Taking on Trauma — Suzume no Tojimari

9/11 fucked up a lot of people for good. And for my generation, the tragedy hit at a very impressionable time–essentially setting a dark tone for the rest of our lives going forward. For those of a certain generation in Japan, I imagine the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 occupies similar headspace.

I was lucky enough to dodge 3/11 when looking to start my new life here in Japan. In fact, I just nearly missed it, because my flight was scheduled for March 14, 2011. While I was still gung-ho to go despite the increasingly desperate situation, after a lot of soul-searching and coordination with my company, I decided to delay the trip. As such, I had no direct experience with the quake and subsequent tsunami. However, when talking to people immediately after 3/11, it was clear that the event shook them. No matter how many devastating clips I saw on TV, it was hearing people’s first-hand accounts that instilled in me how truly frightening it must have been. Over a decade later, Shinkai Makoto’s latest film, Suzume no Tojimari, attempts to contextualize society’s feelings on 3/11 in the 2020s, along with addressing other current issues in one engaging package of pop-culture.

Aside from one review on this very blog, I haven’t written too much about Shinkai at length, so I would like to take a moment to publicly acknowledge my stance on his works. I think everyone agrees that his first long-form work, Hoshi no Koe, was impressive, but from there many people are divided on his oeuvre–aside from maybe Kimi no Na Wa. While I enjoyed Kimi no Na Wa, I have also not been compelled to revisit it since seeing it once in 2016. Personally, I feel Shinkai’s last great film was Kotonoha no Niwa, and I think Byosoku 5 cm is his masterpiece. Meanwhile, I felt quite burned by Tenki no Ko, so I was skeptical on this new film–hence why it took me something like 5 months to finally watch it. But I’m glad I got around to it! It’s good.

The story goes like this: Iwato Suzume is your Typical High School Girl in Miyazaki, Japan who by chance runs into a long-haired dreamboat named Munakata Sota. Through a traumatic series of events that involves godly horrors that only Suzume and Sota can see, we learn that Sota specializes in closing doors to another world. By doing so, he prevents giant spiritual worms (said godly horrors) from escaping–this is important, because without Sota these worms would smash into the ground and cause earthquakes.

In the midst of Suzume’s aforementioned traumatic experience with the magical doors and spiritual worms, she accidentally frees an ancient god who loves chaos. This god shoots Sota’s soul into a broken, kid-sized chair that Suzume treasures, and escapes to open more doors, and subsequently cause more earthquakes. Suzume chases this god around Japan to prevent his chaos with chair-Sota in tow, who shows her the ropes of closing spiritual worm doors (it’s his family craft, it seems). Meanwhile, she meets a bunch of new friends along the way, and the camera gets to linger on many rich and colorful Japanese locales. It’s worth noting that the world shown in the magical doors is a world Suzume has seen once in a dream. In this dream, she meets her late mother, who in flashbacks presumably died in 3/11. Meanwhile, in reality Suzume lives with her single, workaholic aunt, who took her in after the disaster.

The film is essentially split up into two parts. The first part is a road trip movie, in which Suzume takes boats, motor bikes, automobiles and trains up from the south of Japan over to the east to stop the impending disasters from happening. In the second half, Suzume gets a better idea of the bigger picture, and what’s at stake.

The road trip part of the film rocks. After quitting one of my old jobs, I had just over one month to myself which I intended to use to travel around Japan. Unfortunately, this timing fell on March 2020, in line with the onset of Covid, so suffice to say I didn’t get so far in my journey. As such, seeing Suzume jet around Japan from her small town in Miyazaki up into Tokyo is extremely refreshing on a personal level. The road trip portion likely takes up the first hour of the film, which is nice, tight and engaging. Moving into the back half, Suzume dives deeper into the overall mystery–and while that’s all fine and good, there’s just not much to it, and it probably takes up a bit too much of the runtime for my liking. Thankfully, the epiphanies in the second half result in Suzume embarking on another road trip. A road trip, which I should note, involves Showa-era idol tunes, tickling the fancy of an old and dying person such as myself.

