When Suzume was only four, she lost her mother in a horrible tsunami that destroyed her family’s small town. Alone, the tiny girl wandered the streets, calling out for her mommy.
She searched, cried and huddled in the muddy cold.
Eventually her aunt, Tamaki, found the orphaned little girl and took her in. “Starting today, you’re my daughter,” the smiling young woman told her. That was sweet and kind. But, in the 12 years since then, Suzume has worried that she’s stolen some of the best years of her aunt’s life.
If nothing else, though, Aunt Tamaki’s choice has shaped Suzume’s sense of responsibility. Perhaps that’s why she is now helping some stranger save the world.
OK, you could say that Suzume decided to help because the young stranger, Sousa, was handsome and mysterious. That is certainly true. Sousa is a “closer,” someone whose job is closing special gates that open into another dimension and release a swirling, spiritual danger into the world. You can’t get much more mysterious than that.
You might also think that Suzume’s helping Sousa because she accidentally broke a keystone. Those spiritual objects help lock the worm-like bad things away behind those dimensional gates. In Suzume’s case, she picked one up and it turned into a little god-like cat that’s now wreaking havoc.
That’s … equally true. She’s definitely culpable on that broken keystone front.
Why, that crazed cat even magically turned Sousa into a tiny three-legged chair. (Yeah, a chair!! Don’t ask.) So, you’d probably say that Suzume would have to help, now. I mean, a chair doesn’t even have hands to seal up a magical gate.
But the truth is, Suzume is helping because she … simply feels she must. Sousa has told her over and over just to go back to her life. To take care of herself. Go to school. Be normal. But she can’t. So many people will die if she doesn’t help. Most people can’t even see the swirling danger like she can. If she turns away, who will step forward?
Like her loving aunt, Suzume is determined to do the right thing. It isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s a great big pain. But if she doesn’t do what she can, there could be lots of tiny four-year-old girls calling for their lost mommies. And Suzume won’t let that happen.
Suzume, Sousa and Tamika are all great examples of people who are willing to give everything they have to help the people they care about. They’re even willing to make sacrifices in order to save people they’ve never met. Suzume and Sousa go so far as to offer their lives for the world-saving task at hand.
Additionally, the little god-cat, Daijin, makes some seemingly selfish choices at first. But even he is eventually inspired by Suzume to make a sacrificial choice and help others.
Suzume and Tamika get into a heated argument at one point and say hurtful things to each other. But they ultimately apologize for those harsh words and express their mutual love. During Suzume’s adventure, several people volunteer to help Suzume along the way—including giving her food and clothing.
Suzume has an opportunity to approach her wandering and grieving younger self (in a seemingly interdimensional, dream-like scene). She assures herself that the future will get better and that “there will be so many people who love you.”
The story is built on the idea that there are special interdimensional doors scattered around Japan where disasters once took place. These doors are usually found in the ruins of a small town, and in one case an amusement park. Swirling, worm-smoke creatures can burst forth from these interdimensional portals and create a massive and deadly earthquake in our world unless someone closes and locks the gate with a special key.
When Suzume first discovers one of those doors, she looks into it and recognizes the interdimensional place on the other side, though she can’t enter that alternate dimension. Sousa tells her it’s a place called the Ever-After (also explaining that it is somehow “beneath the Japanese islands”) where spirits of the deceased go. We later learn that Suzume went there once as a little girl (after the devastating tsunami that killed her mom), which is why she can see it and its worm-like entity.
There are also two cat-creatures that we find out are small gods assigned with keeping that alternate dimension and its contents in check. One of them, Daijin, does some magical things, including transforming Sousa into a little walking, talking chair that Suzume’s mother once made for her. Sousa suggests that Daijin cursed him. Later in the movie, the cats battle a huge worm.
Several times while going through the ritual-like process of magically locking a gate, Sousa prays to “gods who have protected this land,” which presumably means Daijin and the other cat-like god. During that ritual, we also hear the voices of people who once lived or played in the ruins where the doors are found.
When Suzume first meets Sousa, she’s blushingly infatuated with the handsome, long-haired guy. Eventually, however, that attraction gives way to a devoted friendship.
Suzume and a girl she meets talk about abstractly about waking a boyfriend with a kiss. And Suzume tries it when Sousa, in chair form, is too difficult to awaken.
We never see any scenes of truly disturbing imagery, but there is quite a bit of peril and destruction in the action on hand. Some scenes feature fiery blazes and earthquakes. And we see a young girl walking through the soggy and freezing aftermath of a tsunami that destroyed a town. We also see the young girl cowering and crying.
Those huge interdimensional worms generally create a sense of noisy near-destruction as the heroes struggle to force the gates closed. These entities destroy things and bash Sousa and Suzume around. We see a large cat (that grew from a smaller one) leaping upon one such worm and biting it. The worms also tumble forward or swirl above a city, causing tremors. Daijin says that they will fall, the Earth will break, and “lots of people are gonna die soon.”
It the course of the story’s swirling spiritual battles, Suzume is sometimes sucked up into the air, after which she then tumbles back toward the ground from great heights. Twice, Daijin grows larger and cushions her fall. While fighting with the worms, both Sousa and Suzume are hit by flying debris. Their clothes are torn and tattered. And in one instance, Sousa’s arm is left cut and bleeding. Suzume bandages him up. Suzume loses her shoes and must bandage her bloody feet as well.
[Editor’s Note: The film can be seen in Japanese with written subtitles or with overdubbed English dialogue.]
In the English dub of the movie, we hear four uses of “d–mit” and a lone use each of “h—,” “crap” and “heck.” Someone exclaims, “Jeez!”
A friend of Sousa’s smokes cigarettes repeatedly. Amid her travels, Suzume helps out in a small club that provides alcohol and conversation to its customers. People drink beer and sake (in some cases getting a bit tipsy).
When Suzume first begins traveling around to close the interdimensional doors, she lies to her aunt, saying that she is staying at a friend’s house. Daijin the cat licks his own crotch, as cats do.
Anime master Makoto Shinkai is known and respected for his ability to reflect on Japan’s history in sweeping, beautifully animated tales of adventure. And Suzume is apiece with Shinkai’s past work: It directly references natural disasters that left parts of Japan in ruins.
Here, Shinkai translates his island country’s struggles with tragedy into a teen girl’s efforts to tamp down a gigantic, swirling, worm-like entity that threatens to spill forth from a hidden underworld and manifest catastrophe. It’s all couched in a tableau of strange fantasy, small gods, broken spirituality and graphically impressive, breathless action.
At face value, all of that will seem exotic and interesting to viewers unfamiliar with Shinkai’s work. But there’s also a broader idea beneath the odd spirituality and colorful conflicts in Suzume, one that explores the universal concept of personal sacrifice.
This film suggests that giving your all—sacrificing your time, your personal pleasures, your very life—to help the world at large, and the family you love, is a choice well worth making. It states that selflessness lifts up others and in turn helps you find the emotional healing that all broken people desperately need.
That’s an inspiring encouragement that Christians can certainly agree with, though this is also an adventure where families will likely still want to talk about foreign gods and the spiritual worldview in play before them.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.