Makoto Shinkai’s latest movie, Suzume no Tojimari (Suzume: The Closing of the Doors, shortened to Suzume for the English-language release) is one of the most anticipated animated features of 2023. It was the number-three box office hit in Japan for 2022, grossing ¥13.4 billion ($104 million USD). It was also the first Japanese animated feature to be accepted in competition in the Berlin International Film Festival since Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2002. American audiences can look forward to the U.S. release by Crunchyroll on April 14.
Produced by CoMix Wave Films and distributed by Toho, the film features character designs by Masayoshi Tanaka, animation direction by Kenichi Tsuchiya, art direction by Takumi Tanji and music by Radwimps and Kazuma Jinnouchi. The film is nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year.
At a time when most American features are blithe fantasies, Shinkai’s recent blockbusters turn the magical-realist journeys of seemingly ordinary teenagers into meditations on social concerns. The couple trapped in continual downpours in Tokyo in Weathering with You (2019) embodies the fears of young people facing the warming planet previous generations have left them. In Suzume, Shinkai returns to the theme of his breakthrough Your Name. (2016): the trauma and loss caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 (which Americans call “Fukushima”).
High school student Suzume Iwato leads an everyday existence in Miyazaki Prefecture, on the coast of Kyushu. One morning, she discovers a young man prowling among the nearby ruins. Souta explains that he must find and seal doors in abandoned locations in Japan to prevent sinister spirits from escaping and causing disasters. When Souta is turned into a chair by Daijin, a mysterious talking cat, Suzume must take on Souta’s mission to the close the portals to disaster — and get his body back. Even her name reflects her mission: Iwato refers to the Shinto shrine in Kyushu where the sun goddess Amaterasu once hid herself in cave, plunging the world into darkness. The other gods lured her out and sealed the cave, so she could never again deprive the world of her vital light.
Shinkai got the idea for Suzume while traveling through Japan, speaking about his films. He noted that Japanese custom calls for a jichin-sai, a Shinto groundbreaking ceremony, when construction begins on a new building. Shinkai’s travels took him past rural villages abandoned by young people seeking greater opportunities in cities, especially Tokyo. The fallow landscapes led him to reflect that there is no ceremony comparable to the jichin-sai when someone closes or leaves a home.
“I wanted to make a road movie where the main character, Suzume, travels through Japan,” he said in an interview in Pen Magazine. “I also wanted to tell a story about grieving over these places. When a person passes away a funeral is held for them, yet when people leave and regions become abandoned, there are no ceremonies to commemorate the loss. When I started thinking that I could make a movie about the mourning of a place, gradually the concept of moving from place to place to visit them became necessary: it became a story of traveling, and all of Japan became the stage.”
As Shinkai explained to the NHK, “When I thought about what kind of trips would be possible in Japan today, I couldn’t come up with any ideas that would open up exciting views into a new world. When I would imagine traveling through present-day Japan, I would often think, ‘This place used to have this kind of thing,’ ‘There used to be more people here, it used to be such a lively place.’ I started to think I must draw a world like that. I started imagining the voices that inhabited those areas and the lives they must have lived — traveling through that world would be the adventure.”
Shinkai cites Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore and his short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo (which also inspired Pierre Földes’ movie Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) as influences on the film.
“As I fleshed out the story, I wondered what kind of interactions and cultural experiences I wanted Suzume to have,” he continues in Pen. “I vaguely imagined her as someone like Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is still a completely relevant girl’s coming-of-age story. During her training, Kiki meets women who embody possible futures for her. I wanted Suzume to meet strong women in various places who are employed in different fields. I created characters I had never drawn before: a girl helping out at her parents’ inn, or the manager of a snack bar. They act as catalysts for Suzume’s contact with unfamiliar cultures.”
But Suzume’s journey is often perilous. Before the film opened, the Twitter account for Suzume announced there were scenes of earthquakes and alarms from the earthquake warning system on the characters’ cell phones: audiences should be forewarned and not react as if the alarms were real. Suzume also witnesses the damage from the 2011 tsunami in an area where she once lived with her mother.
In his nonfiction book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Murakami stated, “The Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack of January and March 1995 are two of the greatest tragedies in Japan’s postwar history. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness ‘before’ and ‘after’ these events. These twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as people.” Shinkai’s recent films suggest that Great East Japan Earthquake also represents a turning point in modern Japanese history.
As work proceeded on the film, Shinkai worried whether he could make a good film on his theme. “As I made this movie, my thoughts have been about what feelings from being in the middle of a changing Japan will I be able to connect to the future,” he concludes. “It seems like I’ve had the same thoughts as I did when I made Your Name. roughly eight years ago. With Suzume no Tojimari I’m not doing anything new, but I feel this is the time I want to finally convey all the feelings I haven’t succeeded in expressing before.”
Crunchyroll releases Suzume in select theaters in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and other territories on April 14. Additional release information here.
— By Charles Solomon & Ken Endo