Before I get started, I’d like to thank all of you for bearing with me over the last few weeks. My mother’s death hit me harder than I expected it to, and the final arrangements were much more difficult to handle than I had anticipated. Still, spending time with my family helped, including making good on my promise to take my nephew to see his first film in a theatre – The Super Mario Bros. Movie. He got adorably scared of the Dry Bones monsters, was super excited during the action sequences, and even felt legitimate suspense when it looked like Bowser was really going to marry Peach. He was a little too loud during the third act, but there was only one other family in the auditorium, and they didn’t complain, which allowed me a satisfied smile that I was continuing mom’s legacy through him, as well as a brief fantasy about Peach going full Elsa that made me swoon.
When I got back to California a few days ago, my first priority was to see a new movie, which I hadn’t done since mom passed, and there was only one that I considered essential, that being Suzume (or Suzume’s Locking Up if you want to get “literal Japanese translation” about this). Nearly a year ago, during an episode of No Rest for the Weekend, I mentioned it as one of my most anticipated films for the back half of 2022. It did in fact debut in Japan in November last year, but it didn’t make its way to international markets until April. It wasn’t even submitted to the Academy last year for Animated Feature, which means it will be eligible this time around, so as far as I’m concerned, it counts as part of the 2023 canon.
This is the third straight major release for anime auteur Makoto Shinkai, after the transcendent Your Name and the poignant Weathering With You, and oddly, one of the film’s few criticisms (it stands at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes) is that visually and thematically, it feels like a continuation of those last two projects. Having seen the finished product, I agree that it does come off like a spiritual successor. However, when you’ve got a near-perfect formula in place, there’s something to be said for not fixing what isn’t broken. Not only does Shinkai’s style work incredibly well for stories like this, it’s dazzling in the extreme and filled with thoughtful symbolism, all distilled through the accessible lens of teenage melodrama, something that Young Adult adaptations in the West have been trying – and failing – to accomplish for decades. So from where I sit, this is a feature, not a bug.
It turns out that Suzume was the perfect vehicle to help me get back into my groove. Not only is it gorgeously animated with a strong plot, but the circumstances surrounding the protagonist was just the emotional catharsis I needed after the tumult of the last four weeks. For some, a triggering experience is something to be avoided at all costs, and I completely respect that. Everyone copes and processes trauma and grief in their own ways. For me, sometimes confrontation is the optimal path, which is part of the reason why I love movies so much. Seeing a story unfold on screen that echoes my own experience helps me to move on, and I could tell this entry would be no exception from the opening images, as a distraught child meanders through a visually stunning landscape crying out in vain for her lost mother. Yeah, this got me good.
This introduction turns out to be a dream of our titular lead, Suzume Iwato, voiced by Nanoka Hara in the original Japanese and Nichole Sakura in the English dub. Her mom (Kana Hanazawa/Allegra Clark) died tragically during the earthquake and tsunami that rocked the Tōhoku region in 2011 (also causing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster), when Suzume was just four years old. After the incident, Suzume was adopted by her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu/Jennifer Sun Bell) and moved south to the city of Miyazaki (which is real, but I assume its use just has to be a reference to the Ghibli master who paved the way for artists like Shinkai to thrive) on the island of Kyushu, where after 12 years, Suzume is a relatively well-adjusted high school student. She gets good grades, she aspires to be a nurse like her mom, and she even keeps a toddler’s chair as a memento of her mother, even though it’s been missing a leg for as long as she can remember. Meanwhile, Tamaki dotes on her in an overprotective way that prevents the now 40-year-old woman from having a social life of her own, but she doesn’t begrudge the situation all that much.
Everything changes one fateful morning when Suzume encounters a man named Souta (Hokuto Matsumura/Josh Keaton) on her way to school. Casually strolling up the street looking like a roguish bad boy, Suzume gets what appears to be her first crush, and his image lingers in her mind, especially when he makes the odd inquiry as to whether or not the city has any ruins or strange solitary doors. The best Suzume can figure is an abandoned bathhouse facility, and after seeing Souta off, curiosity gets the best of her, and she tries to meet him there to learn more.
