Suzume no Tojimari, Shinkai Makoto’s newest work, is currently a huge hit in Japan. We explore why this movie really resonated with the audience and inspired much discussion about the themes of the film. The first half discusses helpful things to know before watching, while the latter half contains spoilers.
Header credit: Suzume no Tojimari Official Website ©2022「すずめの戸締り」製作委員会
Table of Contents
- Straightforward & Perfectly Paced Storyline
- Charming Characters You Want to Root For
- The Incorporation of Japanese Mythology: Things to Know Before Watching
- Shinkai Makoto’s Inspiration for Suzume no Tojimari
- A Universal Life Experience
There are so many reasons why Suzume no Tojimari - translating to “Suzume’s Locking (of Doors)” - resonates strongly with the audience, especially here in Japan. In this article, why this film is so loved and lauded is summed up in 5 reasons. The first 3 reasons are spoiler-free, as long as you’ve seen the trailer and promotional material. The latter 2 are full of spoilers to discuss the full effect of the film once you know the whole plot. Please proceed accordingly!
Full disclosure, I am personally one of the people strongly affected by this film, so this article will also contain personal thoughts as well. Some of my reasons may resonate with people who didn’t find Tenki no Ko (Weathering with You) as good as Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name), as that was my personal experience. However, this article isn’t just a comparison of his works, as Suzume no Tojimari was a brilliant film on its own merits.
Official Trailer (with English subs)
Suzume no Tojimari is quite simple to follow, which allows both fans of Shinkai Makoto and new viewers to follow along without much trouble, even if you’re not fluent in Japanese.
With only information given in the trailer and main promotional material, the story is as follows:
A high school girl named Suzume living in a seaside town in Kyushu meets a young man named Souta looking for abandoned buildings and areas. Curious as to what he’s up to, she follows him to the place she directed him, only to get caught up in something supernatural.
Souta is a 閉じ師 (tojishi) - a person in charge of locking doors called 後戸 (ushirodo) in abandoned places to prevent the creatures inside from escaping.
However, due to a twist of events, Souta gets turned into a chair - an old chair from her childhood that Suzume's mom gave her - and they must chase after the being - in the form of an adorable white cat - that did this to him. It sets them on a journey across Japan.
It’s a boy meets girl, road-trip and coming-of-age story all wrapped into one. And the plot moves along quickly, from one location to the next, giving a sense of thrill and building anticipation for what could be coming next. The storytelling was very tight yet felt full of life in the two hours.
The messages Shinkai Makoto wanted to express through Suzume no Tojimari were incredibly clear and well-conveyed. Even if some people didn’t like the film overall, the movie accomplished what he intended (more on that below with spoilers).
And yet there are still many aspects to ponder the deeper connection about in Suzume so if you’re into making and reading up on theories about films, there’s still plenty to work with and dissect (without feeling dissatisfied with loose threads).
The characters in Suzume no Tojimari were incredibly charming and make you want to know more about them and see them in more stories - whether before, during, or after the movie’s events take place.
The main character Suzume is curious and headstrong. She dives into a situation even though it’s out of her understanding, and insists firmly on seeing things through to the end because of her sense of responsibility. Yet there are moments the audience is reminded that she is still a child, still growing and maturing, and really feel for her during her journey to find herself. The voice actress for Suzume, Hara Nanoka, was picked from an audition that included over 1700 people, and she really brought the character to life.
The other main character, Souta, is resourceful, logical and thoughtful. He has no choice but to rely on Suzume once turned into a chair, but is open to teach, trust and also learn from Suzume during their journey. As a fan of the actor picked for Souta - Matsumura Hokuto from the band SixTONES - I was a bit worried about his voice being distracting for me, that it would take me out of the movie by being reminded it was him, but it was nothing to worry about. He and all of the voice actors did a brilliant job.
And to pull them together, Daijin is the mysterious white cat that still somehow looks adorable despite its questionable intentions. Its voice is mischievous and playful, while also full of deeper intent, an impressive feat by 8-year-old Yamane Ann.
Every character Suzume and Souta meet along the way also has their own quirks and charms that leave a lasting impression even if they are only part of the journey.
