’s 28th birthday, putting it around spring of 2001. Possibly as a meeting to get commitment for Voices). Meeting at a restaurant in Harajuku, Shinkai was already sitting there when he arrived. A very polite, friendly man. [5]

 

Through the making of Voices of a Distant Star, Kawaguchi was convinced of Shinkai’s genius and begins his unwavering faith in supporting him. [6]

 

With the success of Voices of a Distant Star, Comix Wave was on board for Shinkai’s next film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days. The production was rocky and the film barely made it out the door.

 

Nevertheless, the company and Shinkai continued onward to 5 cm per second.

 

Around this time the future of Comix Wave was being reviewed. The company was almost 10 years old and options were explored as to what to do with it. In the end in 2007, a few month before the release of 5 cm per second, the company was split into 3 and bought out by the senior managements: Bulls-eye, Minori (which Shinkai would go on to make the OP for its games EF) and Comix Wave Film, which inherited the name.[7]  For his part in the management buy out, Kawaguchi financed million dollar loans in his own name, making his bet on Shinkai very much a personal one. [9]

 

(Shinkai is not a conventional director, to match neither could Kawaguchi afford to be conventional on the business side. While Shinkai’s growing success has given Comix Wave some animation studio colors, it mustn’t be forgotten that it was founded and still is, a publishing company.)

 

Unlike many of its compatriots Comix Wave controlled its own destiny and Kawaguchi was determined to forge a different path. Prior to Children who Chase Lost Voices, Comix Wave took the risk and handled both distribution of film and dvds themselves, including overseas sales, allowing them to reap a much larger share of the successes. [8]

 

The evergreen nature of Shinkai’s works gave the DVDs long tails, selling well years after release, combined with the greater share of the revenue the steady income kept Comix Wave going between releases, and the company managed to stay small and focused. Kawaguchi compared Shinkai’s works to those of Haruki Murakami, it was something people felt special and wanted something physical to connect to. [8]

 

From very early Kawaguchi had his sights set internationally, borrowing on his experience and networks from Itochu. [2] (How much he worked to expand Shinkai’s overseas audience is not clear though it’s probably intentional, working with JPF to host a workshop in the middle east then encouraging Shinkai to spend a year in England, then the interviews and collaboration with chinese anime upstarts). As early as Voices of a Distant Star, he had been evaluating the state of pirated DVDs in China and looked to make a move there when the time is mature.[12] By the time 5 cm per second came out, Shinkai had a dedicated overseas fan base and overseas sales became a vital income for Comix Wave.

 

The failure of Children who Chase Lost Voices was not just impactful for Shinkai but on Kawaguchi and Comix Wave itself. In the interview he hinted at staff tensions and more than the financial loses, it was the feeling of having let his staff down, having had them invest the golden years of their life into the film. But even if it lead to loses, he felt it was more important to be able to look back and think they put in everything and had no regrets. [8]

 

Kawaguchi had to finance additional loans in his own name to recapitalize the company and worked hard to avoid the company being in the red for a second year in order to stave off the banks. Thankfully with the help of income from overseas, they managed to recover the production cost of Lost Voices after 2 years. [6] [8]

 

Learning from the experience with Lost Voices, a different approach was taken with Garden of Words. A limited theater release combined with little to no advertising. Instead the DVD and downloads were made available at the same time on release to great success.[7] With Garden of Words, both Comix Wave and Shinkai had turned a corner. (A similar approach is being used for Shikioriori)

 

Shinkai is not the only creator at Comix Wave. There’s another handful of manga and anime creators that Comix Wave help produce and publish for, to mixed successes.[11] (Peeping Life has a decent following on Youtube, so maybe it’s doing quite okay) For now, Comix Wave still mostly revolves around Shinkai.

 

With the success of Your Name, Comix Wave has turned a new page. Kawaguchi is looking to lay the foundation for something more than just Shinkai’s supporting studio.

 

Kawaguchi saw himself as someone who could help bring changes to the industry and sought to value those who worked on the films well.

 

The box office line that Your Name needed to hit to definitely see a next time from those on the production committee was 3 billion yen. Kawaguchi thus had announced before release to the staffs that should Your Name hit 3.5 billion, there would be a round of bonuses. (In a way he jinxed himself), that number was of course broken in record time. The first round of bonuses were handed out on just 15th of September (film was released only on 26th August). The bonuses were given to not only Comix Wave staffs, while it was not possible to give a bonus to all, where possible outsiders were also rewarded for their involvements. [7]

 

Comix Wave had been a small studio, many did not even realize Comix Wave had in house production capabilities.[7] With the huge windfall and assured future revenue from continued sales and merchandising, Comix Wave has been on a recruitment spree. While some of the staffs were experienced animators, about half were fresh recruits. [9] Kawaguchi wants Comix Wave to become a place that nurtures new talents that will sustain the anime industry, with a view that fairly paid salary staffs will reflect quality in the works produced. [7]

 

However the company had been structured to support Shinkai, with a very lean staff meant to support a single anime production at a time, to train up the new recruits will take time and opportunity, something the studio did not have. Comix Wave needed a second production line. (Shikioriori presented the perfect opportunity). The collaboration with Haoliner meant finance was shouldered by the chinese side while Comix Wave dealt with the productions, and an opportunity to give its staffs much needed experience. [12]

 

(Perhaps in a few years, Comix Wave would become a place known for producing some of the best animator and artists)

 

Kawaguchi remarked that Shinkai is someone who writes even emails and schedules with such grace and poetic beauty, a man who exhibited a sparkle even in the everyday mundane. [5] He could be enjoying the life from his apartment in Roppongi, driving his open air Benz; instead he made a bet on that young man he met at the Harajuku restaurant. [8]

 

And for 15 years, the man patiently watched and worked, his faith never wavering, determined to support and nurture that talent. Now after all that Shinkai and he have achieved, he looks to give something back to the anime industry, and perhaps one day, see Shinkai walk down the red carpet. [8]

 

[1] Hear from the Spirit of the Wandering Samurai, First Half (rough translation), Itochu Facebook, 2017

[2] Hear from the Spirit of the Wandering Samurai, Latter Half (rough translation), Itochu Facebook, 2017

[3] Framing Makoto Shinkai:15 Years of Anime Art from the Director of“Your Name, Crunchyroll, 2017

[4] Youtube DVD Interview, probably from the Hoshi no Koe dvd release.

[5] Comics Star Awards Interview, Bilibili, 2015

[6] Your Name. The man who believed in Makoto Shinkai. Interview of Comix Wave Film’s Noritaka Kawaguchi (rough translation). Yahoo Japan News, 2016

[7] The decade leading up to Your Name (rough translation), Nikkei Business, 2017

[8] How will profit from Your Name be used (rough translation), Nikkei Business, 2017

[9] Frenzy! Anime Industry (rough translation), Toyokeizai, 2017

[10] All about Shinkai’s works, from CEO of Comix Wave, Talking of Anime Business (rough translation). Anime Anime Biz, 2013

[11] Interview with representative from Comix Wave (rough translation), Wakuwork 2019 Interview with Exhibiting Businesses, 2018

[12] Your Name’s Producer Kawaguchi Noritaka speak on Overseas Marketing and the issue faced by the Anime industry (rough translation), Daily Cyzo, 2018

 

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