Upon arriving at the disused facility, Suzume finds a door standing up on its own in the middle of a domed area. Approaching it, she opens the door and finds a gleaming night sky full of stars. Recognizing it as the place she saw in her dream, she tries to enter, but merely comes out the other side, the other world still visible through the frame. She trips on a small statue of a cat, which she pulls out of the ground, getting instantly freaked out when it turns into a real cat and runs away. Back at school, she and her classmates get an earthquake warning on their phones and feel a small rumble. Everyone else dismisses it as a normal occurrence, but Suzume is stunned and terrified when she sees a pillar of smoke erupting from the site of the ruins that no one else can see. Rushing back to the scene, Suzume finds Souta struggling to shut the very door she opened. The pair is able close the door, and Souta locks it with what looks like a magic key after reciting a prayer to ancient spirits.
Having sustained a nasty cut in the process, Suzume insists on taking Souta home to patch him up, and he explains why he came to town. He is part of a long line of “Closers,” people who find these mystical doors that lead to the “Ever-After,” the realm of the dead, and close them before a malicious spectral “Worm” can escape – the smoke that Suzume saw – and cause (what we interpret to be) natural disasters. The fact that Suzume can see the Worm and the Ever-After means that she has somehow been in that world before, even though she’s alive.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the statue cat, which Souta surmises was actually a god sealed away as a keystone to keep the Worm at bay. Suzume’s accidental removal is what allowed the Worm to break free. The cat, called Daijin (Ann Yamane/Lena Josephine Marano) is more concerned with enjoying its freedom and having fun with Suzume. Seeing Souta as being “in the way,” he turns the young man into the three-legged chair he was sitting on, and goads Suzume into chasing him as a game. Desperate to put right what she messed up, and still enamored with Souta as a person, Suzume takes it upon herself to escort her “chair” to several points throughout Japan, closing doors that Daijin opens and meeting new friends along the way. Hijinks ensue, with an ideal balance of comedy, drama, and unexpectedly intriguing romance, until she finds her way back to her hometown and must confront her own past trauma. Meanwhile, Tamaki tries to chase her down, Souta begins to lose more and more of his humanity, and the Worm grows ever stronger.
This is the beauty of Shinkai’s work. The plot is relatively straightforward with a few magical elements, but the execution and degree of empathy are off the charts. First off, as ever, the animation is simply astounding. Shinkai has this almost unique ability to blend 2D character models with what can be best described as 2.5D backgrounds and environments, providing a depth of field that tricks the eyes into thinking it’s a 3D space without the need for 3D effects or designs. This is most apparent when viewing the Ever-After, with its almost hypnotic night sky. But it shows up in more subtle places as well, like the reflective surface of the water in certain scenes, the expansion of the Worm, and the passing landscapes as Suzume and Souta travel the country. It’s an oddly comforting optical illusion, because it gives the film a slightly interactive and immersive feel. You know what you’re watching is a cartoon, but there’s just a shred of realism in the presentation that makes it easier for you as a viewer to imagine you’re actually there, which goes a long way towards your engagement with the material.
Second, like Hayao Miyazaki before him and Mamoru Hosoda alongside him, Makoto Shinkai knows how to create believable characters even in a fantastical setting. Suzume instantly feels like a lived-in character, exhibiting typical and understandable behaviors for someone her age, and just as importantly, it should be noted that unlike other YA protagonists, she’s not born into some high-minded destiny, but instead makes active choices to guide her own story. Some of those decisions inform her character, and some of her character motivations inform her decisions, an ironic cycle that Shinkai plays up as a sort of metaphorical counterargument to the idea of fate in a world where magic and gods are real.
