Movie Curiosities: Suzume
When I walk into an anime feature, there are certain assumptions I can make right off the bat. Let me guess; the plot will be bonkers, the animation will be jaw-dropping, and so much of it will be rooted in Japanese culture that it won’t make a lick of sense to anyone outside Japan (and might not even be sensible to anyone within the culture, for all I know).
Yeah, Suzume is three for three. Don’t even bother with a parachute, let’s just dive on in.
Our plot is centered around a malicious otherworldly entity known only as “the Worm”, which enters our world through physical doors in ruined buildings and abandoned places. Most mortal humans can’t see the Worm when it crosses over, but they take notice of the cataclysmic earthquakes and natural disasters that happen if the Worm is left unchecked for too long. Thus we have Souta (Hokuto Matsumura), the latest in a long family line sworn to travel to the lost condemned corners of Japan and close whatever doors the Worm might be using to break through.
His quest is complicated by our eponymous protagonist (Suzume, voiced by Nanoka Hara), an orphaned teenage girl with a half-forgotten childhood history entwined with these mysterious doors.
Long story short, Suzume accidentally frees a… well, it’s never entirely clear what the hell Daijin is, and figuring out what Daijin wants is a central mystery I don’t dare spoil here. What matters is that Daijin is a magical talking white cat who transforms Souta into a chair. (Did I stutter?) Because Souta is now physically incapable of doing much, Suzume has to help him chase down Daijin and get Souta his body back. Along the way, Suzume also has to stop the Worm by shutting doors that just happen to open in Daijin’s wake. Hilarity ensues, as our main characters go on a cross-country road trip through Japan.
Still a more coherent plot than Your Name, which was made by the same writer/director. Just saying.
At its heart and core, what we’ve got here is a mythos in which the past and present, living and dead, are two sides of the same coin. All through Suzume’s journey, we meet ordinary people going about their lives, we see and hear the ghosts of those going about their lives in the past, and the both of them are pointedly similar. It sends the message that the dead and gone and forgotten were every bit as human as any of us. It speaks to the cyclical nature of time, how we’re nothing more or less than the dead and gone descendants of tomorrow.
Of course the film is also a love letter to Japan itself. Given the archipelago’s long and bloody history with earthquakes and tsunamis (Fukushima, anyone?), I don’t think it’s a coincidence that earthquakes factor so prominently into the plot. Moreover, the film is so heavily preoccupied with lost history and abandoned buildings that the theme is baked directly into the plot. On one level, it sends the message that the past isn’t done with us — it isn’t even the past.
On the other hand, the ritual of closing the doors and casting back the worm involves an invocation of unspecified deities. To paraphrase, Suzume and Souta are closing these abandoned doors by giving these broken lands back to the gods. So by closing these doors, Suzume and Souta are letting go of these old worn-down places with all their happy and painful memories. Not unlike Suzume’s development arc in moving past the death of her mother. Thus we have a film about dealing with trauma, addressing that particular theme in micro and macro ways that dovetail superbly well.
The characters are charming, the world-building is compelling, the animation is staggering… really, I only have one major problem with this film. But it’s a doozy.
Without getting too deeply into spoilers, the back half depends solely on the Suzume/Souta romance arc. Suzume is compelled to undertake Herculean labors with cosmic implications, motivated solely by her love for a person she’s only known for three days. And he was a freaking chair for most of that time.
Again, we’re talking about the entire back half of the movie here. And it’s driven entirely by a female protagonist who’s fallen head-over-heels in everlasting twoo wuv with a guy she barely knows. That’s kind of a big fucking problem.
Overall, Suzume is a film that works perfectly well on its own snooker-loopy terms. If you can get past the bizarre plot and buy into the premise as a nonsensical work of fantasy… well, you’ve already cleared a pretty high bar to begin with. More importantly, you’ll find a feature film with delightfully charming characters and some genuinely potent themes about moving past trauma and dealing with history, all conveyed by way of staggering visuals.
If anyone isn’t already into anime, I don’t think this will be the film to convert them. But if you’re open to seeing an anime picture, I think you’ll be happy with this one.