It’s clear that Shinkai deeply understands and knows how to depict the way people connect and interact, especially in this film, which actually makes it hard to choose a favorite character because so many of them are amazing. It’s important that even in a fantasy film, the characters feel real and human (much more so in this film because of the subject matter) and Shinkai manages to do this yet again, but in a much more tangible and inspiring way in my personal opinion.
(For those lamenting that the ikemen (good-looking guy) Souta gets turned into a chair, don’t fear! There’s another charming ikemen - albeit a very different type - in the film!! And you can look forward to his voice as well!)
There is some background that’s helpful to know before watching the film, especially if you’re not that familiar with Japan as a whole or Japanese terms (especially if watching before subtitles are available). Here are just some brief explanations (without any spoilers) of important context.
As many of you know, Japan has many earthquakes as it’s an island nation formed by volcanoes on fault lines along the Pacific Rim. These earthquakes - both big and small - are simply a part of living in Japan, though of course the big ones lead to widespread destruction and therefore we must be prepared.
Earthquakes are heavily featured in the film, but relies on ancient Japanese mythology for its explanation. In the film, giant “Mimizu” - which translates to earthworm - live in a dimension underground, threatening to get out, causing tremors and destruction when they do. It’s Souta’s job to make sure that the doors that keep them underground stay closed and locked.
In the original mythology, rather than earthworms, dragons and giant eels called namasu are said to be what roamed underground and caused earthquakes. In order to keep them down, gods pierced them with swords to keep them down. There are actual stones called kaname-ishi - which is what Daijin originally was - that you can see at certain shrines in Japan that are said to have been driven into the ground to calm the earthquakes.
Cats are also said to be what leads you to another realm, another world, so Daijin’s appearance and presence makes sense. Cat statues are also said to bring good luck and protection in Japan: see the adorable maneki-neko statues - so Daijin’s original form as a cat statue protecting the world also fits.
The seamless incorporation of native mythology and real life natural disasters to create the story is fascinating and really pulls you into the story.
(By the way, Suzume and Souta’s full names are also taken from Japanese gods.)
WARNING: SPOILERS for the film from this point on!!!
According to Shinkai Makoto, he had various sources of inspiration for the story itself, which are so carefully and thoughtfully incorporated throughout the film.
Abandoned Locations in Japan
One was that when touring around Japan for the promotion of Tenki no Ko (Weathering with You), he noticed more and more areas in Japan that had become less populated, forgotten and abandoned, and wanted to pay homage to them. The locations chosen for these scenes in the film are incredibly familiar to everyone in Japan - an onsen town, a school, an amusement park, a train line, and Tohoku - which allows viewers to feel a sense of personal connection and investment as Suzume and Souta work to give closure to the feelings and memories of people who lived in and went to these places.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Another clear point of inspiration was Ghibli’s Majo no Takkyuubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service). The coming of age story, leaving home, meeting and interacting with characters - especially women - who support her in her journey, even down to traveling with (?! more like after!!) a cat! And if that’s not enough, the clear homage comes when Yumin’s “Rouge no Dengon”, an iconic song in an iconic scene in Kiki’s Delivery Service, plays during the film at a turning point.
2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami
And the biggest inspiration of all for this film is the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck in the northeastern area of Japan (named the Tohoku region), causing a massive tsunami which destroyed entire towns all along the coast. Over 15,500 lives were lost in this disaster and it has greatly affected Japan and its people since. Shinkai stated that this disaster was on his mind from when he made Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name), but felt it was too soon to touch on it directly when it was being made, and had been searching for the right time since.
As 12 years have passed since then in the film, and nearly the same amount of time for us as the audience, Shinkai wanted to make sure that the memory of this disaster doesn’t fade, while also assuring us - as current Suzume does to her past self at the climax of the film - that life does move forward, no matter how difficult.
※ Shinkai Makoto’s thoughts on the inspiration for this film taken from the Suzume no Tojimari’s official film pamphlet. Credits to Toho Animation.
While I do wonder is how an international audience is going to respond to Suzume no Tojimari, as it was clearly mainly created for a Japanese audience in regards to the Tohoku disaster, I think there are many powerful universal themes to be taken from this film.
When we leave the house or set off to a new place, we say 行ってきます (ittekimasu) in Japanese, which roughly means “I’m off” or “I’m going/leaving now.” The scenes of the people in Tohoku saying 行ってきます at the climax of the film is a sobering reminder not to take for granted that we’ll be returning at the end of the day, and to therefore treasure each and every day, the time we spend in a place as well as the people who see us off. Thus the importance - and many scenes - of locking the door and other items with intention.
