Regularly touted as the ‘next Hayao Miyazaki’, the director’s new film is a surreal, moving study of Japan’s 2011 Tōhoku earthquake – and the collective trauma that still needs processing
In the list of Japan’s 15 highest-grossing cinema releases of all time, three of the entries are written and directed by 50-year-old anime superstar Makoto Shinkai. There’s the body-swap hijinks of Your Name, the apocalyptic romance of Weathering with You, and now Suzume, a mind-bending road-trip fantasy that’s so esoteric it’s almost impossible to describe: not since Clint Eastwood has a filmmaker put so much consideration into how a human being converses with a wooden chair.
First off, Shinkai’s sixth full-length feature looks absolutely gorgeous, building upon the intricacy and playfulness of his recent IMAX-ready crowdpleasers. The story itself is similarly ambitious, if not utterly confounding. Suzume, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, develops a crush on a handsome, shaggy-haired guy, Sōta, whose job, she learns, is to slam doors before ginormous worms spurt out and instigate earthquakes. An extra complication is when a keystone – in this case, a talking cat – transforms Sōta into a three-legged chair, forcing the duo to embark on a quest to nullify an escaped worm’s destructive plans. Somehow, I’m only describing the opening half-hour.
“I’m scared of people getting bored,” Shinkai tells me, via an interpreter, in King’s Cross’s Renaissance Hotel. “If cinemagoers know what’s coming, they check their phones.” In March, hours before a preview at BFI Southbank, the director has carried the same philosophy to our interview: on the table between us is a real-life model of Sōta as a three-legged chair, brought in to surprise journalists.
The excitement over Shinkai’s London visit – the tickets sold out immediately – speaks to his global popularity. Suzume grossed over $100 million in Japan, it was the first anime selected for competition at the Berlinale since Spirited Away, and it already has its own subreddit (not to be confused for Shinkai’s subreddit). Even so, the regularly touted “next Miyazaki” speaks openly about touchy subjects that bigger directors tend to avoid. One of them is the age gap: Sōta, when not a chair, is in his early 20s; Suzume, though, isn’t old enough to have an account on Hinge, the dating app for furniture-related hook-ups.
“I wanted Sōta to be older than her, because he knows more about the world,” Shinkai explains. “There are parts where Suzume might have feelings for him, but it’s a road movie and a coming-of-age story, not a romance. It’s about her meeting someone different and discovering the unknown. She then has a conversation with herself, closes the door, and says, ‘I’m moving on.’ The potential love story makes it more fun, but it wasn’t necessary.”
While Your Name and Weathering with You were more overt girl-meets-boy romances, they were layered with indirect references to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, a tragedy that caused at least 18,000 deaths. For Suzume, the exploration of trauma is more direct – a prerequisite for the interview was that I watch an educational video about the event – and has Suzume visiting the ruins of Tōhoku.
Given that trauma can infiltrate the brain via memories and nightmares, does animation serve as an ideal medium for interrogating the subject matter? “I think if you were to deal with the Great Japan Earthquake with live-action, it might be too real,” Shinkai says. “With animation, you have things like the chair, the cat, and all these fictional elements that were drawn by human hands, alongside elements of the real tragedy drawn by human hands. They’re treated equally, side by side.
“The Great Japan Earthquake is a trauma that all Japanese people share. But if we leave it at that, it stops us from moving forward. A lot of people don’t agree, but there comes a point when you need to start facing up to this enormous tragedy in media that’s meant for entertainment.”
Notably, Shinkai’s worldwide fanbase skews young, a fact I credit to his films taking the concerns of teenagers seriously. However, the director disagrees, instead citing the popularity of manga as a stepping stone to his features. Later, when I ask if any images are inspired by dreams, he replies, “Not for particular scenes, but I do remember the dreams I have every night. I often dream of things that made me nervous or excited at school, like sitting next to people I didn’t know, taking exams, or being on a train with a girl I fancied sitting on the other end of a carriage and trying to figure out how I could pluck up the courage to speak to her. That childish heart of mine is still there, within me, preserved in ice. Maybe that’s why I make films with teenage protagonists.”
‘That childish heart of mine is still there, within me, preserved in ice. Maybe that’s why I make films with teenage protagonists’ – Makoto Shinkai
Shinkai’s biggest film to date is still Your Name, which amassed $382 million worldwide. The long-awaited – well, long-in-the-making and thus requires waiting by default – live-action version of Your Name has been in development hell for several years with JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot, most recently seeing Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) replaced by Carlos López Estrada (Raya and the Last Dragon)
With Your Name remaining in the cultural consciousness, Shinkai has recently wondered if all the jokes hold up in a post-#MeToo era. One, in particular, concerns him: when Taki wakes up in Mitsuha’s body for the first time, Mitsuha immediately fondles her own breasts. “It’s tricky,” he says. “Your Name is about a boy/girl body swap. I could make that now, but it’s about how you show certain things. It isn’t that I would be under pressure to be politically correct; I’d just be thinking about the best way to make the film for today’s society. So what would I do? I think he would probably still want to touch the breasts, but maybe not so much squeezing them.”
Will the live-action Your Name still have the chest-grabbing gag? “I’ve seen several versions of the script. Some feature the breasts scene, some don’t. A few years ago, a version I saw did have that scene in it, and the more recent rewrites did not. I give my opinion, but the live-action film belongs to the director, so I leave it to the director.”
Whereas most filmmakers pretend not to devour reviews, Shinkai openly acknowledges that he reads feedback. When speaking to Dazed in 2019, the director joked it’s a shame that “critics haven’t objected to Weathering with You as much as Your Name”. With Suzume, his philosophy has changed – or at least been reworded.
“There’s always a risk you’re going to offend someone, especially when you’re making something like Suzume, which is based on real-life events,” Shinkai says. “There are still people who were victims of those events, and impacted by them. There are people who didn’t want me to tell this story, who don’t know why I made it, who find it incredible that I would make something like this. I feel sorry for them.
“But, at the same time, does that mean I shouldn’t have made the film? Whenever you make a film, whenever you make anything, there’s always a risk that you’ll offend somebody. If there’s no risk of offending someone, there’s also no chance that anyone’s going to be moved by it. So although I don’t set out to offend people, I also don’t think it’s good to change what I’m doing to avoid offending people. You just have to know the risk is there, and not be afraid.”
Suzume is in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 14 April in both subtitled Japanese and English dub