The geography of a region has always influenced the art and culture of humans. Being a ‘ring of fire’ country, Seismic activities have always been a part and parcel of Japanese lives – something that has made the country push their limits in every field possible. After the Hiroshima & Nagasaki bombings, Japan rose from the ashes like a phoenix and that resilience made a mark in their artforms.
Japanese research in developing earthquake resistant materials made them leaders in material science. Thus, the world should always be grateful to Japan for developing disaster management technological solutions. This necessity expanded their imaginative worlds in art and literature. Osamu Tezuka in the ‘60s introduced the limited animation style replacing the traditional cel-based style which was the inception of the anime artform. Tezuka inspired creators like Hayao Miyazaki who went on to start Studio Ghibli which put Japanese Anime in the world map amongst the film connoisseurs.
Ghibli films revolved around Japanese Folklore, ecological fiction and Shintoism which established the native connection amongst the Japanese. Miyazaki and Ghibli films paved the way for the new-gen anime filmmakers to make their own indigenous stories through this medium. Among them was Makoto Shinkai who became a breakout star after the phenomenal 2016 hit “Kimi No Waa” (Your Name).
His latest outing “Suzume” follows the steps of Miyazaki films and captures the resilient spirit of Japan. Let’s take a detailed look at the film while trying to understand the overarching themes that Shinkai paints his films in.
In the 2013 documentary “Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” Hayao Miyazaki comments about the need of hand-drawn animation and how technology should be used as an enhancement tool for the art rather than being a hindrance to the art. Just like Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai in one of his interviews says that “more than technology it’s the art that matters”. His CoMix Wave film studio is one of the few studios in the world where the art of hand-drawn animation survives. From his first film, he combines the traditional artform with modern technology providing an enhanced experience possible.
While “Suzume” uses 3D modelling for a few scenes, it only feels natural rather than being artificial. Makoto Shinkai once again pays his respect to the old ways of animation and at the same time to Ghibli. Shinkai throws direct references to “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “Princess Mononoke” and “Whisper of the Heart” through its characters, setting and even in the music by RADWIMPS. Yet, it has the magical touch of Shinkai in it, this time translated on screen in a spectacular anamorphic 2.39:1 ratio.
After “Weathering with you”, Shinkai has totally jumped into the genre of ecological fiction with “Suzume” which is a rising genre in Japanese Pop culture off late. The 2011 Great eastern Earthquake which affected the Oshika Peninusla regions formed the basis for “Suzume”. The film revolves around the titular protagonist, Suzume (Nanoka Hara) who teams up with Sota (Hokuto Matsumura), a ‘closer’ and their quest to race against fate. Before the development of science, humans had the tendency to spin fantasies with their understanding of natural surroundings which formed the basis for rituals, beliefs and legends. Ubusunagami is one of the beliefs in Shintoism revolving around a deity who protects the people of the region from life to afterlife.
Shinkai gives a modern twist to this with the character of Sota just like he did for “Red String” legend in “Your Name”. Sota is one of the “closers” who possesses the powers to save a region from the afterlife “worms” which causes earthquakes by opening the doors of the afterlife. Sota and Suzume use Keystones (which is another Japanese legend) to control these worms. The Keystone in Kashinari Shrine, Japan formed the inspiration for this plot device. Shinkai blends legends and folklore to showcase the grief and loss faced by the victims of Earthquakes and Tsunamis. He subtly captures the actions and reactions of people of Japan during tremors adding more realism to it. This can be viewed as an ode to the people across the regions of ‘ring of fire’.
After World War II, the countryside of Japan got affected so much that most of the young population in Japanese rural areas migrated to urban areas which made these areas as “ghost towns”. After the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the abandonment of towns became so high that according to a report by CNN, if this rate continues the countryside of Japan will become extinct. At this point, over 70% of Japanese people live in and around Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka making them one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Along with the migration, factors like decreasing population rate and natural disasters are linked to the rise of ‘ghost towns’ making it one of the most alarming issues for the Japanese Housing Board. Shinkai takes these ghost towns as the locations for the ‘afterlife doors.’
While Shinkai doesn’t really touch the socio-politcal-economic factors affecting ghost towns, he throws light on the emotional and psychological lives of residents who were from these ghost towns and their yearning for love and affection. Shinkai revamps the forgotten rural roots of Japan through this film and serves as a reminder for us to focus on the rural areas across the world.
Ever since his first feature film, Makoto Shinkai’s exploration of relationship has been a unique aspect of his films – something that transcends age, distance, time, nature and even bodies. Thus, he uses nature as motifs to show these relationships. In his second feature “5 centimetres per second”, the filmmaker uses the Cherry Blossom trees to show the evolution of the long-distance relationship between the two leads. Just like that, he used rain in “Garden of the words” and “Weathering with you” and comets in “Your Name” in to show the depths of the relationships the leads encountered.
While most of the American Critics termed the relationships as ‘romance’, it feels that Shinkai doesn’t really want to box these relationships into the term ‘romance’. Some relationships come out of respect and unrequited love which doesn’t need any terms for it. Suzume’s love for Sota is not ‘romance’ that we people have seen but it’s more transcendental and it just can’t be expressed by words.
Hayao Miyazaki enkindle artists to enjoy the tiniest of the moments in life. It’s no wonder that Makoto Shinkai’s works reflect these words by Miyazaki-San. Just like his previous movies, the film has got a lot of closeup shots of food preparation which makes us feel mouth-watered and at the same time we are in awe of it. In one of his interviews, Makoto Shinkai says how a chair he saw in a park served as an inspiration for the three-legged chair for this film which goes on to prove his keenness for observing the surroundings. Suzume’s playful activities with the children of the local Bar owner Rumi, the chair making by Suzume’s Mom, the warm sun and the fleeting birds makes us feel that there’s beauty in the simplest of the things.
If we were to compare it in an Indian context, Makoto Shinkai has treated “Suzume” like an Imtiaz Ali styled road trip film. Just like in his previous film “Weathering with you”, Shinkai goes on to prove that family isn’t just born out of blood relations but it’s born out of love and affection. The people Suzume meet through her journey change her perspective of life and the kindness they display. Their kind gestures go on to show how Japanese hospitality culture is different from ours. This kindness can also be seen as result of the resilience that they’ve experienced from the disasters over the years. Its these supporting characters like Rumi (Sairi Ito), Suzume’s Aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu), Chika (Kotone Hanase), etc. make this journey a wholesome and humorous one to go through. It’s this journey that emphasizes that world is one family and in the end it’s all about moving on from the pain and trauma that we have encountered in the past. With “Suzume” Makoto Shinkai instills the belief that there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for and showcases an emotionally high journey filled with tremors, trauma and tenacity!