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Makoto Shinkai’s ‘Suzume’ Is The First Anime Film In Competition At The Berlinale In Two Decades

Poster / key art for Makoto Shinkai's SUZUME

With his 2016 feature-length debut Your Name., Makoto Shinkai established himself as the Japanese anime feature director to watch. In a world when our beloved Hayao Miyazaki is in and out of retirement (currently “out”), Shinkai is one of the shining stars of the next generation of anime filmmakers. Which explains why Suzume just broke a decades-long snub for Japanese animation internationally.

The Berlin International Film Festival, usually shortened to “The Berlinale,” is known as one of the “Big Three” film festivals, alongside Cannes and the Venice Film Festival. So, basically, it’s a Big Deal and very prestigious. And yet, there hasn’t been an anime feature which has shown at the Berlinale in two decades. The last animated Japanese feature to be shown at the Berlinale was Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, way back in 2002. Suzume getting this nod is both a huge deal, for Shinkai and anime in general, and yet another sign that Shinkai is thought of as the “successor” to Miyazaki.

Shinkai released a statement about the film’s acceptance into competition at the Berlinale:

At its core, ‘Suzume’ is based on the massive disaster that occurred in Japan twelve years ago. I’m eager to see how this film translates to international audiences: what makes sense, what doesn’t, and what common ground we have across cultures. The film’s imminent international release will hopefully give me the answer to those questions. And, I cannot thank our team members enough for their unprecedented talent and perseverance throughout the film’s production. On behalf of the entire team, I would also like to give thanks to all the fans who have cheered us on, making ‘Suzume’ possible.

Makoto Shinkai, via press release

The “massive disaster” Shinkai is referring to is the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resultant tsunami. The earthquake was the strongest in Japan’s recorded history. The disaster tragically killed 15,500 people. The tsunami alone made 450,000 people lose their homes. The earthquake additionally caused the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, triggering the evacuation of thousands more.

The two decade gap between the Berlinale showcasing Spirited Away and Suzume is very much in keeping with a general vibe among Western “Serious Film Types” and executives, which tends to downplay the artistry and importance of both Japanese anime and animation in general. A Japanese anime director has to “break in” to the club. The director who famously “broke in” was, of course, Hayao Miyazaki. (Though Miyazaki famously hates the word “anime.”)

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a number of incredible features in the last two decades which would’ve been worthy of the nod. We can find plenty of contenders just by looking at Oscar nominations and “smaller” film festivals. Among those nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, there was Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and his supposedly “final” film, The Wind Rises (2013), as well as Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai (2018). (None of these films won the category.) Masaaki Yuasa’s Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017) won its competition at the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival and additionally shown at Sitges Film Festival. Hosoda’s beautiful and deeply melancholic Wolf Children (2012) won an Audience Award at the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Suzume (in Japan, Suzume no Tojimari—roughly “The Locking Up Of Suzume”) was treated with a ton of fanfare upon its November release in Japan. Infuriatingly, I was there but too busy to go see it. A friend assured me Suzume, like Your Name. and 2019’s Weathering With You, was “a beautifully animated movie about teenagers falling in love during a natural disaster.” The trailer—along with its catchy, whimsical song—was everywhere. There were re-screenings of Shinkai’s previous work in the weeks preceding Suzume‘s release. It was obviously a really big deal.

My point here is that, hopefully, Berlinale and other major Western festivals of prestige don’t wait another 20 years before showing another anime film. Anime is general is flourishing right now, and it’s highly influential among creators worldwide, across disciplines. Back in the USA, animated films and series are getting their funding slashed left and right—particularly because of the Warner and Discovery merger. I’d say any big nods to the beauty and novelty of animation, from anywhere is the world, is welcome.

Berlinale runs from February 16 through 26. Suzume will premiere in theaters in North America in April.

(Featured image: CoMix Wave Films)

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Kirsten (she/her) is a musician, audio person, writer, and nerd. When not talking about One Piece or Zelda (among other anime and games), she's finding surprising ways to play the guitar.