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Makoto Shinkai Talks ‘Suzume’: ‘Don’t Give Up on Living’

The ‘Your Name’ and ‘Weathering with You’ director wants his new Annie Award-nominated film, about a young woman who finds herself opening a series of doors to disaster that take her on a mysterious journey, to inspire people impacted by tragedy to not give up hope. 

After a tragedy, there’s always a rebuilding period. With natural disasters, rebuilding usually involves repairing buildings, roads, businesses, and homes. If lives are lost, memorials are built, condolences are shared, and people do their best to move on with their lives. But there are some things that can’t be rebuilt. Lives can never be replaced, the sense of anxiety and fear that comes with having one’s world turned upside down can’t be completely reversed, and memories can’t be rewritten. Tragedies leave permanent marks and, for award-winning anime director Makoto Shinkai, The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 – that left 19,759 people dead and another 2,553 – forever changed the way he approached films. 

“It was certainly a big turning point for me as a human and as a creator, for better or for worse,” says Shinkai. “At the time, I was already an animation director, and the earthquake made me realize that what I was providing was not an essential service, especially when there were humanitarian efforts happening. For a while, I thought, ‘Maybe I should be doing something else?’ But I arrived at the conclusion that there really wasn't any other way I could contribute. But it did shift my perspective, and through this journey of searching, I thought, ‘Okay, there must be some way I can express my relationship with this anxiety and fear of living side by side with disaster through animation.’ That’s when I created Your Name, which was the first of a series of disaster-themed films.”

Following 2016’s Your Name’s story of a fatal comet impact and the Tokyo flooding at the heart of 2019’s Weathering With You, Shinkai’s Suzume tells the story of a young girl who must help a mysterious stranger prevent a series of earthquakes that make their way across Japan. Spiritual doors that open to disaster in abandoned locations around the country must be closed and, if not closed in time, a giant, maniacal red worm will emerge from the earth and mark the start of a devastating earthquake. The film has been nominated for seven Annie Awards, including Best Feature; winners will be announced at the award ceremony on Saturday, February 17. 

“The films that I direct will always have entertainment as their foundation,” notes Shinkai.  “However, any animated feature is a massive undertaking and a huge project. Even at the scale that we do things. It's not as big as Hollywood, but it costs millions and there are hundreds of people involved and it takes so much time. So, thinking about the resources we are expending to produce a single piece of cinema, I think there does need to be something greater than simply entertainment in a piece of work. It goes beyond that, whether it's some kind of message or intent or something more than that. And the effect that the 2011 earthquake had on me naturally translated into my films.”

Though Suzume, produced by CoMix Wave Films and Story Inc., is Shinkai’s third film inspired by the 2011 earthquake, it gave him far more anxiety to produce than the previous two movies. In fact, for a whole month after Suzume’s Japan release in November of 2022, the director had difficulty sleeping due to the immense stress of using the earthquake – that literally and figuratively had rocked the country – as a central theme in his movie. 

“I had no idea how audiences would react, transforming such tragedy into entertainment,” says Shinkai. “There was definitely a month of anxiety after the movie was released theatrically where I was wondering what the reactions would be. The earthquake affected everyone, but I was not a direct victim of its effects and impact. So, I didn't get much sleep, constantly thinking about whether I was even supposed to make this film.”

Yokoamichō Park (Yokoamichō kōen) is a public park in the Yokoami district of Sumida, Tokyo, Japan. Following the Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923, as many as 44,000 people displaced by the quake were killed in the park when it was swept by a firestorm. Following this disaster, the park became the location of the main memorial to the earthquake. The Earthquake Memorial Hall and a nearby charnel house even contain the ashes of 58,000 victims. 

In February 2016, the same year that Your Name released, a memorial was inaugurated by two architects for the victims of the 2011 disaster, consisting of 6.5-square-meter structure on a hillside between a temple and a cherry tree in Ishinomaki. And, in its own way, Suzume is a kind of memorial to not only the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but many disasters and subsequently abandoned sites around the whole of Japan. 

It was definitely a movie worth making, if for no other reason than to provide hope. 

“These disasters have really shifted how a lot of people think about life and death, and the same is true for Suzume’s character,” explains Shinkai. “I want my films to encourage people and say, ‘Don’t give up on living.’”

He continues, “You look at your surroundings and there’s war, illness, and disasters and it wouldn't be unheard of for people to have a certain level of indifference to life because, suddenly, someone who is dear to you and right next to you might just be gone, or entire cities can be gone through whatever natural or manmade phenomena. Experiencing that daily, seeing it in the news and media and social networks, and if something can change so suddenly in a completely groundbreaking way, then people might think, ‘What's the point of even walking through these steps and pacing through every day?’”

That’s a line Shinkai even included in his film.

“Suzume herself has a certain dialogue where she says something like, ‘I'm not afraid to die. Whether you live or die is just a matter of luck,’” shares Shinkai. “But I think that there should be something, a message, more encouraging that lasts and can, in some ways, overwrite that indifference and apathy. And I think that this is especially true and needed for a lot of younger generations.”

Too many filmmakers rely on the events that happened in their film to push the story forward. And Shinkai’s films certainly feature gripping events that are more than capable of the task. But, despite the enormity of such devastating events, they are there to primarily bring emotional responses. The emotional arcs of Shinkai’s characters and how they propel through his films are what make his stories so enjoyable and so different. This is why, when creating a story, Shinkai usually starts with character dialogue.

“Words come first,” he says. “I have ideas of what I want certain characters to say, certain key moments of dialogue that are at the core of the theme I want to tell. So, once I have certain keywords, I'll go and write a very short synopsis or plot of the film. And, to accompany it, I'll sketch a few things that I kind of imagine it translating to. Once it's developed further, and I look at the two side by side, I then develop a much stronger, more concrete plot that will serve as the foundation of the film.”

Suzume’s commentary on life and death can be seen as Shinkai’s way of reaching out to audiences through his films and saying, “You’re seen. Those feelings are valid. But they shouldn’t control you.” The message also provides a bit of a self-assurance, as Shinkai says he has also benefited from his own movies, with the production process being somewhat therapeutic. 

“Whether it is in my own audience and fans, or whether it is for my own motivation and myself, for me to not fall into this epidemic of indifference, I have these characters that are driven by this very strong will to live and to change something,” says the director. “And I develop these characters thinking, ‘What can these characters do to override this indifference that we’re all feeling about life and death?’”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at