Fans of anime writer-director Matoko Shinkai may notice periodic nods to Studio Ghibli’s movies in his newest work — and they’re very much intentional. But those references aren’t just homages to Japan’s most famous animation studio: They serve a very specific purpose.
Unlike Shinkai’s previous two movies, Your Name and Weathering with You, his latest, Suzume focuses on the impact of a real-life disaster: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. These films’ little nods to Studio Ghibli — cultural touchpoints viewers are likely to recognize — specifically root the world of Suzume closer to our reality, before the movie’s ties to the 2011 disaster are fully revealed.
One of Suzume’s Ghibli nods is overt — someone on social media spots Daijin the keystone cat riding a train on his own, and compares the image to Whisper of the Heart. Another is subtler: Serizawa, a friend of human-turned-chair Sōta, drives protagonist Suzume and her aunt Tamaki to their final destination while playing “Rouge no Dengon” from Kiki’s Delivery Service on his phone. But the movie’s best Ghibli nod is its subtlest. In fact, it might not even really be a full reference — and yet it resonates so much more if you read it as one.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the ending of Suzume — and for Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle.]
Throughout the movie, accidental companions Suzume and Sōta journey across Japan to close magical doorways. It’s not too far of a leap to compare those portals to the magical destination-switching doorway seen in Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. This feels especially true when Suzume first steps through one of those doors and sees a lush meadow covered in wildflowers — a landscape that could easily fit alongside the gorgeous field that Howl shows Sophie in Miyazaki’s movie.
Viewers learn that this is a doorway to the afterlife, and the reason Suzume can see it through the doorway is because she somehow wandered into the realm as a little girl. Flashbacks reveal that Suzume did indeed enter a mysterious door as a child, and was greeted by a figure she assumed to be her dead mother. Afterward, she found a chair she thought she lost, the one that Sōta eventually gets cursed to become.
Suzume learns she must return to the door she originally entered if she wants to save Sōta, so she returns to the ruins of her hometown. That sequence is reminiscent of the climatic scene in Howl’s Moving Castle, in which, after Howl’s castle is destroyed, Sophie finds its magical door resting on some rocks among the ruins. Opening that door, Sophie stumbles into Howl’s childhood, and a past version of the meadow he showed her, then watches him meet his fire demon Calcifer, and make the deal that costs Howl his heart.
As the scene begins to fade away, Sophie calls out to Howl, “Find me in the future!” and Howl and Calcifer both look her way. It’s heavily implied that this is the reason Howl seeks her out later in his life, and is also the reason that Sophie is ultimately able to save him.
So when Suzume enters her own magical doorway and finds herself in that wildflower meadow, it feels like an echo of Miyazaki’s movie. Suzume enters the afterlife to save Sōta, just as Sophie entered the past to save Howl. Admittedly, Suzume features more giant-earthquake-worm battles, just enough that the immediate comparison fades away. But after Suzume saves Sōta — and in doing so, reclaims her own will to live — she gazes at the field of wildflowers and notices a small figure in the distance. It’s herself, as a child.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, reaching back to the past connects the movie’s two protagonists, weaving together the beginnings of both their stories. But Suzume isn’t the same sort of romantic movie as Howl’s Moving Castle. The focus is on Suzume’s growth, the way she goes from apathy and self-destructiveness to someone who actually wants to live. So, although she steps through the door to save Sōta, she’s actually saving herself. She looks back at the past and sees the younger, despondent version of herself, and tells that crying little girl that it’s all going to be okay. It ties her story together perfectly, bringing the ending back to the beginning — just as Miyazaki’s movie does, in its own way.
Suzume is in theaters now.