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Makoto Shinkai’s new anime adventure “Suzume” hits American theaters this weekend after taking the world by storm. Since its Berlin Film Festival premiere, critics have praised this coming-of-age tale about a teenager who lost her mother in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and about the many ways natural disasters have radically changed Japan.
And on top of all of that, there’s a chase scene between a talking cat and a man transformed into a walking three-legged chair.
That blend of wild fantasy and human drama has been at the heart of much of Shinkai’s work. The acclaimed filmmaker has become a box office titan in Japan since the release of his 2016 movie “Your Name,” which tells the story of two teenagers swapping bodies as they struggle to save thousands from a meteor that could level an entire town.
In “Suzume,” a high school student named Suzume Iwato stumbles into a high-stakes adventure when she encounters Souta, a young man searching for mysterious doors among the abandoned ruins left behind by earthquakes and other natural disasters. It turns out that Japan’s earthquakes are being caused by an enormous, otherworldly worm who breaks out through the doors, and it’s Souta’s responsibility to find and seal the doors, at least until that talking cat traps him in a tiny piece of child’s furniture in Suzume’s room.
As Suzume and Souta travel up Japan’s eastern coast to seal the doors and find a way to change Souta back to normal, the young girl finds herself making new friends everywhere she goes and draws closer to Souta. And when his current state as a chair takes a dire turn, her quest becomes deeply personal.
For Shinkai, creating “Suzume” was a balancing act. Even 12 years later, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has left an indelible impact on Japan, and as the director told TheWrap in a one-on-one conversation, this film was his way of creating something personal about that disaster and what it means to live in a society where the ever-present possibility of life-changing calamity is constantly felt in many ways, whether it is the ruins left behind in many cities by the disasters or the constant earthquake alerts people get on their phones.
But at the same time, Shinkai didn’t want “Suzume” to be a bleak film. It is, as he calls it, a “massive entertainment spectacle,” filled with bright colors, action, humor, and tender moments. Read on to see how Shinkai juggled all of these elements, and how his world tour promoting “Suzume” has changed how he sees the film’s message regarding humanity’s relationship with natural disasters.
This interview was done via a translator and has been edited for clarity.
We should probably start with that early twist with Souta being turned into a chair. There were many different objects you could have chosen to turn Souta into. What made you settle on a three-legged chair?
The three-legged chair serves as a sort of comic relief in this massive entertainment spectacle, and the reason I did that is because at the core, the central theme of this film deals with the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and having approached that topic straightforward would have been a much darker film.
So I wanted “Suzume” to offset some of that, that heaviness and that darkness, and we arrived on the design of a three-legged chair. Part of that is because simply having three legs makes it much more unstable. And that instability gives its movement this almost adorable charm. So its very existence on the screen gives off this almost heartwarming and kind of fun texture that you wouldn’t normally have.
When Suzume and Souta close the doors that allow the earthquake-causing worm to enter our world, they call upon the memories of the people who once lived in the abandoned areas destroyed by these disasters and say a prayer in which they return the land to the spirits that created it. How did this prayer come about and how integral was it to what you wanted to say about how natural disasters affect us?
The act of closing the door to the world of the afterlife was something that we settled on both for the film’s message and for the excitement of the scenes where the worm tries to break into the living world. We wanted Suzume’s struggle against these worms to be based around a goal that required a lot of exaggerated movement, so we chose the action of closing a door that is being forced open by this creature.
But the prayer itself is derived from a very, almost Shinto type of prayer. Since many Japanese people go to shrines, they may recognize some of that feel when they’ve seen the film and it makes it relatable to Japanese culture. It connects Suzume’s world to the one that we live in and also reflects on what I wanted to explore with this film, how we lose these places where we live in these disasters and the process of grieving and moving on from that loss.
A prominent supporting character is Suzume’s aunt, Tamaki, as she struggles with sacrificing much of her young adulthood to take care of Suzume after the tsunami. As you wrote the film, what led you to include this very down-to-earth subplot in this fantasy film?
Suzume was a firsthand victim of the Tohoku earthquake she was orphaned as a result of the earthquake and following tsunami, and in Japan there are thousands of people like her who lost loved ones, had their lives completely uprooted and were forced to move across the country. Some of them even to this day, 12 years later, are still unable to return because their hometowns are still being quarantined or have just been left abandoned.
But Tohoku didn’t just affect them, it affected the lives of millions more across the country as people were relocated. So it begs the question: Is Tamaki a firsthand victim of this incident or not? Or is she something in between? In the course of making this film and writing Tamaki, I thought a lot about where I fit on this spectrum of how the earthquake and tsunami affected my life and my personal relationship to the disaster.
I was not directly affected, but I think it affected my own creative process and worldview, when it came to making anime there was a certain level of just anxiety and helplessness. I wondered why it didn’t happen to me or whether it could have happened to me. So I wanted to focus on doing something that I could only do through animation and make something that tries to understand how we live side-by-side with these disasters.
You’ve made a movie that is rooted deeply in Japanese culture and history and is made for a Japanese audience, but you’ve also built a global audience since “Your Name.” Here in the U.S. there have been headlines about enormous floods in California and tornadoes in the midwest. What do you hope a global audience will be able to take from “Suzume” and its exploration of how Japan deals with disaster?
The global audience wasn’t on my mind when I was making “Suzume.” As you said, it was more for a Japanese audience. But more than that, I was making something very personal, for my family and friends and those in my immediate vicinity.
But as I have traveled around the world to screenings of “Suzume,” I’ve noted how all of us, no matter where we are, live side-by-side with the constant possibility of some disaster upending our lives, though how we do so can change so much. When I recently visited New York, I could tell immediately that it was a place that didn’t have to worry about earthquakes because of the density of so many high-rise buildings there.
There’s a part of me that’s envious, perhaps; but at the same time I think some good can come from coexisting with earthquakes and that idea that our lives can be upended in an instant. That can bring melancholy, but it can also drive us to offer help to others and show more compassion or empathy to those affected, because it may not be us hit by a disaster now, but tomorrow, it could be.
Through that empathy, we can help each other find the strength to keep on living when everything in our lives is washed away so abruptly. Perhaps that is the message that could resonate with people who see “Suzume” around the world, even if it wasn’t a message I wasn’t intending when I started making it.