Anime director Makoto Shinkai charts his own course

©2022 “Suzume” Film Partners
Suzume, left, and the “closer” Sota travel around the country to lock doors that stand amid ruins.

Makoto Shinkai is undoubtedly one of the most renowned creators of animated films alive. His latest work, “Suzume no Tojimari” (“Suzume”), is currently being shown in theaters. The film has more action scenes and is even more entertaining than his past works, including “Kimi no Na wa” (“Your Name.”). Shinkai, who recently spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun about his determination to continue producing new works, is well aware that his narrative style is changing.

His new film’s lead character is high school student Suzume Iwato, who lives in Kyushu. She meets Sota Munakata, a “closer” who shuts out calamities by locking doors, in ruins. But Sota is turned into a three-legged chair by Daijin, a mysterious cat. Suzume and Sota chase after Daijin, traveling through Shikoku and Kobe and then on to Tokyo. And so their door-locking journey begins.

An old onsen spa resort town overrun by weeds, with torn paper lanterns hanging under the eaves of a derelict ryokan inn. A Ferris wheel and a carousel standing quietly abandoned in a disused amusement park. The sorts of ruins that Shinkai depicts with his unique, elaborate touch evoke both nostalgia and warmth, as if embodying the memories of people who once lived, worked and vacationed in these places.

“When people lived in those places, were active there, they were borrowing them from nature. Now that those places are deserted, they will be returned to the gods. That’s the meaning I put in the story,” Shinkai, 49, said.

Suzume is an energetic and vivacious protagonist. After losing her mother in the Great East Japan Earthquake, she starts living with her aunt and is taken away from where she grew up. The film has scenes of the earthquake that little Suzume experienced.

“It’s not so much that I wanted to pass on memories [of the earthquake], but rather that I wanted to properly confront it in a piece of entertainment,” Shinkai said.

The main audience of Shinkai’s works is young people yet to turn 20. He feels that the 2011 catastrophic disaster is becoming a thing of the distant past to such individuals. In “Your Name.,” he used a comet as a metaphor for the quake, but he has since felt that audiences often did not pick up on this connection. This led to the idea of making his film’s protagonist a 17-year-old girl psychologically scarred from the disaster so that young people around the girl’s age might get the message.

“At the moment we can still share the feelings involved. It may be too late three years from now,” he said.

Change in style

Shinkai made his commercial debut as a director in 2002 with “Hoshi no Koe” (“Voice of a Distant Star”), which he produced independently. Production and distribution for his works expanded dramatically with “Your Name.,” a boy-meets-girl sci-fi fantasy that became a huge hit in 2016, and “Tenki no Ko” (“Weathering With You”) in 2019, which reached much wider audiences.

“I received criticism as well, so thereafter I created new works with a determination to convince those who didn’t get the intentions of my previous films,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Makoto Shinkai speaks during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The characters in his early works were “vessels and tools for depicting a situation,” he said. As a result, they did not have strong, distinct personalities.

In contrast, many animated films in Japan are driven by the strong appeal of their characters, be they humans or objects. Shinkai’s works have gradually adopted the same style over time.

“This latest work has the strongest inclination in that respect. I used the protagonist’s name in the title for the first time, too,” he said.

The boys and girls appearing in Shinkai’s “Byosoku 5 Centimeters” (“5 Centimeters Per Second”) in 2007 are introspective, and the story unfolds through their monologues. In his more recent works, the characters are more active and ready to interact with others, which is particularly true of Suzume in the new film.

“‘5 Centimeters’ unexpectedly reached a narrow and deep target. I know there are requests for me to produce similar works, but my own interests have changed as well,” he said.

Part of this has come from growing older.

“When I was young, I saw myself as an unknown outsider, so the stories developed as if I was having conversations with myself. When I grew older and began understanding myself better, I got this desire to get to know other people outside myself,” he said.


Shinkai said his new film “Suzume” is also a tribute to “Majo no Takkyubin” (“Kiki’s Delivery Service”), directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

“Even now, it’s still a very refreshing story about a girl growing up. I took the liberty of directly incorporating its impact on me into the story structure [of ‘Suzume’].”

Looking back on his career, Shinkai said: “I’ve been making animated films feeling as if I was in some remote region. I still think I belong to some minority.”

Currently, manga-based works are the central force of Japanese animation. Shinkai, Miyazaki and Mamoru Hosoda are among the few directors who also write the scripts for their original works.

“It’s a very risky thing to do. It’s something that’s only just barely allowed,” Shinkai recognized.

That’s why he finds such works are all the more exciting.

“There’s the possibility that some unknown thing will come from an individual’s sense of creation. It’s becoming an outdated way of doing things, but there’s an intensity that only exists there,” he said, looking determined to continue going his own way.