NEW YORK: Makoto Shinkai hasn’t been the same director since the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
When a tsunami and earthquake ravaged the Tohoku region of northern Japan and triggered nuclear fusion, Shinkai, now a 50-year-old director and animator on some of the world’s most popular animated films, could feel his sense of storytelling crumbling.
Shinkai said, “I was shocked that the daily life I was accustomed to in Japan could suddenly be cut off without notice.” “I had a strange, ominous feeling that it could happen over and over again. I started thinking about how I wanted to tell the story in this new reality.”
The three blockbusters that followed Shinkai – Your Name, Weathering with You, and the new Suzume – each tied together highly emotional tales of ecological catastrophe. In your name, the meteor threatens to destroy the town, an event that fits the body-switching romance. In Weathering With You, a runaway teenage boy befriends a Tokyo girl who can control the weather and causes fluctuations to reflect climate change.
Opening in US theaters on Friday (April 14), Suzume returns to the 2011 earthquake. Years later, after her mother died in a tsunami, Suzume encounters a mysterious young man galloping to close a portal (a literal door that appears throughout Japan). – before releasing giant worms that cause earthquakes.
“With these three films, I didn’t make a disaster movie. I wanted to tell a love story, romance, and the coming-of-age of an adolescent girl,” Shinkai said through an interpreter on a recent trip to New York. “As I was making the story, thoughts about disaster kept permeating me. It’s like a door that keeps opening.”
Shinkai has emerged as one of the most imaginative filmmakers in modern cataclysmic cinema. His films aren’t about surviving an apocalypse, they’re about living with omnipresent threats. And that made him one of the biggest box-office hits in cinema.
After its release in 2016, Your Name surpassed Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Spirited Away with ticket sales of nearly $400 million, becoming the best-selling anime of its time. Weathering With You made nearly $200 million. Prior to its North American release, Suzume had already crossed the $200 million mark, including $100 million in Japan and nearly $100 million in China. Ant-Man and the Wasp: More than doubling sales of Quantumania is the biggest international launch of the year so far in China.
Much of its success is due to Shinkai’s earnest grappling with today’s ecological upheavals in a sprawling epic filtered through everyday life. National trauma and supernatural fantasies mix. Japan is home to many extreme geological events, but tensions that most people in the world can increasingly relate to.
“Earthquakes, climate change, epidemics, it could be anything. Russia and Ukraine, for example,” says Shinkai. “The idea that our daily lives will continue the status quo needs to be put aside and challenged.”
Director Shinkai, who writes and directs his film, is convinced that young people should not pander to stories in which the natural world heroically regains balance, calling such an approach “selfish and irresponsible”. Instead, his calamities are metaphorical for young protagonists learning to persevere and finding joy in a world of perpetual peril in the shadow of loss.
His latest film, which entered competition at the Berlin Film Festival for the first time in 20 years, is a road movie in which 17-year-old Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) travels with a mysterious young man on the southwestern island of Kyushu. While closing the portal, Souta (Matsumura Hokuto) accidentally transforms into a three-legged chair.