This prismatically animated (the pastel artistry of this film’s visuals will satisfy your Studio Ghibli cravings), epically scored, and inventively written movie will bear-hug your wounded inner child even tighter than Encanto or Inside Out did.
Many have made the tongue-in-cheek observation that the past few years’ big animated feature films have felt less like creative musical extravaganzas and more like therapy sessions. Not that we’re complaining; the greatest betrayal of truth and our collective trust fantasy could commit at this time would likely be to ignore our world’s deep wells of pain. Suzume continues, through a fresh cultural lens, the project of simultaneously holding wonder and grief, and it does it even better than some of the instant classics of recent years.
Suzume, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, illustrates the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who has a chance encounter with a handsome young man, Souta, on the road and begins a cross-country, trans-planar journey to save Japan from a primordial, earthquake-causing monster attempting to break into our world through doors in abandoned places—amusement parks, schools, the ruins of a tsunami-ravaged town. When Souta is transformed into a three-legged chair (long story), Suzume carries on Souta’s work of locking doors between planes of existence, claiming her future while reckoning with her past and the tragic loss of her mother.
Doors feature prominently in this movie. Suzume is a portal fantasy story, a trope both fresh and nostalgic in a media era dominated by the gritty and the gothic. I love intense high fantasy and spooky vibes as much as the next nerd who was raised on Tolkien and came of age on Gaiman. But just as that first warm spring day makes you realize how heavy the burden of winter has been, as I watch sunlight spread out over green meadows and a seventeen-year-old girl in a school uniform hitchhikes on desolate roads and wanders through abandoned places, helped by strangers, protagonist rather than prey, I am reminded how weary I am of storylines dragged painfully forward through male brooding and female suffering.
Part of the reason the film so successfully maintains genuine wonder alongside suspense is its refusal to victimize or objectify Suzume. Indeed, it is the male lead, initially set up to be a cliché handsome, mysterious hero, who spends most of the movie as an actual object. And, despite Souta being a piece of furniture, he and Suzume develop a compelling relationship built on shared purpose, respect, and affection rather than physical attraction.
Additionally, when, as in many fantasy stories worth their ink, sacrifice is required for the salvation of the world, it is treated with exquisite beauty and profound gentleness. “I want more of life,” plead several characters.
The danger and threat are not watered down (though even in its most intense moments, Suzume remains appropriate for young children.) Like tsunamis that come without warning, like primordial monsters beneath the world, “we live side-by-side with death.” And we are allowed to be afraid of it. And we are allowed to love life more passionately. We are allowed to be sensitive and weep complicated tears of grief and joy simultaneously. Suzume is a manifesto of permission to live vividly and a release from lonely destinies of heroism.
Just as I am tired of majestic plots fed with women’s blood, I am tired of watching magical children save the world alone. Suzume has no ancestral destiny, no miraculous power. She offers up, instead, the reckless, intense love of an ordinary seventeen-year-old heart. You could say Suzume saves the world, but that would be less than half the story. Suzume is also saved. And she is cared for in her vulnerability, led in her ignorance, loved in her anger. And for the people who feel like the only ones seeing monstrous maws of brokenness in the world and the weight of redemptive duty, the truth that we are not lonely chosen ones is a fairytale kiss—a resurrection.
Beside the bed in the bedroom of the crooked house I rented for six short summer weeks after graduating from college and leaving my parents’ home, there stood a door to nowhere. The July air in that room was honey-thick and sticky. The door opened from the second floor into twilight air and a huge tree draped luxuriously in brilliant green leaves and adorned with diamond-like fireflies. Suzume confirms what I began to suspect sitting in the threshold of that door—part of being human is straddling realms, living next to wonders and horrors bigger than us and the precious fragility of our small, ordinary lives.
Watching Suzume replicates and honors that feeling of sitting in a perilous and wonderful doorway. Its original Japanese title translates to “Suzume’s Locking Up,” but it feels more like an opening, a gentle unclenching of balled fists and a quiet remembering of sealed griefs. And then, it’s an invitation to more complicated everyday life.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.