Like many who saw “Your Name” in 2017, I was swept away by Mikato Shinkai’s new vision of anime pop-poetry, using soaring rock anthems and twinkling Tokyo skylines as an epic backdrop for his curiously affecting metaphysical love story. Shinkai’s work interweaves fizzy romance tropes, folkloric mysticism, and sadness toward real-life natural disasters into full-bore cinematic experiences that famously make people cry. I’ve been with Shinkai since the beginning, watching “Voices of a Distant Star” back in 2003 on my friend Dave’s older brother’s TV––a twenty-minute short he wrote, produced, directed, and animated on a Power Mac G4. He’s an extraordinary talent, and like many, I hoped for a miracle that “Your Name,” a true mega-hit that’s the third highest-grossing anime movie of all time at $382 million worldwide, could break into the Oscars. It didn’t.
There are a few possible factors; “Your Name” only earned $5 million at the U.S. box office and was submitted to the Oscars in 2016 but had an awkward official release date of Spring 2017. Yet, when looking at the Academy’s history of overlooking Japanese animation, it paints a damning view of a voting body uncomfortable with supporting one of the most beloved visual arts traditions in the world. Anyone with an ear to popular culture knows anime has been a massive cultural force for decades, with peaks and valleys of Western appeal, but Shinkai’s work is part of a big upswing toward its resurgence. Shinkai’s latest is the terrific “Suzume,” another confection of romance, disaster, and frequent musical collaborator Radwimps’ catchy and rousing music. And given how it just hit $300 million worldwide and earned rave reviews, it’s high time movies like “Suzume” get recognized by the Academy Awards.
When “Spirited Away” won Best Animated Feature in 2002 in the second-ever year of that category’s existence, it was historic. With the Academy giving “Shrek” the first Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2001 and awarding Miyazaki’s masterpiece the following year, the Academy showed the world a category with the rare plurality to celebrate a movie that awesomely opens with a green CGI Oger farting to “Smash Mouth” just as well as a sublime otherworldly odyssey to a Japanese Bathhouse for spirits. These two successive wins––in many ways, polar opposites––represented what could have been an exciting future for a category that never came to pass. Instead, it became an easy layup for Pixar and other Western studios like it.
This is partly because “Spirited Away” is inviting and accessible in a way anime is sometimes perceived not to be. It’s a time-enduring masterpiece, a multi-generational breakout as beloved by kids as well as the snootiest critics. When it was time to introduce your most anime-skeptic friend to the medium, along with maybe “Akira,” “Spirited Away” was always the safest bet. In the intervening years, love for the film hasn’t diminished, with “Spirited Away” placing as the 75th “Best Film of All Time” by the Sight and Sound poll. The same reasons for that mass appeal are the same reasons it made sense as a landmark Best Animated Feature win: Miyazaki’s cinema is melancholic but gentle, tough but warm, otherworldly but relatable, politically minded but rarely didactic. As a spectacle, it’s nearly peerless. It would be the final Oscar win for an “anime” film in the category.
With six eventual nominations, Studio Ghibli became a Name Brand for a certain kind of welcoming mood-board anime for non-fans, with only one non-Ghibli film ever being nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. That was Mamoru Hosada’s slice of life film, “Mirai,” nominated in 2019; it’s a sign of hope in widening the possibilities of what kind of anime feature might earn recognition. Yet, glaring absences remain, especially among those with a more “outlandish” premise for a Western audience. Satoshi Kon’s “Tokyo Godfathers,” an ahead-of-its-time crime dramedy about a makeshift homeless family on Christmas Eve, including a trans woman, was released in 2003 to great acclaim. No nomination. Kon’s 2007 psychedelic dreamscape thriller “Paprika,” which arguably prefigured “Inception,” was also overlooked. Likewise, Honda’s more fantastical outings, “Summer Wars” and “The Boy and the Beast,” were ignored.
The cultural racism between what anime was deemed “accessible” and anime deemed “other” runs through the history of anime in the U.S. itself. As Best Buy had entire sections for imported anime in the 90s and 2000s, depending on what you watched, it still could feel culturally taboo even as it surged to immense popularity. Consider how “Pokemon” spread like wildfire, with adorable “kawaii” toys, games, shows, and a top-down media vertical that dominated popular culture for years. “Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back” made a staggering $85 million domestically and $163 million worldwide. Or later, Cartoon Network’s hugely-influential “Toonami” and “Adult Swim” programming blocks began bringing anime to a giant audience. Jocks could watch “Dragon Ball Z” while more artsy girls could watch “Sailor Moon,” inadvertently reinforcing Western gender norms. Compare that to Mamoru Oshii’s cerebral mind-dive “Ghost in the Shell,” famously the first anime release to chart on the Billboard sales charts and later sold millions. There’s latent cognitive dissonance at play if watching Oshii’s cyberpunk masterpiece would be seen as “too weird” while the “Ghost in the Shell” and anime-influenced “The Matrix” rocked the zeitgeist.
