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May 23
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

SUZUME IS HARDLY DISASTROUS FOR MAKOTO SHINKAI

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Crunchyroll.

A signature visual element for Makoto Shinkai, which began with his self-produced animated shorts, is the incorporation of lens fares.

A signature visual element for Makoto Shinkai, which began with his self-produced animated shorts, is the incorporation of lens flares.

With the huge box-office success of Your Name, Weathering With You and Suzume, there is no denying the international appeal of Japanese filmmaker Makoto Shinkai. His potent cinematic mix combines teenage romance with time-shifting narratives that are framed by impending natural disasters – and Suzume ups the thematic ante. Because the impact will be of catastrophic proportions, doors throughout Japan must be closed to prevent a red molten-lava worm residing in the realm of the Ever-After from entering the land and falling to earth. On her way to school, teenage Suzume Iwato encounters the mysterious Souta Munakata, who has the task of locking the vulnerable access points.

“The central theme of Suzume is the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Suzume being from the Tōhoku area, her entire life was uprooted in an instant. Because of this earthquake and tsunami, Suzume had to move from the east to the west, like many others. That meant her story was going to start from Kyushu, which is the most western point of Japan, and gradually she would travel east back to her hometown.”

—Makoto Shinkai, Director

Speaking through a translator, Shinkai reveals that Japan’s devastating history of earthquakes, rainstorms and tsunamis influenced where the doors were situated. “The central theme of Suzume is the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Suzume being from the Tōhoku area, her entire life was uprooted in an instant. Because of this earthquake and tsunami, Suzume had to move from the east to the west, like many others. That meant her story was going to start from Kyushu, which is the most western point of Japan, and gradually she would travel east back to her hometown.”

Causing environmental havoc and becoming a social-media darling is the western keystone that transforms into the Daijin.

Causing environmental havoc and becoming a social-media darling is the western keystone that transforms into the Daijin.

Initially, 2D rather than 3D animation was considered, but the latter better conveyed the idea that the soul of Souta has been trapped inside a rigid chair.

Initially, 2D rather than 3D animation was considered, but the latter better conveyed the idea that the soul of Souta has been trapped inside a rigid chair.

The first stop on the countrywide road trip is in Ehime where Suzume meets fellow high school student Chika transporting tangerines that spill onto the road. “In 2018, Ehime had massive rainstorms that happened because of climate change, which resulted in many landslides. That was a very shocking story for us at the time,” Shinkai explains. “Then Suzume moves on to Kobe where in 1995 there was the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake that hit the western side of the country. From there she travels to Tokyo where in 1923, exactly a 100 years ago, there was a massive earthquake that hit the city. Ultimately, Suzume ends up in the Fukushima area where a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear power plant to have a meltdown. Even to this day, that area around the power plant is completely quarantined and sectioned off. There are these remnants of human life where you can see people lived at one point but now can’t be inhabited. Thinking about where Suzume was going to travel across from where she lives now on the west side, all the way to her hometown of Tōhoku in the east, the disaster-stricken areas almost presented themselves and informed where she was going to travel.”

Every shot was color-corrected differently to create the lighting nuances normally associated with live-action.

Every shot was color-corrected differently to create the lighting nuances normally associated with live-action.

The color palette ranges from vibrant to monochromatic to convey the desired mood.

The color palette ranges from vibrant to monochromatic to convey the desired mood.

Doors to the Ever-After are found in various forms and ruined places throughout Japan, such as a spa, school and amusement park.

Doors to the Ever-After are found in various forms and ruined places throughout Japan, such as a spa, school and amusement park.

“Ultimately, Suzume ends up in the Fukushima area where a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear power plant to have a meltdown. Even to this day, that area around the power plant is completely quarantined and sectioned off. There are these remnants of human life where you can see people lived at one point but now can’t be inhabited. Thinking about where Suzume was going to travel across from where she lives now on the west side all the way to her hometown of Tōhoku in the east, the disaster-stricken areas almost presented themselves and informed where she was going to travel.”

