Berlin: This epic, moving story is simultaneously about trying to saving the world and confronting the inevitability of grief.
In Japanese mythology, Namazu was believed to be an underground fish that caused earthquakes, as immortalized in several namazu-e woodblock prints of the Edo period. Imprisoned and subdued under a large stone by Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder, earthquakes were believed to occur whenever Takemikazuchi let his guard down, meaning Namazu could wriggle free, flapping his giant body to-and-fro to cause havoc for the unsuspecting citizens above.
Perhaps Takemikazuchi doesn’t do a good job — Japan has, on average, 1,500 earthquakes a year, with its 700 islands sitting perilously close to the Pacific Earthquake Belt, also known as the suitably demonic “Ring of Fire.” In “Suzume,” Makoto Shinkai’s seismic road trip movie about saving the world from natural disaster, this mythical giant catfish is replaced by a snakepit of burning, writhing, fire-red worms, who escape from a hellish netherworld bent on causing geographical devastation. Siloed away in a magical land, these worms are normally contained by doorways secured by “keystones,” with doors guarded and kept locked by “closers” who are dedicated to keeping natural disasters at bay.
If that all sounds too geologically serious, think of Japan as a teenage girl, and the earthquakes as ripples of youthful angst that always feel more like a tsunami than temporarily ennui. In this epic, moving story that is simultaneously about trying to saving the world and confronting the inevitability of grief, we follow young Suzume’s adventure across the length, breadth, and depth of her country — from Miyazaki on Kyushu island up to Ehime, through Tokushima and Kobe, passing Tokyo, up to Miyagi, and finally through to Tōhoku, Suzume’s birthplace. This region was the real life site of 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, which took over 20,000 lives. It is in this deadly tremor that Suzume lost her mother twelve years ago, aged four; this trauma still leave a lingering aftershock.
“Suzume” doesn’t lean into tragedy as spectacle, however: it is a spiritual journey through the very fabric of a land, anatomizing how we navigate nostalgia for home and grief for lost loved ones when both have been long-destroyed by the senseless strike of an invisible force. With it all packaged into a story of cosmic reconciliation between Suzume and her inner child, the emotional heft of this thing breaks the Richter scale.
Suzume, who lives with her aunt Takami, meets (and crushes on) a young Emo Prince named Souta, who is in town on the lookout for any “relics.” At an erstwhile onsen bathhouse, Suzume follows his path and discovers an abandoned door that is a portal to the aforementioned, earthquake-causing worm world. Souta, like his father and sick grandfather, is a “closer” who feels it is his moral responsibility to ensure the sealed safety of such portals. But when a cat banishes Souta’s spirit inside a three-legged chair once lovingly crafted by Suzume’s mother, the pair embark on a journey to protect the other door-portals in Japan and turn Souta back into his human form.
It’s a far funnier endeavor than any other of Shinkai’s prior works — Suzume’s coming-of-age involves fighting giant, phallic worms that rise up with a terrifying, veined throb (not quite Ken Russell’s “The Lair of the White Worm,” but almost) — while still enjoying lashings of the kind of YA angst that made 2016’s body swap blockbuster “Your Name” such an irresistible, earnestly swooning hit. In Shinkai’s vision of Japan, earthquakes occur when worms escape from locations of ruin. Here, the ruins of natural disaster, with their derelict buildings, steampiled possessions and fast-discarded memories, speak in tandem with the idea of grief — the sense of wreckage, or abandonment, of desertion.
But it’s Kenichi Tsuchiya’s animation direction, which unfolds in jaw-dropping detail, that really makes “Suzume” a thing of galaxy-brained beauty: not just the stunning night skies of indigo twinkle and flamingo-pink rays, or the richly detailed and varied design of the different cities, but how Suzume connects believably to the audience as a teenage girl in movement and expression, commanding the narrative’s emotional journey.
To be lost in the painterly visuals, to traverse through the sheer scale of Shinkai’s real and imagined worlds, is an experience deserving of the biggest screen you can find. Shinaki’s regular music collaborators, Radwimps, are joined by composer Kazume Jinnouchi, with this score sounding far more cinematic — more like Howard Shore’s “The Fighting Uruk-hai” than the contemporary pop sound of Shinkai’s prior works — to suitably accompany the scope of the expanding story.
“The weight of people’s feelings is what quells the land,” says Souta: this may as well be Shinkai’s manifesto for how expressing Big Feelings is the key to inner peace, connecting interior lives with that of the Japanese topography. And just how Shinkai’s pint-sized 2013 drama “The Garden of Words” spelled its emotional thesis through the conduit of Man’yōshū poetry and the confines of the Japanese garden, “Suzume” is uniquely Japanese endeavor that taps into the land’s knotty history with deep shifts below the surface.
“Suzume” is the first anime film in competition at the Berlinale since “Spirited Away,” if you wanted more of an idea of what a big deal this is. And while comparisons to Studio Ghibli and are inevitable and often unhelpful, given that “Suzume” directly references “Whispers of the Heart” with a tongue-in-cheek nod, it feels prudent to acknowledge that both Miyazaki and Shinkai are united in their dedication to raising up the natural world, taking the inner world of young girls seriously, and enveloping it all in humor, pathos, and beauty.
“Suzume” screened at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. Crunchyroll will release the film in North American theaters on Friday, April 14.
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