High-schooler Suzume (Nanoka Hara and Akari Miura as young Suzume) has lived with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) since her mother passed away 12 years prior. On her way to school one day, she passes a mysterious older boy Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) who asks her if there are any ruins nearby. It seems that their quiet coastal town contains a door that offers a view through to a parallel world and one that contains within it a violent force in the shape of a large worm. Souta has arrived in town to prevent the worm breaking loose and causing a devastating earthquake. Suzume unwittingly removes the Keystone that takes the form of a white cat named Daijin (Ann Yamane) and transforms Souta into a three-legged chair. Feeling responsible for the impending disaster, Suzume sets out to chase the cat across Japan, carrying Souta with her as the two attempt to prevent the worms from emerging through the doors.
Makoto Shinkai is a director who seems to have found the magic formula for creating intriguing, engaging and moving stories. Following the success of “Your Name” and “Weathering with You”, this film brings together many of the familiar elements from those works, combining it with an original story that outdoes both in terms of it’s epic scope and emotional impact. From the first moments, the animation is exceptional, with swaying grasses, glittering water, sparkling constellations, ruins brimming with incredible detail, and every conceivable weather lovingly rendered. RADWIMPS return again to provide the soundtrack to the film along with Kazuma Jinnouchi. There are also a number of pop hits played during a road-trip sequence that are sure to have you tapping along. At this point Shinkai’s sublime animation, the sound design that wraps you in a believable world of wind, rain, chirping cicadas, and bustling background noise, is perhaps taken for granted. The story this time around relies less on the romantic boy-meets-girl plot of previous works, instead functioning as a coming-of-age story for Suzume and containing a much deeper theme relating to the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Rather than referring back to his own works, Shinkai pays homage to Hayao Miyazaki, in the adventurous female protagonist tackling not only a magical world, but also deep seated personal trauma. The Ghibli connection is made explicit in a couple of nods to “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. The road trip approach to the story, taking us from Kyushu, through Shikoku, to Kobe, Tokyo, and on to Miyagi, gives the film a forward momentum, enlivened by the epic confrontations of gods and demons from a parallel underworld, light humorous touches, and the colourful characters Suzume encounters (voiced by a number of great actors including Sairi Ito, Shota Sometani, and Ryunosuke Kamiki.
“Suzume” discusses the trauma of death, both general and specific, in a way that is accessible enough for a young audience without shying away from the harsh reality. By personifying the earthquakes, the film captures the sense of indiscriminate danger caused by them. We learn later in the film that Suzume was displaced from her home, taken to Kyushu to live with her aunt, following the earthquake of 2011, an event that still casts a shadow over many lives. The film treats its subject respectfully and earns the emotional pay off in Suzume’s story, which in less skilled hands could have seemed trite and exploitative. The film also returns to some of the ambiguity and complexity of Shinkai’s earlier works, with a moment of raw drama between Suzume and Tamaki that captures their fraught yet loving relationship. Even for those unfamiliar or not directly touched by the disaster, this story of a girl struggling to come to terms with the sudden, untimely death of her mother, is heart-wrenchingly believable.