—Makoto Shinkai, Director

Suzume accidentally releases the western keystone that helps to contain the worm, and it subsequently takes on the form of a mischievous daijin (a cat that can speak) that casts the soul of Souta into a three-legged wooden chair, a childhood birthday present made by her mother who was killed by a tsunami. “With respect to the chair, we initially explored a 2D hand-drawn visual expression,” Shinkai reveals. “We ran some tests and had animators animate a few different scenes, but I wasn’t happy with the result because it was a movement that I had seen before onscreen reminiscent of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast where the china plates and cups are moving around. Life was almost breathed into these inanimate objects, which in the case of Souta was something I didn’t want to do. I wanted it to feel as though his soul was trapped inside of something rigid, so we started experimenting with 3D and ultimately shifted the entire process for that character into a 3D pipeline  because I wanted that solid object to appear and feel solid and rigid, but at the same time express fast and swift movements.”

When a tsunami resulting in the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake killed her mother, Suzume and her aunt settled in the western city of Kyushu.

When a tsunami resulting in the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake killed her mother, Suzume and her aunt settled in the western city of Kyushu.

Aspiring teacher Souta carries on a family tradition by traveling throughout Japan closing vulnerable doors connected to the Ever-After.

Aspiring teacher Souta carries on a family tradition by traveling throughout Japan closing vulnerable doors connected to the Ever-After.

With his bigger productions, Makoto Shinkai has been able to focus on character animation.

With his bigger productions, Makoto Shinkai has been able to focus on character animation.

Souta is threatened by the tendrils of the worm, which was always intended to be a combination of 3D and 2D animation in order to take advantage of both techniques.

Souta is threatened by the tendrils of the worm, which was always intended to be a combination of 3D and 2D animation in order to take advantage of both techniques.

Early on, the decision was made that the worm would be animated in 3D. “This is because in Princess Mononoke, by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, there is this cursed god that appears in the film, which is a bunch of different worms that consume giant monsters and squirm around,” Shinkai states. “That was an original inspiration for the imagery of the worm that I wanted to create. But what we already knew at the studio was that it was going to be impossible to exceed what Miyazaki had achieved in that visual expression of the worm, even in 1997 when Princess Mononoke came out. The level of experience that Studio Ghibli had, combined with the budget they were able to access, created a potent combination we knew taking on would not be a good result for us. Instead, we animated in 3D from the onset and relied a lot on what the software can do right now. For example, some of the physics simulations. We did a lot of liquids simulating and particles, adding and complimenting that with hand-drawn animation, which is ultimately how we ended up with the visual expression of the worm that you see on the screen.”

“[I]n Princess Mononoke, by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, there is this cursed god that appears in the film, which is a bunch of different worms that consume giant monsters and squirm around. That was an original inspiration for the imagery of the worm that I wanted to create. But what we already knew at the studio was that it was going to be impossible to exceed what Miyazaki had achieved in that visual expression of the worm… Instead, we animated in 3D from the onset and relied a lot on what the software can do right now. For example, some of the physics simulations. We did a lot of liquids simulating and particles, adding and complimenting that with hand-drawn animation, which is ultimately how we ended up with the visual expression of the worm that you see on the screen.”

—Makoto Shinkai, Director

Interestingly, a lot of anime makes use of antiquated flip phones, but Makoto Shinkai effectively incorporates smartphones and the impact of social media into the storyline of Suzume.

Interestingly, a lot of anime makes use of antiquated flip phones, but Makoto Shinkai effectively incorporates smartphones and the impact of social media into the storyline of Suzume.

Depending on whether the shot is wide, mid or a closeup of Suzume, the color and lighting of her eyes vary accordingly.

Depending on whether the shot is wide, mid or a closeup of Suzume, the color and lighting of her eyes vary accordingly.

Nuances, such as sweat rolling off the face of Tamaki Iwato as she transports her niece Suzume on a bicycle, added believability to the animated performances.

Nuances, such as sweat rolling off the face of Tamaki Iwato as she transports her niece Suzume on a bicycle, added believability to the animated performances.

