Thankfully, Shinkai has decided to pave his way and become the only Makoto Shinkai, focusing on the distance between people, Japanese myths, and adolescent love. Whether it’s the literal light years between the young lovers of his 2002 OVA “Voices of a Distant Star” or learning of someone through the act of switching bodies in “Your Name,” Shinkai’s work has always been about reaching for the next horizon.
His newest movie, “Suzume,” follows 17-year-old Suzume Iwato as she travels across Japan, closing magical doors and avoiding catastrophes from supernatural worm-like creatures. If she’s unsuccessful, these creatures will cause significant earthquake damage to the region. She’s joined by Shota Munakata, a college student whose family has taken on the task of closing these doors throughout generations. Normally Shota would handle the dangerous job of a closer himself, but unfortunately, he’s become a little wooden. He has become fused with a child’s chair, and now Suzume and this sentient chair must go on an adventure to save Japan and return Shota to his body.
The devastating events of March 11th, 2011, have greatly influenced Shinkai’s last three movies. On that day, the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan caused massive devastation to the country. An ensuing tsunami and a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant followed it. Thousands were asked to vacate their homes, forever changing life in Japan. “Suzume” shows the anxiety the Japanese people face daily about another catastrophe and how, hopefully, there’s someone out there protecting them.
Ahead of the US release of “Suzume” this week, RogerEbert.com spoke to Shinkai about how the earthquake has continued to affect him, how the concept of making Shota into a chair was conceived, and why he always makes movies about insurmountable distance.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Your recent films were heavily influenced by the tragic events of March 11, 2011. What would you hope emotionally resonates with your fans in the West who might not be as familiar with that tragedy?
When I set out to make “Suzume,” I didn’t want to choose its audience. I wanted to make sure that it was something that could be enjoyed regardless of whether you knew about the earthquake. If anything, I think a large majority of the audience and demographic who went to see this in movie theaters was too young to even recall what the earthquake was like or didn’t even experience it themselves because it has been some time since the incident.