Writer/director Makoto Shinkai’s been telling stories since the late-1990s, but didn’t become as widely well-known in the United States until his 2016 release Your Name. (君の名は。) which combined science fiction/fantasy elements through a natural disaster with young love, creating one of the greatest and emotionally satisfying films of the 2010s. His 2019 follow-up film Weathering with You (天気の子) tread a similar narrative path, exploring an unnatural nature-based phenomenon and an adolescent love story. For this reviewer, the ending didn’t carry the same weight or conviction as Your Name., making the whole harder to appreciate and creating a sense of anxiety over Shinkai’s latest project Suzume (すずめの戸締まり). Though Suzume involves many of the same narrative elements as the prior two, the execution is wholly different and nearly as emotionally gut-wrenching as Your Name., leaving the audience in a state of awe by the conclusion.
High schooler Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) dreams of a world filled with vibrant colors and a star-filled sky, a place where she, as a little girl, found her lost mother. It’s a dream so vivid and so real that she struggles to make sense of it. One day, while on her way to school, she passes a stranger who asks her where there might be a ruin in her town’s area, and it awakens a curiosity within her. Deciding to go to the ruin herself, she finds a door in the middle of an abandoned dome, a door that appears to lead nowhere until she opens it and sees the very place she dreams of. What she doesn’t realize is that this door is one of many that exist as gateways to a place where something dangerous is locked within, but is now finding itself slowly freed and ready to bring devastation on all of Japan unless she and the mysterious stranger, Souta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura), can stop it.
At first, Suzume feels very much like Shinkai’s last two projects. The colors are hyperreal and clear, not so much amplified as their tone is pristine and welcoming. The dreamworld Suzume experiences possesses the same blue-to-purple shading as the sky in Your Name., evoking an otherworldly sensation without putting one off *because* of the familiarity. Even the small bits of Suzume’s life that the audience is invited to see before the action kicks off are lovely and hospitable, as though living there is the best possible version of what life could be. What’s notable about this is how much Suzume seems despondent to it, separated because of this search for her mother. She is not dour or grim, yet in the quick scene with her aunt Tamaki (voiced by Eri Fukatsu), one gets the sense that Suzume desires distance from her and this place. It’s not soon after that Suzume gets her wish and this is where Suzume’s parallel similarities disappear because the narrative doesn’t rely on Souta as anything more than an initial catalyst: he asks her where the local ruins are, she tells him, and they part ways. But because there’s something about him, she decides to go looking for the ruins herself, thereby interacting with the mysterious door which causes the crisis she must then stop. Even at this point, there’s a certain sense of “we’ve seen this story before,” which is why what happens next is so important: Souta’s responsibilities to seek the door are transferred to Suzume and in order to address the country-wide crisis. Suzume must leave her town immediately, igniting a road trip story whose every step isn’t just about addressing the physical conflict, but the psychological and emotional for Suzume, her circle, and Japan as a whole.
In an interview shared with the screening link provided by Crunchyroll, Shinkai explains that his interest in using the environment to tell stories (meteor impact in Your Name., odd torrential downpours in Weathering, and earthquakes here) is inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which he says the country refers to as the “Great East Japan Earthquake.” He discusses in the interview how, even though he was elsewhere and safe, he couldn’t help but feel guilty for being ok when so many were hurt, killed, or lost. Creating stories which explore humanity’s relationship to nature and each other is something he can do and, once the road trip begins, that aspect takes center-stage in the most optimistic and endearing ways. Suzume is a junior in high school, 17 years old (based on the official synopsis), and has been living with her aunt since the unexpected death of her mother. Both women have been dealing with the responsibility of the other, with the emotional weight of the loss, and not dealing with it. Through this journey, Suzume goes to other ruins around Japan, places laid waste by natural disaster, financial issues, or lost to time, meeting different people who open their proverbial (and sometimes literal) homes to her as she seeks the other doors to prevent calamity. As Suzume feels she bears the brunt of responsibility to stop the danger from escalating further, the literal doorstop to prevent massive destruction, each interaction is a reminder to Suzume of what she’s fighting so hard to preserve. More importantly, it serves as a way to connect the notion of loss to recovery and how doing so doesn’t mean that your life has to be consumed by this one horrible moment. Even the act of locking away the threat at each door Suzume finds isn’t as simple as using the key Souta carries. Suzume must open herself to the voices of the forgotten, acknowledge their lives, and ask for their help for one doesn’t just exist in the world alone, they are part of something greater. None of it’s perfect, none of it is ideal, but it’s what life looks like beyond her small experience, changing her (and us) in unexpected ways.
Because this is a Shinkai film, there is a mystical element which takes the form of both what Suzume sees is the culprit coming through the doors, but also Souta who’s been physically transformed out of his human form and into her childhood chair. This not only allows for some continuous levity, but it directly ensures that the onus of responsibility falls distinctly on Suzume. In both previous films, there’s either been a male-lead trying to save the day or a male-lead trying to save the girl, each time putting the female protagonist in the backseat of her story. Here, however, Suzume is the lead from start to finish. She maintains her agency throughout the film, setting her own course, even as she does so by carrying on the work Souta expected to do himself. This doesn’t mean that Souta serves no purpose to the story. He’s the initial knowledge wellspring so that we-through-Suzume understand what we’re seeing behind the veil of the regular world. He’s effectual to the story in a variety of ways and does so without directing Suzume’s actions. Indirectly, though, the form he’s taken ties to the undercurrent trauma that Suzume encountered, the very trauma that enabled her to dream of the otherworldly plane that pulled her to open the door in the first place. Shinkai’s layered this narrative in such a way that everything possesses a meaning, everything possesses a purpose, and all of it builds to an ending that’ll produce unexpected tears (or, at least it did with this reviewer). Like with Your Name., the emotional arc of the film is what carries the audience to a satisfying climax, though I’d argue that Suzume is the most action-packed of the three recent projects.
The original title for Suzume is Suzume no tojimari, which roughly translates to “Suzume: The Door Lock.” Considering that Shinkai makes sure to zero in every time Suzume locks or unlocks something throughout the film, that averting disaster requires a key and a lock, this would seem accurate for the overall conceit of the film. But what is a door but a device that goes two ways: to enter and to exit. A lock merely prevents or restricts the purpose. If Suzume is “The Door Lock” and the film is a road trip tale in which she learns how to unlock herself from a moment by seeing beyond the tragedy, then one can see that it’s not just the locking of a door that can save a life (as in the literal danger that threatens Japan in the film), but understanding when one needs to allow their door to swing open freely, to allow passage of one’s heart, their feelings, their warmth, to unlock their own door.
This is but a sampling of the depth that Shinkai put into Suzume and doesn’t touch on the wonderful surprises, authentic emotion, and just breathtaking artistic beauty within the film. It’s rare to see a film in which the stakes become so high, the action stays so immense, and yet the focal point is kept minimal thereby demonstrating that the larger battle is far less important than the smaller one. Even as one particular element is foreshadowed so much as to show one’s hand and reduce the emotional wallop, everything else is so delicately woven that the film as a whole fails to suffer for it.
In Australia and New Zealand April 13th, 2023.
In Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom, and United States April 14th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Suzume website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.