And it continued with anime of variable social “coolness” or “acceptability.” There was the jazzy noir space-western classic “Cowboy Bebop,” the heady mecha-masterwork “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” then “Robotech,” “Naruto,” “Berserk,” “Hellsing,” “One Piece,” and “Inuyasha,” with merch sold at game shops and Hot Topic. Liking “Death Note” or “Bebop” might not get you at the nerd table, but “Evangelion” would. But the anime eruption continued: “Kill Bill Volume One” has an anime interlude. The release of the PS2 in 2000 created an influx of more clearly anime-style games. Eventually, anime pop culture grew to the point Linkin Park, at the time one of the biggest bands in the world, did their music video for “Breaking the Habit” in anime style. Disney bought the rights not only to “Spirited Away” but slowly rereleased Miyazaki’s existing catalog and future releases, making a fortune on each. Black anime fans blossomed, supporting the medium for decades. From Oscar glory to thriving box office success, anime began to feel normal for a minute…Until it didn’t. For various reasons, anime began to peter out, and with it, the earned cache with the wide audience and the Academy.
Now, anime is more popular than ever. Partly because anime-only streaming services launched like Crunchyroll and major streamers repopularized some anime classics, the medium has never had a more prolific presence outside Japan. My first film back to theaters after the first brunt of the pandemic wasn’t the latest superhero movie; it was the exhilarating “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train,” a between-season sequel to the popular anime “Demon Slayer.” Back when theaters were still recovering, and people felt leery, it broke the box office when most movies barely recovered their budget. It earned $453 million at the box office. At just under $50 million domestically, it’s by far the highest-grossing anime movie to release in the United States. To put that in perspective: that’s more than the totals of “Black Widow” ($331 million), “Dune” ($402 million), “Eternals” ($402 million), “A Quiet Place Part II” ($297 million), and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($432 million) in the same earning period.
It didn’t get as many headlines, but “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train: “saved cinema” before Maverick’s sonic booms or we returned to Pandora. What makes “Mugen Train’s” box office heat so extraordinary is that, unlike the inviting worlds of Studio Ghibli, “Demon Slayer” is pure shonen––amidst the tearjerker finale and spellbinding animation; the action often involves the hacking tentacles with swords. What kind of anime is allowed to set stateside audiences ablaze has started to shift.
And “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” wasn’t the only mega-anime success: “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” also earned an impressive $196 million, while the capper to the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” franchise, “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” (incidentally, a masterwork), earned $92 million in Japan with a spendy distribution deal from Amazon Prime to stream in 240 countries and territories worldwide simultaneously. Popular clothing brands like Uniqlo are running anime merch tie-ins that sell out instantly. I can’t speak for what it’s like in other cities, but in Chicago; I often see people wearing anime merch as common streetwear. The anime influx has recently blossomed in live-action, too. The recent Best Picture winner, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” is basically live-action anime, with Daniel Kwan’s citing it as a significant influence. All the “John Wick” movies reference anime, but “Chapter 4” strongly cites “Cowboy Bebop” among the parting images. Michael B Jordan has repeatedly cited anime as an enormous influence on “Creed III” and guided his cast on what to watch.
“Suzume” is the perfect opportunity to allow the anime pop culture ascendancy to pay off, with a film distinctly Japanese in theme but universal in its emotional reach. Taking some of the melancholic resonance of “Your Name” to greater depths, “Suzume” is a tender coming-of-age story and a prayer for remembering forgotten people and places we’ve lost to disaster. “Suzume” plays differently whether you identify it as a fable about the devastating Earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 or as something more global, but it resonates regardless. The set pieces are imaginative and thrilling, the animation is sublime (the ocean has never looked more divable, or nocturnal skylines more painterly), and the way Shinkai sculpts sequences around Radwimps rock ballads makes their collaboration one of the most rewarding today. It’s a unique, stirring work, unlike any that have ever received serious awards recognition. Yes, there’s a walking chair and some sky tentacles, but it also made me cry. It’s time anime like “Suzume” deserves attention, and it’s a great place to start.
Do you think “Suzume” will receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film? Have you seen the film yet? If so, what did you think of it? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.