To contemplate death in the face of natural disasters requires an eagerness to reckon with the uncomfortable, something director Makoto Shinkai has shown he’s more than willing to do in his films. His latest, Suzume, does this in as approachable a way as possible with a story that mixes magical-realism with deep loss to produce a visual marvel that impresses on multiple fronts. In the process, Shinkai presents audiences with the possibility of healing despite the cruel suddenness of death during events that hit with the full force of nature.
Suzume follows the titular character, a seventeen-year-old teen (voiced by Nanoka Hara), as mysterious doors start appearing in moderately populated and highly populated areas to release a giant supernatural worm that can bring about massive earthquakes if allowed to touch ground. She’s aided by a Closer called Souta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura), a man that travels the country hunting and closing these doors to prevent disasters.
A mysterious talking cat with magical powers turns Souta into a small wooden chair that can run and speak, a development that pushes Suzume to help the man-chair close the new doors that start popping up throughout Japan. As disasters start getting averted, we learn of Suzume’s own history with destructive natural events and the things it can take from people. In her case, it’s her mother’s death that’s reshaped her reality and her dedication to the Closer’s mission.
Despite what the subject matter might suggest, Suzume is a movie that favors a vision of hope and healing in the face of trauma and the grieving process. It’s not difficult to view the doors and the giant worm as representative of the things people wish they could control but ultimately can’t. An inability to accept that preventing every single disaster is impossible, that death can come in many different forms at any given time. The task becomes progressively difficult and riskier the more you attempt to contain the uncontainable.
The story portrays the prevention of natural catastrophes as a kind of fool’s journey that essentially negates life by requiring such an exhaustive dedication to vigilance and readiness. There’s a sense of inevitability to it, of relentless force, that makes the character of Suzume come off as both noble and stubborn at the same time.
The visuals do an excellent job of showing the worm as an unstoppable force without an unmovable object in sight. It can be delayed, but never fully stopped. To an extent, the movie invites a reading that frames the phenomenon as a thing we have to accept, be it as a metaphor for the guarantee of death or as one for the unpredictable certainty of mass traumatic events that we simply can’t always prepare for (or survive regardless of preparedness).
What keeps the story from falling off the deep end into despair is the magical-realist element of the world the movie creates. Only Suzume, Souta, and the cat can see the doors and the worm, but everyone can see the living chair and the talking cat. People react to them with wonder rather than fear or panic and it makes for a very light and colorful experience with several sequences that garner attention just on spectacle alone.
Rounding out the experience are the characters Suzume meets along the way towards each door. They each offer different avenues towards the idea of hope and acceptance and they turn the movie into a living journey with a variety of locations and color palettes to boot. They feel like short stories in their own right and they carry their own arcs.
There are too many metaphors and ideas inhabiting Suzume to account for here, but discovering them on your own is quite rewarding. I latched on to those regarding Japan’s history with natural disasters and crises, especially in recent times with the earthquakes that rocked the country’s nuclear sites. The doors that the worm uses, for instance, are all found in abandoned places such as schools and amusement parks, as if they belong to past traumas people would rather forget than process collectively. There are just so many ways into the story and its characters that repeat viewings are essentially a requirement.
Thankfully, going back into the world of Suzume is an easy sell. It’s a movie that welcomes complexity without overcomplicating the conversations it wants to have on grief, the memory of disasters, and the magic of hope. It truly is a remarkable story that impresses by being as inventive as it is emotionally grounded, and it will become a highlight in anyone’s film education upon watching.