Shinkai Makoto on ‘Suzume’ and Future of Hand-Drawn Animation

One of Japan’s most commercially successful and highly acclaimed animators, Shinkai Makoto has been called a successor to anime titan Miyazaki Hayao. Known for his mix of photo-realistic visuals and gorgeously realized fantasies, Shinkai surpassed the master when his 2016 smash “Your Name” became the highest-earning Japanese film of all time worldwide, beating Miyazaki’s 2001 “Spirited Away.” (That record was later broken by the 2020 anime sensation “Demon Slayer.”)

His latest film, “Suzume,” about a teen girl’s quest to halt an apocalypse triggered by the opening of magical doors all over Japan, is also the first Japanese animated feature to screen in the Berlin competition since “Spirited Away” in 2002. Variety sat down with Shinkai to hear his views on his own work and the state of the anime industry.

“Suzume” features the so-called haikyo(“ruins”), the abandoned buildings that can be found everywhere in Japan, many of which are the result of the long stagnation after the economic boom of the 1980s. The film also references the 2011 earthquake that took nearly 20,000 lives and left much devastation. What were your reasons for those choices?

I wanted to make an adventure story, so I wondered where I could set it in present-day Japan. I hit on haikyo, places that have been abandoned because of decreasing population. And I thought the goal of the heroine’s “tour of ruins” should be the Tohoku regions in Northern Japan, the site of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Tohoku, of course, is not a ruin, but it is a place where people died, and part of it became uninhabitable, so the buildings there became ruins.

To be honest, I feel a kind of resignation — haikyo are inevitable since the population is decreasing rapidly, and the economy is gradually becoming smaller. I wanted to depict that feeling in the film, though I don’t think that the job of animation is to stop population decline or restore the ruins.

Japanese animation has spread all over the world and tops the box office in Japan. But is there anything about the current state of the anime industry that concerns you?

Some of the most successful manga series today are serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. Series like “Jujutsu Kaisen,” “Spy × Family” and “Demon Slayer” have become worldwide hits. And anime like “Naruto” and “Dragon Ball,” which are based on “Shonen Jump” manga, have a big audience in the U.S.

But we are making animation based on an original story, not serialized manga. Not many hit animations are made from original stories here. And they don’t have much of a presence in the world at large. Well, Miyazaki Hayao has a certain level of recognition. But there aren’t many like him.

I’d like expand the market for anime based on original stories, but I can’t do it alone. I hope that more directors like me who make original animations will appear in Japan, and that they will be accepted around the world, but I think it’s difficult. So yes, I am concerned about that.

Your films have tremendous visual realism, but still look hand-drawn. In Hollywood, though, 3D CG animation rules, and even live-action directors like James Cameron are using CG to create fantasy worlds.

I think that hand-drawn animation is more appealing. It’s similar to picture books. Picture books for children, right? Because those pictures are drawn by human hands, they have a kind of universality, and I think they appeal more to children as well.

So I’d like to continue to make hand-drawn animation, but the number of animations like that in the world is decreasing rapidly, so it may be difficult.

Your last three films — “Your Name,” “Weathering With You” and “Suzume” — have the feeling of a trilogy, though that may not have been your intention. For your next film do you want to try something different?

Shinkai: When I was making those films I was thinking that each one was a stand-alone film. But now that I look back on them, I realize that, yes, they are a trilogy about disasters. So, now that I have finished them, I hope to make something in a new and different direction next time, as you say.

But I don’t have any concrete ideas yet. My mind is a blank sheet of paper.

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