“It Felt Like a Failure,” Losing Sleep, Shedding Tears: Interview with Makoto Shinkai (#2)

Director Makoto ShInkai talked about the reception in the U.S. and why COVID-19 is not directly depicted in “Suzume,” set in 2023.

By Yusuke Hirata


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Released in November 2022, Makoto Shinkai’s anime movie “Suzume” drew over 11 million viewers and earned over 14.7 billion yen. Marking 14th in the all-time box office rankings, the mega-hit became the number one grossing Japanese movie in China and South Korea.

Director Makoto Shinkai talked about the reception in the U.S. since the release in April, the need to create with a global perspective, and why COVID-19 is not directly depicted in “Suzume,” set in 2023.

(#2 of a two-part series. Continued from #1 )

Director Makoto Shinkai © Shigeki Yamamoto/Bungei Shunju

Reception in the U.S. Is Nothing Compared to Asia

You talked about the presence of Japanese anime in Europe and the U.S. “Suzume” was released in the U.S. on April 12. How is the response?

Shinkai: Like in China and South Korea, there are devoted fans also in the U.S. But the fan base is much, much smaller.

Yet, the situation for the IP (intellectual property) stuff from “Weekly Shonen Jump” has changed dramatically. With the COVID pandemic, people around the world have turned to streaming video in the last three years. I guess people outside Japan discovered “Demon Slayer” and other Japanese anime and they gained popularity.

Besides those from “Weekly Shonen Jump,” the IP stuff with original manga turned into TV series have increasingly more presence in North America. But like I said before, the scale is tiny compared to Asia, let alone for my work. They are still little known, considered as something for the minorities.

– Since “Your Name,” your movies have been released on a bigger scale abroad. So, are you conscious of foreign viewers when thinking about the theme, building a plot, or forming characters?

Shinkai: For “Your Name,” “Weathering with You,” and “Suzume,” I wasn’t thinking about the global audience at all. Zero thoughts. I made them with the intent to “make an animation for the Japanese, in Japan,” trying to make them with an entirely local taste.

For the global audience, Hollywood and South Korea are doing a really good job. There are successful cases of making hits through production systems that fully incorporate inclusion and diversity, eyeing the global market from the start. Though that’s amazing, I think it’s not for us to be heading in the same direction.

Instead, I’m trying to make stuff that’s entirely local. Even if it’s local, if I keep digging the ground underneath, maybe the hole will lead to the other side of the world. Then, people in other countries may watch. Countries may differ, but we’re all human, so at the root, something will get conveyed or resonate.

Of course, I want people abroad to see my movies too, so the distributor Toho and the overseas personnel of our company (CoMix Wave Films Inc.) are working together, like deciding the titles for the foreign market. But for making the movie itself, I’m not conscious about the global audience.

Why Hints of COVID Are Almost Absent in “Suzume”

– Could you tell us about how your work reflects current events? Judging from the dialogue, “Suzume” is set in 2023. Then, at some point, I guess you had to think about how you’ll handle the COVID pandemic. Yet, if the main characters wear masks most of the time, it wouldn’t be so good visually.

Shinkai: Yes, I thought about that a lot. I began considering the “Suzume” project in early 2020, amid rising public fears over COVID-19. I completed the proposal in April 2020, when the state of emergency was declared in Tokyo, so the production period completely overlapped with the pandemic.

Therefore, I had a hard time deciding how to handle COVID-19. During production, I had intensive discussions with our staff on things like whether the characters should wear masks and whether there should be hand sanitizers in view. Although we thought COVID may be subdued by the time the movie came out, if it hadn’t, we worried it would affect the release itself, and it was difficult to decide the level of COVID we wanted the viewers to feel.

In the end, we showed almost no hint of COVID. In some scenes, the characters are wearing masks, but those are exceptions. Like with Suzume, when she is heading to Tokyo, she is traveling as a runaway girl, so she is wearing a mask to hide her face. We have included hand sanitizers, but you won’t notice unless you really pay attention.

– Have you sought someone’s advice on making those decisions?

