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"Suzume no Tojimari": Shinkai's Expanding Eco-verse

When the lauded director Makoto Shinkai visited New Delhi, India in 2019 for the premiere of Tenki no Ko (Weathering with You), I got the opportunity to interact with him about his ecological concern. Upon being asked his 'next move', he jokingly said in his typically humble manner: "I have already submerged Tokyo under water. Let's see what's next!" For those unfamiliar, Tenki no Ko is a poignant tale about a Hina, young girl with powers to control the weather, who ends up bearing the burdens of environmental blunders of her fellow humanity. To rescue her, her male friend Hodaka risks never-ending downpour, which effectively does submerge Tokyo on- screen.

Shinkai's artistic commitment to creating a cinematic eco-verse culminates in the 2023 epic masterpiece, Suzume no Tojimari (Suzume's Locking Up). Like many of his other leads, Suzume is a junior in high school whose name means the 'sparrow', a species on the decline in Japan. She is indeed rare, as she somehow becomes responsible for protecting her nation from (super)natural disasters. Shinkai perhaps imagines human activities such as underground bomb testing causing tectonic plates to shift, as 'dark forces' brewing underneath the surface of Japan, resulting in earthquakes and tsunami. Suzume incidentally loses her mother in such a calamity, when she is a toddler. Taken in by her aunt, she leaves the ruins of her home town behind, moving base. These 'dark forces' try and escape through spectral doors, which are sealed off with keystones by 'closers'. Through certain turns of events, Suzume has to assume the role of a 'closer' and protect Japan from impending horrors.

The filmic universe seems to be coming around a full circle with each production by Shinkai. Recently, I came across this meme on the page called "Otaku Nation" on Facebook that suggests tangible visual growth, in regards to his characters.

There is no denying that his lanky and adventurous youngsters look quite similar in form. In terms of themes as well, the progression is conspicuously rounded. In Kimi no Nawa (Your Name), the artist focused on the Shinto concept of musubi, aka, the cyclicality of life, which Mitsuha's granny tells her about. As Suzume comforts her frightened, younger self in the realm of 'ever after', a familiar viewer cannot help but be reminded of the preceding film. The idea of the majestic 'ever after' is exactly in similitude with 'Agartha' from Hoshi Wo Ou Kodomo (Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below). Perhaps herein, the self-referentiality becomes a little obvious, as the cover of Suzume's time-capsule has 'Agartha' etched on it. In Hoshi Wo Ou Kodomo, the feline Mimi is consumed by the Agarthan God, returning it to the eternal cycle. As Suzume and Souta, the male lead, return the yin and yang pair of the magical cats as keystones, the idea of the circular journey is further reemphasized.

Shinkai's films suggest that even though humans have to assume responsibility for the havoc they have created in the environment, nature and culture are not always in a binary equation. If one listens devotedly, like Asuna listened for the melody from Agartha from underneath the surface, one can find resonances of nature within their own spirits as well. Souta mentions at the end, that the demonic worms keep escaping through doors, as people have forgotten to listen to the 'voices'; perhaps an echo of the omnipresent super-consciousness in nature. In the post-pandemic era, with young activists on the horizon such as Greta Thunberg, humanity hopefully has become a tad more conscious of the needs of preserving the environmental sanctity. The implosions that the closers try to contain might be nothing the earth's cry for help. In his signature subtle manner, Shinkai possibly implores that efforts be collective to avoid singular sacrifices (albeit temporarily in the narratives) such as Mitsuha, Hina or Souta.

Shinkai's visuals need no reaffirmation, and is stunning as usual. The detailed portraiture of food, birds in flight, raindrops on the ground meets expectations set forth by earlier films. RADWIMPS have blasted off the charts again, with their enchanting OST. I dragged my sleep-deprived and travel-worn husband to the movie theatre, and he claims the experience was refreshing. If you are yet to join the ranks, HURRY, before it is taken off screen!

Stay tuned for more @Dr Otaku :)

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