The first stop on the road trip across Japan is in Ehime where Suzume meets fellow high school student Chika transporting tangerines.

The first stop on the road trip across Japan is in Ehime where Suzume meets fellow high school student Chika transporting tangerines.

“Depending on what was in the background, where the sun was hitting and how tight the shot was, I adjusted the color palette to make sure we were evoking the mood that I wanted. You could take a torso-up shot of Suzume and the color of her eyes are different from a super-tight shot where you just see her eye. This isn’t normally something you would do in animation of this scale. But that produces a similar effect to live-action shots where cut by cut you get nuances of what the lighting is doing, and even the skin tone and mood will change from shot to shot. Instead of blanket-saying ‘This is Suzume’s color,’ I wanted to control shot by shot how that would look, and that’s how we resulted in what you see on the screen.”

—Makoto Shinkai, Director

Extensive attention was paid to the color palette and lighting schemes. “In regards to the color palette, or more specifically the lighting if you will, I was careful and intentional as to how I wanted to depict that,” Shinkai remarks. “Throughout the film there are over 2,000 shots, and I personally oversaw the coloring and lighting for each one of them. Normally for animation of this caliber, Suzume would have her own color palette and perhaps two other variants for how she would look in the morning, noon, where there is strong sunlight, and night when there isn’t as much light. I’m sure that is a result of trying to optimize the process of animating such a massive-scale movie. But I wanted to step outside of the that box and go shot by shot. Depending on what was in the background, where the sun was hitting and how tight the shot was, I adjusted the color palette to make sure we were evoking the mood that I wanted. You could take a torso-up shot of Suzume and the color of her eyes are different from a super-tight shot where you just see her eye. This isn’t normally something you would do in animation of this scale. But that produces a similar effect to live-action shots where cut by cut you get nuances of what the lighting is doing, and even the skin tone and mood will change from shot to shot. Instead of blanket-saying ‘This is Suzume’s color,’ I wanted to control shot by shot how that would look, and that’s how we resulted in what you see on the screen.”

The worm that threatens Tokyo was inspired by Princess Mononoke.

The worm that threatens Tokyo was inspired by Princess Mononoke.

Young Suzume upon exiting the realm known as the Ever-After and surviving the tsunami that killed her mother.

Young Suzume upon exiting the realm known as the Ever-After and surviving the tsunami that killed her mother.

Ruins found in the Ever-After reflect the devastation found in the land of the living.

Ruins found in the Ever-After reflect the devastation found in the land of the living.

For the first time, Suzume witnesses a mysterious supernatural entity known as the worm attempting to break through a door connected to the Ever-After.

For the first time, Suzume witnesses a mysterious supernatural entity known as the worm attempting to break through a door connected to the Ever-After.

Despite being known way beyond the borders of Japan, Shinkai has not forgotten his humble beginnings when he only had himself and a Power Mac G4, LightWave, Adobe Photoshop 5.0, Adobe After Effects 4.1 and Commotion DV 3.1. “I tend to use water, rain and lens flares a lot, and that has to do with my background and how I became a director,” Shinkai reflects. “I don’t have an animator background. I had never worked and had any experience in a major studio until later on. Self-producing my animated shorts [Voices of a Distant Star, She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points and Other Worlds] is what led me to rely on some of those techniques. When you’re creating animation alone the heaviest lifting in that context is the character animation, so I tried to figure out different methods of storytelling. Sometimes I would rely on 3D CG or cut to a blue sky. Part of those various elements that I had access to was rain or lens flares because in Adobe After Effects you don’t have to hand-draw every single droplet of rain. I could rely on the PC to do some of the lifting for me in terms of that visual expression. The same goes for the lens flares. I would say that this is almost a by-product of my unique career path [he was a video game animator at Nihon Falcom] that enabled me as a storytelling tool to rely on certain techniques that freed me up from the character animation. It’s the result of not relying solely on character animation as a form of expression or to drive the story forward that you still see those artifacts in my movies today.”



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