How Director Makoto Shinkai Turned a Real Disaster Into 2023’s Most Stunning Sci-Fi
Suzume director Makoto Shinkai reveals how he created the sci-fi adventure out of a real-life disaster.
Twelve years ago, Japan’s Tōhoku region was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the country’s history. It lasted approximately six minutes and caused a tsunami that devastated the region and killed more than 19,000 people.
The 2011 disaster left a permanent mark on Japan’s cultural consciousness, including that of filmmaker Makoto Shinkai. But as the years passed and the memory of the disaster was largely confined to ruins scatted around Tōhoku, Shinkai began to worry that it would be forgotten.
“There’s this divide between those who experienced the disaster firsthand and everyone else,” Shinkai tells Inverse in an interview conducted via translator. His latest film, Suzume, is designed to capture both audiences.
Rising from the ruins
In Suzume, the titular heroine is an orphan of the 2011 Tōhoku tragedy. After her mother is killed in the disaster, Suzume is raised by her aunt in Kyushu, far from her ravaged hometown. But one day, the 17-year-old Suzume encounters a mysterious man who tells her, “I’m looking for a door.” When she chases after him, she finds a single door standing in the middle of nearby ruins and opens it, accidentally setting free a giant “worm” that threatens to unleash new natural disasters throughout Japan. That mysterious man, Souta, turns out to be a “Closer,” tasked with an ancient duty of keeping the mythical worms from destroying the world. But when Souta is cursed, Suzume must take it upon herself to stop the worms before they shatter the entire Earth.
It seems like a big leap to go from the grim, real-life consequences of the Tōhoku disaster to an action-packed sci-fi adventure in which a teenage heroine battles giant worms (which really resemble shadowy eldritch monsters halfway between sentient whirlpool and Dune sandworm), but for Shinkai, it was the natural evolution of the story he wanted to tell.
“I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story of this young adult, this young girl, and also showcase and travel through present-day Japan,” Shinkai says. “And when thinking about where she would travel, I kept coming back to her goal, or final destination, being where the center of the 2011 Tōhoku disaster had happened.”
“I wanted to first create a story and a world that resonates and speaks directly to Japanese audiences.”
Shinkai has long held a fascination with natural disasters. Well, fascination might not be the right word for it; earthquakes, meteor strikes, and tsunamis have figured heavily into his films like Your Name and Weathering With You, forming the backdrop of his most exquisite cosmic romances. Suzume is the first time that Shinkai has pushed natural disasters front and center, with Suzume and Souta’s battle against the otherworldly worms forming the basis for the film’s most action-packed setpieces (some of the biggest that Shinkai has ever done). But despite a premise that feels like it could threaten to turn natural disasters into sci-fi spectacle, Suzume is, at the end of the day, about the people those disasters affect.
“I wanted to first create a story and a world that resonates and speaks directly to Japanese audiences,” Shinkai says. And Suzume does that, giving as much screen time to the ordinary, displaced people Suzume meets along the way, as it does the towns and landscapes that have been permanently altered by disaster.
Inverse spoke with Shinkai about how he shaped this unusual coming-of-age story, why he thinks of Suzume as a uniquely Japanese film, and why exactly he chose to turn his romantic interest into a chair.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Inverse: Suzume is inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, but how did you go from that real-life tragedy to the idea of god-like worms who must be defeated to save the world from natural disasters?
At the onset of the project, I certainly didn’t set out to tell a story or a movie featuring the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Rather, I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story of this young adult, this young girl, and also showcase and travel through present-day Japan. And when thinking about where she would travel, I kept coming back to her goal, or final destination, being where the center of the 2011 Tōhoku disaster had happened.
Because without acknowledging and accepting that, I don’t think you could really say you were depicting present day Japan in all of its entirety. And once I had realized that, it gave me the idea to make our protagonist an orphaned child, a victim of this tragedy. And as she travels through various different ruins, she had to fight something, or this so-called symbol, a metaphor for these earthquakes, which ended up being the worm. So, I didn’t go out trying to do that as much as it naturally developed and evolved into that as I continued to develop the project.
“The central themes I wanted to tell ... the coming-of-age story of a young woman, and this disaster backdrop.”
Let’s talk about Suzume. She’s a resilient young girl who is quick to take responsibility of Souta’s task. How would you compare her to your previous protagonists?
A big difference, I would say, is in my past films romance was a very strong, central theme in the narrative. Whereas in Suzume, it was more about her coming-of-age experience and character development.
And Suzume, having experienced the 2011 disaster firsthand, I’m sure this is an unprecedented experience, and that experience has brought her very close to that bridge between life and death. And because of that, I know it’s not depicted directly, it’s implied that experience transformed her in a way that makes her different from most of the other population. And I think the same can be said for Japan at large, where there’s this divide between those who experienced the disaster firsthand and everyone else. So there’s a scene where Souta asks her, “Aren’t you afraid to die?” And she very sternly says that she isn’t. I think that type of mental capacity or space is certainly not normal for a 17-year-old teenager. And it’s that backdrop, that experience that she went through, that has really transformed her own state of mind and character.
Your films, as you said, are known for their romances, but Suzume might have the most unusual romance of your films, because Suzume and Souta only know each other a little before Souta turns into a chair. Did you find it challenging to show Suzume and Souta’s connection in this more unconventional manner?
In this particular film, I wanted to almost downplay the romance component. And had Souta been in his human form throughout the entire movie, I feel that it would be a road trip or a road movie with Suzume and this young man, which would distract from the central themes I wanted to tell; the coming-of-age story of a young woman, and this disaster backdrop. So, in order to relieve some of that romantic tension, I wanted to make Souta something other than human.
So, why a children’s chair?
A couple reasons for that. First one being I, myself, when I was very, very young, my father gave me a chair similar to what Souta would look like. Several planks of wood just kind of put together to form the shape of a chair. But I recall that event quite vividly, because it was the first time I think, as a child, you get your sense of, “Well, this is my space and my room and something that I own.”
And another reason that I decided on a children’s chair is for some of the comic relief. And instead of giving Souta all four legs, he is missing one, which also represents a loss. But in this movie, being based on the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, telling that theme and coming face to face with it as is, would’ve been too dark or too heavy of a film. So to contrast that, or offset it, with something a little more lighthearted, I wanted Souta to have this very funny, kind of awkward movement. And with this object walking next to Suzume, we were able to kind of balance that. So, giving Souta three legs gives him this sort of unstable but also awkward walking. So, no matter what action Souta is performing at the time, I think it achieves that comic sensibility.
Because of this film’s focus on natural disasters, you said that you think of Suzume as a uniquely Japanese story. What do you think about it makes it so universally appealing to audiences outside of Japan?
Suzume, as you mentioned, is a very Japanese story, a very local story, if you will. And that was very intentional in my development process. I wanted to first create a story and a world that resonates and speaks directly to Japanese audiences. So I had to really reflect on the ground upon which we were standing, and I wanted to dig deeper and deeper. And in a metaphorical way, I felt if I dug deep enough, perhaps we could bridge ourselves to a different country on the other side of the world.
How this movie will land with international audiences still remains to be seen. But telling a very local story and capturing the Japanese audience first, and then hoping that speaks and transcends borders, was an important part of this process.