Makoto Shinkai discussed his inspirations for establishing the tone of “Suzume” and how he approached themes of natural disaster in a conversation for Variety’s Artisans Screening Series moderated by Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge and translated by Mikey McNamara.
Shinkai revealed that with “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” being grouped together as “Barbenheimer,” he expected “Barbie” to carry a similar seriousness to “Oppenheimer.” Thus, he was surprised to see how comedic the film was. But seeing how the film was able to incorporate deeper feminist themes within a comedic framework brought him to a realization regarding his own filmmaking: “This is the type of entertainment that I’m striving to create.”
Similarly, while “Suzume” deals with a devastating central theme — the 2011 earthquake impacting the East side of Japan — Shinkai said he, “didn’t want it to turn into this very dark and heavy movie” and wanted to have a “foundation of entertainment” throughout.
Witnessing the 2011 earthquake served as a turning point for Shinkai as a director. “Fortunately, I was not a direct victim impacted by the earthquake or tsunami, and of course the effects were still felt all the way in Tokyo. But by that same token, I wasn’t sure if I should continue to do what I was doing because is it really a basic need in a time of humanitarian efforts to be able to create animated entertainment?” he said.
Others on Shinkai’s team quit their jobs to return to their families or assist with relief efforts. “After some soul searching and thinking I realized, making animation is the only thing I really am good at and can do. But at the same time, it didn’t really quite sit well with because while I see all of this happening in my surroundings, is this the only way that I can contribute,” he furthered.
He then began to consider what he can do with animated films to incorporate in this idea of natural disaster. This first translated into his 2016 film “Your Name,” with the meteor that broke off from a shooting star and created disaster serving as a metaphor. At the time, he did not want to take a direct approach to addressing the earthquake given how fresh the incident was.
“But now it’s been 12 years since that earthquake, and I think both myself and the general movie-going audience could be perhaps more prepared and ready to accept and embrace what … the direct depiction of the disaster would look like in the context of entertainment,” Shinkai said.
For this reason, he said “Suzume” could be considered “12 years in the making.”
While discussing the specific aspects of the film, Shinkai said several of the artistic and narrative choices — like a chair attempting to kiss Souta — allowed the film to maintain its levity despite the heavy subjects.
Shinkai wrapped up the conversation by reflecting on his beginnings as a filmmaker and the progress he has made since then.
“Oddly enough, I never set out to become a film director. A lot of my earlier works, my shorts, it’s just a very personal project that I wanted to share with me and my friends, and I was making short, five to 10 minute animations on my own,” he said. “Doing that over 20 years, slowly, with each project more people would gather and rally and say, ‘Hey I want to work on your film.’ And 20 years later, we’ve come to this junction.”
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