This emphasis on agency applies to just about every major character in the film. Souta knows his supernatural duty, but he still wants to become a teacher to be more helpful in ways that are meant to be noticed. Tamaki balances parental concerns with her own desire for personal fulfillment, aided by her comically simp coworker Minoru (Shota Sometani/Roger Craig Smith). Along her journey, Suzume encounters several disparate personalities, including a working class student her age named Chika (Kotone Hanase/Rosalie Chiang), a single mom and bar owner called Rumi (Sairi Ito/Amanda C. Miller), Souta’s friend Serizawa (Ryunosuke Kamiki/Joe Zieja), and his ailing grandfather (Matsumoto Hakuo II/Cam Clarke), all of whom have different motivations and trajectories in life, offering Suzume some welcome perspective on her own issues and insecurities. They’re all helpful in their own way, but also live in the real world, where largesse has its limits, so Suzume must aid them in return for their kindness, allowing her to see different versions of a family life that she was denied by tragedy.
Third, and arguably most importantly, there’s a larger lesson to be learned through all the shenanigans and teen romance, a crucial aspect of both Your Name and Weathering With You before it. Here it’s the idea of memory and preservation, not just of shared heritage and cultural history, but the simple act of the human experience. All of the doors that Suzume and Souta must close, and all the portals through which the Worm escapes, are found on sites that have been abandoned for one reason or another: a middle school demolished after a flood, an amusement park that closed but was too expensive to tear down, the ruined foundations of a destroyed town now covered in new plant growth. All of these places were once near and dear to the lives of countless people, and it’s their lingering memories that summon the Worm (and Daijin by extension), pining for the acknowledgment that they existed, that they mattered, even if they’re no longer around.
What could be a better analogy for processing loss and grief in the face of death? In the end, every one of us is but the sum of our experiences, for good or ill, and the only way to be sure that we leave a legacy is to have it recorded in some way, whether it’s written, filmed, painted, sung, or passed down through lore. The uncertainty that comes with the end of life is something that we all have to face, one way or another, and coming to peace with it is one of the hardest things for anyone to do. It’s one of the more brilliant turns of the story that Suzume herself does not fear death, because to her it means a reunion with her mother, but in the end she must choose to live. The ability to reconcile these thoughts and realize that she’d rather live with her pain and share it with others instead of suffering alone (or not living at all) is an amazing degree of character development while still validating her trauma and mindset.
There are still flaws to be had, though thankfully they’re minor. The story is largely sound, but it still begs a few questions that stretch the limits of suspension of disbelief. Why did Daijin transform Souta in the first place, and how was it able to do so? Why was Suzume able to access the Ever-After as a child when only the dead are supposed to be allowed to enter? How exactly did the chair lose a leg, and given what we eventually learn about Suzume, why is there a Terminator 2-esque time paradox that’s never addressed? Add in the fact that, while 95% of the movie is animation at the highest possible level, the second act climax renders the fully-empowered Worm as something akin to a mid-90s attempt at a CGI poop emoji, and there are just enough shortcomings to warrant mention, but not enough to downgrade the final mark.
I’m overjoyed that I finally got to see this, as the film completely lived up to what I was hoping for all those months ago, and even exceeded my expectations in certain spots. More importantly, seeing Suzume come to grips with her loss made me feel that much better about my own, which is part of why I go to the movies in the first place. At times it felt like mom was sitting there with me, giving me permission to laugh again, and letting me know that I’m going to be alright as I carry her memory with me. I’ll be slowly but surely getting back into the swing of things here and on the YouTube channel. I’m in the process of writing and recording this month’s “Worst Trailer” video, and the May edition of TFINYW will be out in a couple of days. I’ll probably even seek out some of the April releases that I had to miss on the first go-round. Like our heroine on the screen, the healing process begins with recognition and empathy, and then when the time is right, moving on with a commitment to honor and acknowledge the legacy of emotions left behind. And just in case, there’s nothing wrong with giving a chair a smooch now and then to see if it’s magic. There couldn’t have been a more perfect way back into my life than this.
I love you, mom.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite anime director? What would you do if a cat suddenly started talking to you? Let me know!
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