Shinkai: There’s a producer, Genki Kawamura, who has been working with us since “Your Name.” What he said was impressive. “By the time it’s released in other countries, wearing masks probably won’t be a part of daily life outside Japan. So, if there are lots of masked people in the movie, it will seem odd.” For the global audience, masks will be mere distraction. So, his opinion is reflected in the production.

– And after all, the movie’s theme is the quake disaster.

Shinkai: With the pandemic, I feared the impact of COVID would overwrite the Great East Japan Earthquake that had a huge effect on Japan before that, and the memories would fade. The COVID is also a kind of disaster, but with a new disaster occurring, the quake would be pushed away to the past. But the quake disaster isn’t over yet, is it? Then, I thought, if I’m making a movie about the quake, just because COVID came, I shouldn’t switch themes or highlight it in a big way.

With such thoughts, we quit portraying the COVID during the production of “Suzume.”

– Now, it’s basically up to the individuals whether to wear masks or not, and COVID-19 has been downgraded from Class 2 to Class 5 in the infectious disease category, so the situation in Japan has also changed.

Shinkai: That’s right. During production, I decided not to show the presence of COVID, but as the pandemic situation changed, my mind also shifted.

The theater screening of “Suzume” will end in May. But as a post-screening project, we are showing the updated version. This is a version updated for DVD and Blu-ray. We have added no dialog, but we’ve included more masked people. It’s hardly noticeable, but in scenes like the Tokyo Station, there are several more people with masks on.

“Suzume” is set in September 2023. Now that we are actually approaching the time depicted in the movie, it’s true there are fewer people with masks, but not entirely gone. So, the Blu-ray update version shows something closer to the actual world that links with reality.

“Suzume” is a movie about the quake disaster. But in a bigger picture, it’s a “disaster movie,” a story of how people who had their lives severed move forward and reboot themselves. COVID-19 was also a disaster that severed a lot of things. So, after I completed “Suzume,” I changed my view a bit, and thought a world that has a quake disaster but lacks COVID was out of line with the movie’s concept.

“I Lost Sleep for a Month After the Release, and Found Myself Shedding Tears”


– In a past interview about your work, you said you became bed-ridden worrying about opinions about your movie. Were you okay this time?

Shinkai: No, I’m still like that. Naturally, people will have various views, so it’s an emotional roller coaster for me. “Suzume” was released last November, but for the first month or so, I couldn’t sleep much, and when I let my mind drift, tears ran down my face. Personally, I had a strong feeling that it was a failure.

It wasn’t that there was a valid ground to think it was a failure. Thanks to everyone’s efforts, we achieved figures that could be called a hit. Still, I had a strong feeling that it did not come out well.

I felt so for the parts about the quake disaster. I had expected people would say I’m making money off the quake disaster. But imagining and actually hearing or seeing such opinions was entirely different.

– Were there things that you heard or saw that had a big impact on you?

Shinkai: There was a news documentary featuring “Suzume,” and in it, a father and his daughter, who lost their family in the Great East Japan Earthquake, goes to see “Suzume.” The daughter says something like, “I couldn’t tell my friends that my family died in the quake, but I was able to share the news with them after seeing the movie.” But the father’s response was, “Why did this director make such a movie? I wish he hadn’t thrusted it at us like this. It’s unbelievable.”

I was prepared for various responses. But when I saw that, I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have made the movie” and “There could have been other ways to present this,” and I almost fell sick.

– It’s a difficult question.

Shinkai: But now, I believe it was better to have made the movie “Suzume” than not do it. If you’re not supposed to deal with the quake disaster in entertainment, if it’s forbidden, I think that would be unsound.

Besides “Suzume,” there are many anime, manga, and novels that use the Great East Japan Earthquake or other actual disasters as part of their settings. Every time a disaster occurs, numerous stories derive from there. By encountering such works, people will think, “Oh, I didn’t know about such a disaster” or “Maybe these things happened in the quake disaster,” and develop awareness or have thoughts.

Since large-scale movies like “Suzume” stand out, I get to hear various opinions. But now that I’ve come back to Japan after traveling abroad, I firmly believe that there are things that couldn’t have been conveyed or be reached, unless I used a portrayal method like “Suzume.”

This is a translation of the Japanese article published on May 24, 2023 on Bunshun Online.


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