The Makoto Shinkai interview: On ‘Suzume’ and the universal language of his films

The legendary Japanese director, behind blockbuster anime features like ‘Your Name’ and ‘Weathering with You,’ talks about his latest film that is inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami

April 20, 2023 04:12 pm | Updated April 24, 2023 01:03 am IST

Makoto Shinkai

Makoto Shinkai

“Trying to come to terms with the fact that I am fully gonna bawl my eyes out over the love story between a high school girl and a little yellow chair,” reads the topmost comment on the Suzume trailer on the YouTube page Rotten Tomatoes Trailers. It’s the best summation of mood I could find. The films of Makoto Shinkai — the Japanese anime legend behind The Garden of Words, Your Name, Weathering with You, and now Suzume— are as whimsical and emotionally forthright as the excitement they generate. He works with perhaps the oldest of anime staples (teenage love and loss, environmental cataclysm), yet manages to give them his own, unique spin.

Watch | In conversation with director Makoto Shinkai

I meet Shinkai at a plush hotel in Mumbai, two days before the India release of Suzume. The film has been dubbed in Hindi; PVR Pictures is distributing it domestically. A replica of the aforementioned yellow chair sits next to Shinkai. In the film, it belongs to Suzume Iwato, a 17-year-old schoolgirl whose mission it becomes to shut inter-dimensional doors popping up across Japan. Whenever she fails, violent, tsunami-causing earthquakes rip through the island nation, as they had in the Tōhoku region in 2011. Suzume is accompanied on this journey by Sōta, a mysterious handsome stranger who’s been trapped, for complicated reasons, inside the three-legged chair.

‘Suzume’ follows a 17-year-old schoolgirl on a supernatural mission to prevent earthquakes across Japan

‘Suzume’ follows a 17-year-old schoolgirl on a supernatural mission to prevent earthquakes across Japan

In his geeky mop-top and round glasses, Shinkai looks very much like a creator of animes. This is his second visit to India, and it’s quite a story. In 2019, an Indian teenager from Jaipur, Divishth Pancholi, started a petition on to release Weathering with You in India. It fetched all of 20 signatures in the first week. Once word picked up on Indian anime YouTube channels, though, the number ran up to 50,000. Shinkai saw the petition (and more like it) and consented to his first theatrical release in India, even flying down to Delhi to meet with fans called ‘otakus’, a once-pejorative but increasingly commonplace term for manga-and-anime-obsessed youth.

Through an interpreter, Shinkai spoke about his huge, vociferous fandom in India, the impact of the 2011 earthquake on his life and art, and the painstaking process of animating sunlight in his movies. Excerpts...

Your films begin in simple, naturalistic settings before the characters are pulled into a fantasy or sci-fi plot. When did this obsession of making ordinary humans possess extraordinary abilities begin?

In my films, whatever you call it — supernatural, sci-fi, fantasy — is just a way of showing that something bigger than us has happened. That triggers an emotion in us that is larger than ourselves. That is a language, I think, all human beings understand. In a two-hour movie, giving my characters superpowers or a higher purpose helps me explain how the human heart suddenly becomes much bigger under extraordinary circumstances.

Makoto Shinkai arrives at the premiere of ‘Suzume’ on April 3, 2023, at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles

Makoto Shinkai arrives at the premiere of ‘Suzume’ on April 3, 2023, at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles | Photo Credit: Jordan Strauss

You dealt with natural calamities in your previous two films, Your Name and Weathering with You. However, Suzume is a much more direct story about the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. Given how sensitive the topic is for Japanese audiences, were you apprehensive about how it will play?

Yes, it’s a very raw theme. So many people lost so much in the earthquake. So I had to be careful, because after all a movie is about entertainment. 12 years have passed since our country was hit by that disaster. You can interpret it as a really short period or a really long period. My own daughter, for instance, is 12. At the time she was born, this had just happened, and she knows nothing about it. So I felt this was the right time to make a film like Suzume and help a new generation of young Japanese understand what people went through.

A still from ‘Suzume’

A still from ‘Suzume’

Like rain and clouds, sunlight plays an important visual role in your films, right from the short-length She and Her Cat (1999) in monochrome to all your following features in colour. How do you go about conceptualising this?

I feel gratified that you noticed it. This is not about a specific technique or technology, but simple craftsmanship. Suzume has around 2000 cuts. Usually when people do animation, they decide on the colour pallete of the character and the background. And that hue remains unchanged for the daytime, evening and night. However, my preference is not that. Early morning light is always different from a mid-day light. Every hour it changes. So my team and I take the trouble to really sit down and alter the hues as required.

What do you make of the huge anime subculture in India, and would you like to collaborate with Indian artists and storytellers in the future?

I first came to know about my Indian fans through the signature campaign. When I landed here, it was so moving to see so many young people singing along to the songs of my films. They knew the lyrics! India has a special place in my heart. I feel as my films grow, my fans will also grow along with them. Whenever I have something new to offer, I would like to come back to India. It will give me a chance to be amongst people who love me and my work.

About the collaboration bit, the simple answer is no (laughs). But I do learn a lot whenever I see Indian films. I appreciate the value of entertainment in India, and the scale and effort that goes into it. It’s very different from how Hollywood approaches its art.

A still from ‘Your Name’

A still from ‘Your Name’

The Garden of Words (2013) is perhaps your most grounded work, about a Tokyo boy who meets and falls for an older woman. Fans have believed the character of Yukari Yukino was inspired by someone in your life (she also turns up in Your Name)...

I know you are expecting to hear some lovely lady’s name. But the real answer is that it’s me: Makoto Shinkai! In Garden of Words, I’ve shown Yukino as a 27-year-old who is a little lost in life. When I was her age, I was still working in a gaming company as a normal employee. But I knew I wanted to do something more in life. So I’d finish my day’s work, go back home and work on my animation. It was a challenging, uncertain phase of my life. So I poured these elements of my existence into Yukino sensai.

A still from ‘The Garden of Words’

A still from ‘The Garden of Words’

Have the blockbuster successes of Your Name and Weathering with You in and outside Japan changed you as an artist?

Rather than saying I have changed, I would like to think that the world has changed around me. It has learned to discover my work. What I put into my films has remained unchanged from the time I did The Garden of Words. As a storyteller, I really want to connect with people. It means a lot to me when someone comes up to me and says that a movie has transformed or touched them, that it made them feel heard or seen. Today, a vast audience outside Japan is able to make that connection. But in terms of what I want to do as an artist, my heart remains in the same place.

Suzume no Tojimari releases in theatres across India on April 21

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.