TOKYO • Wherever Japanese animation film-maker Makoto Shinkai goes these days, he gets some variation on the question of what it is like to be the Next Big Thing.
Specifically, Shinkai, whose Your Name (2016) is the top-grossing movie of the year in Japan, is frequently asked how he feels about being the successor to Hayao Miyazaki, who has towered over Japanese animation for nearly three decades as the beloved creator of critically acclaimed hits such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and the Oscar- winning Spirited Away (2001).
"I feel very honoured, but I think it's an overestimation," Shinkai, 43, said during an interview at the Tokyo office of Toho, the Japanese film production and distribution company. "I don't think anybody can replace Mr Miyazaki."
Yet Your Name, which blends gender-swopping with time travel, a natural disaster and star-crossed teenage lovers set to a Japanese pop soundtrack, is the third-biggest- grossing Japanese movie in the country's history, exceeded only by Miyazaki's Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle (2004).
Since it opened in August, Your Name spent 12 weeks at the top of the box office and has grossed 19.4 billion yen (S$243.8 million).
When I was a teenager, that was the biggest mystery in the world to me: Why don't people connect? Even now, I have that kind of obsession... and I'm trying to search for an answer.
FILM-MAKER MAKOTO SHINKAI on the recurring themes of his work, which includes Japan's top-grossing movie of the year, Your Name
For Shinkai, who until now has been a cult favourite known as much for his work in commercials as for his previous films, Your Name has exceeded all expectations, making more than 10 times as much at the box office as his last movie, Garden Of Words (2013).
Your Name has started a one- week Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles and opened last week on 7,000 screens across China. (Funimation, its United states distributor, will give it a wider US release early next year.) The Japanese government is promoting Your Name - along with Godzilla Resurgence, another box-office hit this year - as a major cultural export.
Early word outside Japan has been strong.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph in London, Robbie Collin described Your Name as "so beautiful, it's almost laughable". Last month, the International Animated Film Society nominated Your Name for an Annie Award in the best independent animated feature category.
In Japan, where the movie has received mostly positive reviews, the film's surprise success has been propelled by word of mouth. Fans are so ardent that they have been making pilgrimages to some of the locations believed to have inspired important scenes in the film.
Although the hit status is new for Shinkai, the themes in Your Name are not. Since his first film, Voices Of A Distant Star (2002) - which he made almost by himself on a computer - Shinkai has explored how young men and women do and do not connect. Text messages disappear, cellphone calls do not go through and characters only just miss meeting on trains.
"Shinkai is a master at depicting and investigating the distance between people," said Jonathan Clements, author of Anime: A History. "He excels at allegorising the way that human beings are separated by gulfs of yearning."
In Your Name, Mitsuha, a country girl who longs to move to the big city, and Taki, a soulful Tokyo teenager, swop bodies in their dreams. Comedy ensues as they each discover the joys and challenges of being in the body of the opposite gender.
But gradually, as they leave cellphone messages for each other describing what each has done in the other's body, romantic feelings kindle even though they have not met.
In a grey cardigan, wire-rimmed glasses and a fuzzy soul patch, Shinkai sipped from a bottle of iced coffee and smiled almost sheepishly as he described the recurring themes of his work.
"When I was a teenager, that was the biggest mystery in the world to me: Why don't people connect?" said Shinkai, who is married with a six-year-old daughter.
"Even now, I have that kind of obsession," he added. "It's kind of a mystery and I'm trying to search for an answer."
As for influences, he did not cite Miyazaki, who recently hinted he would emerge from retirement to make one final film.
Instead, he named Hideaki Anno, an anime director who created the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, and novelist Haruki Murakami. Astute fans might notice some thematic echoes from Murakami's short story, On Seeing The 100 Percent Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.
Beyond the allure of teenage romance, Your Name has struck a chord in Tokyo as it deals with a town's grief after a natural disaster. The comparison is inescapable to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that took nearly 18,500 lives while setting off a nuclear meltdown at a power plant in Fukushima.
"I didn't intend to incorporate that theme into the work from the beginning," Shinkai said. "But, obviously, that was a very big event and disaster for the entire society in Japan."
The movie taps into a sense of regret and wish fulfilment in Japan.
"Many people have the guilt of, 'Oh, there must have been something that we could have done,'" said visiting professor Ryusuke Hikawa at the graduate school of global Japanese studies at Meiji University in Tokyo.
"That is now part of the Japanese psyche."