Japanese director Makoto Shinkai’s latest animation feature is a melancholic story of loss and healing dressed up as a fantasy adventure. The 122-minute-long film starts 12 years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohoku. Suzume, the 17-year-old titular character, is still reeling from the loss of her mother on that fateful day. One day on her way to school, she is distracted by a handsome young man seeking directions to a nearby ruin.
The mysterious man, called Souta, is a Closer, assigned with the task of shutting doors in order to contain the spread of disasters. When a curious Suzume finds such a door and opens it, she steps into a portal. The sight awes and confuses her. This simple act destabilises a delicate and complex cosmic interplay. Souta and Suzume are now forced to travel across Japan seeking other doors, closing them before a flaming red worm causes devastating earthquakes.
Suzume is sometimes a fantasy adventure and sometimes a road movie which moves from Kyushu to Ehime, Kyoto and Tokyo until it finally lands up in Tohoku. Along the way, Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) and Souta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura) stop at abandoned, forgotten sites, ruins of places once filled with laughter and the chatter of children and families. There are also keystones, cute cats and a variety of characters who in some way help Suzume on her journey.
Even as the story gets a little repetitive – going from portal to portal to the worm and saving Japan’s populated cities – Souta’s entrapment in a three-legged wooden chair gives a little relief. Seeing a pair of precocious twins engage with a talking, leaping, frolicking chair is charming and a nice break from the overall solemnity. A little cat called Daijin becomes a social media darling and helps Suzume track the next worm attack.
As she finds herself sucked further into this cosmic adventure, Suzume also finds healing and closure. Between the portals, worms, altered realities and concepts of keystones, the movie’s soul rests in the quieter, reflective scenes, where loss, anguish, frustration and wounds get exposed. There’s a very poignant sequence of a showdown between Suzume and her aunt that captures the confusion of two individuals brought together by circumstance.
Shinkai wins big with the musical score, which is a mix of sounds including a big band piece with horns. He gives gentle movement to hair, plants, trees, flowers, the wind, sky and sea. The eyes become a portal too, pulling the viewer into the character’s deep emotional conflict. There is a subtle cautionary tale here, about protecting one’s environment. As one character says, “History will repeat itself.” In spite of its genre-blending, at its core this is a moving story about healing and hope.