Shinkai Makoto ‘Suzume’ and the future of hand-drawn animation3 min read
One of Japan’s most commercially successful and highly acclaimed animators, Shinkai Makoto has been called the successor to anime titan Miyazaki Hayao. Known for his blend of photo-realistic visuals and exquisitely realized fantasy, Shinkai surpassed the master when his 2016 smash “Your Name” beat Miyazaki’s 2001 “Spirited Away” to become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time worldwide. (That record was later broken by the 2020 anime sensation “Demon Slayer”.)
His latest film, “Suzume,” a teenage girl’s quest to stop magical doors opening across Japan, is also the first Japanese animated feature to be screened in Berlin competition since “Spirited Away” in 2002. diversity 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”), abandoned buildings found throughout Japan, many of which are the result of long periods of stagnation following the economic boom of the 1980s. The film also refers to the 2011 earthquake that claimed nearly 20,000 lives and caused much destruction. What were your reasons for this choice?
I wanted to make an adventure story, so I wondered where I could set it in present-day Japan. I hit Haikyo, a place that has been abandoned due to population decline. And I thought the heroine’s “tour of the ruins” should be aimed at the Tohoku region of 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 parts of it became uninhabitable, so the buildings there turned into ruins.
To be honest, I feel kind of resigned — the haikyuu is inevitable because the population is rapidly declining, and the economy is slowly shrinking. I wanted to portray that feeling in the film, although I don’t think the job of animation is to stop population decline or restore ruins.
Japanese animation has spread around the world and topped the box office in Japan. But is there anything about the current state of the anime industry that worries you?
Some of today’s most successful manga series have been serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. Series such as “Jujutsu Kaisen,” “Spy × Family” and “Demon Slayer” have become hits worldwide. And anime like “Naruto” and “Dragon Ball,” which are based on the “Shonen Jump” manga, have huge audiences in the U.S.
But we are making an animation based on an original story, not a serialized manga. Not many hit animations are made from original stories here. And they don’t have much of a presence in the wider world. Well, Miyazaki Hayao has a certain level of recognition. But there are not many like him.
I want to 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 they will be accepted all over the world, but I think it’s difficult. So yes, I’m worried about it.
Your films have great visual realism, but still look hand-drawn. In Hollywood, however, 3D CG animation rules, and even live-action directors like James Cameron are using CG to create fantasy worlds.
I think hand drawn animations are more interesting. It’s like a picture book. Picture books for children, right? Because these pictures are drawn by human hands, they have a kind of universality and I think they appeal more to children.
So I want to continue making hand-drawn animations, but the number of such animations in the world is rapidly decreasing, so it might be difficult.
Your last three films – “Your Name”, “Weathering With You” and “Suzum” – have the feel of a trilogy, although this was not your intention. Would you like to try something different for your next film?
Shinkai: When I was making these 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’m done with them, I hope to do something in a new and different direction next time, as you say.
But I have no definite idea yet. My mind is a blank sheet of paper.