There’s also the idea that with every new disaster, old ones are forgotten; with every new popular place built, another old and perhaps beloved one is left abandoned. While it’s impossible to prevent all places from being abandoned, to keep in mind every disaster and everyone affected by it at all times, there’s value in remembering and treasuring the memories from a place, acknowledging the ways that those memories - no matter how painful - were a part of our life, even if we say 行ってきます and leave those places behind us.
The People Around Us
Due to COVID-19 these past few years, the feeling of being isolated grew immensely especially with the increase in working from home and keeping to ourselves as much as possible for health reasons. During Suzume’s journey, she is helped by multiple people along the way, and she is given/borrows things to take with her as a physical tangible token of their support and care - Chika’s clothes and bag, Rumi-san’s cap, Souta’s shoes - and of course her mother’s chair she has with her as well as her smartphone which is her connection with her aunt who raised her. It’s a reminder that we all grow with the support of someone, and that these connections are important and shouldn’t be forgotten. And so the suzume (Japanese for sparrow) grows into a hawk, seen flying overhead at the end of the film.
The Reality of Life
When comparing Shinkai's past works with this one, the general storyline and themes were as follows:
Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name) was a boy-meets-girl where they must cooperate together to prevent a disaster which happens in the past.
Tenki no Ko (Weathering with You) was a boy-meets-girl where the boy willingly gives up the "norm" and subjects the Tokyo population to forever rain so that he can save the girl.
However, real life doesn't quite work that way, which is why Suzume no Tojimari is set apart despite still being a fantasy film. It's a boy-meets-girl through which they must work through the aftermath of a huge disaster and personal trauma to find strength to keep going.
But as there's no guarantee that "a good future" is waiting for anyone after a traumatic event, Shinkai treads carefully and considerately. Grown up Suzume comforts her younger self, telling her that she will grow and there is a tomorrow. It's a gentle way to encourage her young self without promising too much but also alluding to hope if she continues to face forward. And to me, it doesn't say that Suzume is completely healed of all trauma now, just that she was able to reach a point in her life where she could look back and address it directly. And she will, understandably, continue to do so while moving forward with her life. I spent the film wondering what the two yellow butterflies shown from the beginning to the end were meant to symbolize, and I believe it’s meant to be past Suzume and future Suzume who are with her no matter where she goes.
I personally did not experience the 2011 Tohoku disaster and can't personally speak on the feelings of the survivors. There may be those who feel that this film wasn't the best way to address it. However, I felt Shinkai's resolve to incorporate it into his story paired with his care and respect in handling such a delicate matter. And as we all go through various difficulties in life, the message is something that can be felt by all.
This film is a masterpiece, and one that Shinkai Makoto should be incredibly proud of.
There are so many other things that can be discussed about this film - the music, the actual art and visuals which never disappoint, the individual cities and locations picked for Suzume’s journey, the hints and homages to Shinkai’s past works, and more. This article could go on and on, but I'll stop here for now.
Personally, this movie did hit deep due to my own connections and history with most of the main locations in this film, but I think that even without those connections, this film will appeal to many people. Perhaps they won’t be for the reasons that did to me, but that’s the brilliance of Shinkai’s work - there is an aspect that draws people in and keeps people coming back.
And to leave you with some fun theories and things to consider:
- Why does Sadaijin appear the moment Suzume's aunt Tamaki has a moment of weakness and expresses her pent-up frustrations with their situation? Does Sadaijin perhaps have the power to affect people?
- Why was young Suzume able to pass through the door in the first place?
- The parallels between Tamaki inviting young Suzume to live with her but having certain regrets after and hurting Suzume in the process - and Suzume casually inviting Daijin to be "her cat" to which Daijin accepts only for Suzume to regret it and hurting Daijin's feelings
- Daijin might also serve as a maneki-neko (the lucky cat mentioned above) which caused business to prosper at both Chika's family bed & breakfast establishment as well as Rumi-san's bar. In Japan, maneki-neko are placed at entrances of businesses in hopes that it will be successful.
and more! It will be fun to see what other theories people come up with as more and more people watch it. There is also a novel version written by Shinkai Makoto himself which may provide some more background information and context if you're interested!