Despite this somewhat unbalanced pacing, part of what makes the film compelling is how it excellently taps into some of Japan’s big social anxieties. One thing the road trip portion of the film astutely addresses is the issue of Japan’s deteriorating countryside–“countryside” meaning areas of the country that aren’t Tokyo. When the film finds itself in the port town of Kobe, an abandoned theme park lies on the outskirts of town acting as a stage for one of the film’s climatic moments. While this theme park doesn’t exist in real life, these relics of Bubble Era wealth are a real-life problem in Japan. Another example of how the film highlights Japan’s fading rural areas is the abandoned junior high school Suzume encounters in Ehime. As someone who worked in a junior high school in bumfuck Japan that had an entire wing of the building that was un-used due to a lack of students, I can vouch for this authenticity. Meanwhile, when Suzume finds herself in Tokyo, it’s clearly bustling–a keen contrast that shines a light on the issue of Japan’s over-population of the metropolitan area, which now houses 30% of the country’s residents.

But this focus on Japan’s dying rural landscape is only a side dish to a very difficult examination of the trauma of 3/11. One big tear-jerker for me was how the film forces Suzume to look back at herself–a victim of the horrible event–and how she figures out how to move past this trauma that has weighed on her (and the rest of Japan) for a good a 12 years[1]As of this writing.. Many young people were displaced during this tragedy, and they are likely around Suzume’s age right now. And indeed, when buying tickets, movie theaters now have a warning stating that some scenes in the film may be shocking due to their realistic depiction of the disaster area. Furthermore, many people who suffered during 3/11 have gone on record saying that those portions of the film were entirely too realistic for them. It is at this point where I question Shinkai’s sincerity in tackling this subject matter, but the sheer balls on the dude to address this issue in mainstream entertainment is impressive, so I’ll give him props for that.

Part of why I question his sincerity is because it doesn’t feel as if the film is actually commenting on the actual situation in the way something like, say, Shin Godzilla, does. While the way in which it presents the frightening scenery from that time is stunning, I couldn’t pull away any real message. That said, for all its critical digs into government responses to large disasters, Shin Godzilla doesn’t straight out say that it’s a commentary on the social moment of 3/11. Meanwhile, Suzume actually recreates traumatic imagery from 3/11, and forces you to look at it.

I just wonder if this blunt look at reality is Shinkai actually wanting to confront real issues, or him simply wanting to make a buck off of people’s trauma–it’s hard to say. Either way, the fact that Suzume is able to contextualize this social anxiety in an easy-to-digest package of pop-culture is a feat. One point towards Shinkai being sincere is that he’s able to accurately portray feelings beyond simple “fear” and “sadness” as a result of the tragedy, and manages to dive into some darker and more complex emotions. As mentioned before, Suzume is taken in by her mother’s sister after the quake, and the strains of this relationship are brilliantly shown in a difficult scene that realistically portrays the frustrations that come with taking care of someone else’s child.

Of course, one of the bigger things the film deals with is the possibility of another Big One hitting. Again, while it doesn’t especially comment on this beyond using it is as one of its mystical plot points, it does demand more consideration from the audience than a typical mainstream Japanese live-action film. Underpinning all of these important themes is a keen attention to detail in setting the film in the 2020s, complete with people shooting pictures on their smartphones and gossiping on social media about the events unfolding in front of us, adding another level of relatable realism.

It goes without saying that the production on the film is phenomenal. As someone who has spent countless hours wandering around in the Japanese suburbs and countryside, they are done incredible justice via Shinkai’s signature lush and engrossing backgrounds. Meanwhile, more familiar[2]And otaku-friendly; Shinkai knows what side his bread is buttered on. settings such as Ochanomizu in Tokyo are of course also portrayed with great care, and put me right in the moment (despite having my butt sat in a theater seat in Tachikawa).

Following on from the grimy depiction of Kabukicho in Tenki no Ko, the film is also not afraid to showcase the working-class and portions of Japan’s underworld, treating these settings and characters with respect. The high schooler Suzume meets in Ehime works at her family’s traditional inn, while the lady she meets in Kobe runs a deliciously Showa-retro snack bar. For someone who was obsessed with rendering clouds and starscapes with immaculate care, I’m glad Shinkai is happy to do the same with less glamorous settings.

In the end, despite somewhat lopsided pacing, I will definitely go back to see Suzume again before I give Kimi no Na Wa another crack. The way in which Shinkai manages to shine a light on very difficult issues in the context of easy-to-digest pop-culture is incredibly commendable, earning high marks in my book. While I prefer the cynical Shin Godzilla approach, Suzume is the film that made me cry.

1 As of this writing.
2 And otaku-friendly; Shinkai knows what side his bread is buttered on.

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