Makoto Shinkai has found a winning formula with the release of his latest anime Suzume, already the fourth highest-grossing anime film of all time.
Shinkai released his debut animated film, The Place Promised in our Early Days, in 2004. Popularly referred to as the “new Miyazaki”, Shinkai is known for its detailed and realistic landscapes.
His seventh feature film, Your Name (2016), about a couple of teenagers who have never met before but start to switch bodies randomly, became an international sensation and brought Shinkai to the attention of the general public.
In Suzume, the titular teenage character travels Japan with a cat and a mysterious young man turned talking chair, sealing doors between worlds to prevent natural disasters.
In many ways, Suzume is light-hearted and action-packed, but at its core it’s a story of courage in the face of trauma.
Themes of disaster, loss, and the environment are common in many of Shinkai’s films. But this film is his clearest exploration yet of the attunement of collective and personal trauma.
Read more: Miyazaki’s legacy will surely live on… whether he retires or not
The earthquake in art
The 2011 Japanese earthquakecolloquially referred to as the “triple disaster” resulting from the subsequent tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, looms ubiquitous in contemporary Japanese fiction and film.
Manga by Kazuto Tatsuta Ichi-F (いちえふ) (2013-15) explored the author’s experience of cleaning up after the disaster as a factory worker in 2011.
An archive of oral histories, photos, and real-time tweets about the disaster, called The East Japan Earthquake Archivecontains oral testimonials geomapped on a Google Earth map.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei completed one Fukushima Art Project in 2015, visiting the nuclear exclusion zone and installing two art installations in response.
Fukushima 50 (2020) is a film that tells the story of how Fukushima Dai-ichi workers reacted to the meltdown. Homeland (2014) is the story of a young man who returns to life in the no-go zone of Fukushima. Odayaka (2012) follows roommates in Tokyo who are concerned about radiation and toxicity immediately after the earthquake.
Shinkai’s Your Name has been interpreted as his own indirect response to the catastrophe. In this anime, Taki’s hometown of Itomori is wiped out by a comet – Shinkai’s reference to the earthquake.
Suzume is part of an ongoing project for many Japanese creators: to portray the trauma of disaster through a personal, empathetic story.
Read more: Fukushima: Ten years after the disaster, was Japan’s response right?
There is more than one type of trauma.
There is the experienced trauma by the individualAnd cultural trauma shared by a wider population.
In Suzume, Shinkai addresses individual trauma, but the film also reflects a broader cultural trauma.
When she was five, Suzume lost her mother in the chaos following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Now 17, she bears the brunt of this childhood trauma.
Memories of this event resurface in her dreams and as she approaches her childhood home. But she’s not just experiencing her own individual trauma. She shares the wider trauma of the memory of Fukushima and the earthquake with others.
When Suzume averts new disasters by desperately remembering those who lived in these cities, she depletes and bonds with this collective memory and loss.
The art of recovery
The film follows Suzume’s journey to the northeast of Japan, starting with the ferry from Kyushu to Shikoku and then to Kobe, Tokyo and Tohoku.
The threat of earthquakes is an everyday reality: alerts light up phones, crowds line the sidewalks waiting to see what’s about to happen, and then—after the shock—life returns to normal.
Shinkai’s depiction of the devastated countryside, ruined homes and displaced ships in Suzume’s Memories is based directly on images that emerged from the Tohoku region in 2011, combining Shinkai’s signature realism with a rural memory of disaster.
Although the film alludes to the nuclear accident by trucks carrying contaminated soil in one scene, it is not the main focus. The focus is on the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami, who claimed 15,500 lives and made 450,000 people homeless.
Suzume has limited but painful memories of this time when she lost both her mother and the world as she knew it. Her only record is a diary where she blacked out those days.
In Suzume, trauma is a “black hole‘ in which there is no light and in which time does not pass.
This is depicted in the liminal space of Tokyo (“ever after”), a concept from Japanese mythology: a timeless space that Suzume enters through wooden doors scattered across Japan. in mythology, Tokyo can also mean the place of the dead. In this movie, Suzume got lost in the Tokyo as a girl. When returning to Tokyocan she seek out her childhood self and try to comfort it.
She can try to console herself and understand the experience, but she can’t erase the tragic events or their impact.
Suzume could be seen as script therapy – a story written to help the author process a traumatic event and rediscover a sense of control.
The film uses the journey through Japan, fantastic images and evocative comic music to represent collective and personal healing.
Some of the film’s representations of trauma are a bit too pure: in the end, Suzume’s emotional release is fully achieved by returning an item tied to her lost mother to her younger self.
Still, the film holds up in the large collection of films and literature that processes the memory of Japan’s triple disaster in 2011. It also invites reflection on how we can continue to heal and commemorate our current era: How will we ultimately remember the trauma of the COVID pandemic and what stories will we tell?
Suzume is now playing in Australian cinemas.