The fear of earthquakes and tsunamis are all-pervasive in Japanese society. Makoto Shinkai has turned these afflictions into a fantasy drama lasting more than two hours. Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara) lives with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) is a mid-sized town on the Japanese coast. She encounters a stand-alone magic door surrounded by water, in the middle of a crumbling building in an abandoned part of town (presumably hit by the 2011 tsunami). She walks through the door and back, without realising the consequences of her actions. She has inadvertently stepped into a different dimension, and unleashed a potential disaster upon her people. Hell is about to break loose.
One day she sees a giant fire warm coming out of the ground, with manifold strings and tentacles about to embrace and devour her community. But she’s the only one who can see it. She rushes to the source only to find a beautiful young man called Souta (Hokuko Matsumura) attempting to close the same magic door through which she walked earlier. Together they manage to close the door, which is in reality the portal to a different dimension, and the gate through which the enormous worm escaped. We then learn that – had the worm fallen to the ground – a devastating earthquake would have struck claiming the lives of thousands of people. Perhaps millions.
Souta explains to Suzume that he is a “Closer”, someone charged with keeping these magic door shut (and therefore preventing earthquakes from striking). People have done that for generations, he claims. The problem is that Suzume removed the cat-shaped keystone from the other realm. That keystone kept the door shut, but it has now turned into a cheeky real cat called Daijin whose mission is to open as many doors as possible, potentially wrecking every corner of Japan. To make things worse, Daijin has cursed Souta, transferring his soul into a three-legged chair that Suzume used during her childhood. Meanwhile, Suzume is also attempting to reconnect with her mother, who died 12 years earlier under some mysterious circumstances revealed at the end of the story. Sounds bizarre? Well, that’s just the beginning of this epic fantasy story with more twists and turns than Lord of the Rings.
Suzume eventually finds her childhood diary and the circumstances under which her mother died. The date of her bereavement sheds light on both Suzume’s personal life and Japan’s national identity as a whole.
The visuals of Suzume are impressive, in line with what you would expect from one of Japan’s top-grossing anime directors. The urban and also the rural landscapes are vivid and realistic. The fiery worm is dark and menacing, a real harbinger of apocalypse. It overtakes the skies of costal Japan and then of Tokyo with a supernatural ferocity. At one point, it looks like the spaceship of Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) over the skies of New York. Makoto Shinkai is used to the topics of natural phenomena, disasters and teenage girls seeking romance. His previous feature Weathering with You (2019) has a remarkably similar premise, about a girl who could replace rain with sunshine.
On one hand, Suzume is a colourful allegory of a society that forges ahead with its daily routine despite the looming danger that’s just above their heads, and which could befall and kill them at any given moment.
On the other hand, Suzume is a highly derivative movie with very little new to offer in terms of topic, narrative and aesthetics. It also does little to shake off stereotypes of skirt-clad, screaming Japanese school girls fighting to kiss their Prince-Charming-turned-frog (or Prince-Charming-turned-chair, on this occasion). Misogynistic tropes permeate the film: a female character cannot exist without the greater purpose of saving her male; the male is much older than the female, the females scream (Nanoka Hara’s vocal cords would make Fay Wray jealous) while the males mostly keep it cool, and so on. The predictable and inevitable happy ending suggests that Japan isn’t quite ready to shift those old-fashioned paradigms.
Suzume showed in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It is unusual for a-list festivals to include an animation movie in its main competitive strand, but this year the Berlinale decided to have two such films (the second one is Liu Jian’s Art College 1994, from China). In cinemas on Friday, April 14th.