There’s something irresistible about viewing an empty, abandoned building on the big screen. The camera often pans slowly from left to right or zooms in menacingly while we watch with bated breath, unable to tear our eyes away as a sense of impending doom grows.
I felt this visual tension viscerally while watching Suzume no Tojimari (literally “Suzume’s Locking Up”), the fourth-highest-grossing anime film of all time, even before its North American release on April 14. Written and directed by Japanese auteur Makoto Shinkai (of the award-winning 2016 film Your Name), Suzume is a coming-of-age movie where deserted places like a hot spring, an amusement park, and a school become breeding grounds for end-of-the-world-type … stuff (spoilers ahead).
In some ways, the apocalypse has already arrived for the film’s protagonist, 17-year-old high-schooler Suzume (voiced by Nichole Sakura in English). She lost her mother in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed 20,000 people and activated the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown.
On her way to school one day, she encounters Souta (Josh Keaton), a traveler on a mission who is mysteriously turned into a three-legged chair. The duo traipse across Japan locking otherworldly doors popping up in various abandoned places in a bid to prevent a ghastly wormlike creature from wreaking destruction.
Reviewers have praised Suzume as a unique story of hope amid grief and loss. While I agree with their assessment, what enthralls me most about the film is in how it probes Japan’s collective experience of nostalgia and amnesia—a desire for what once was and could have been, alongside a creeping erosion of treasured memories tied to people and place.
Our faith may oscillate between a spiritual nostalgia and a spiritual amnesia as well. But God calls us out of these unfruitful, desolate places in the Christian journey as we travel onward and upward. How? By recovering the spiritual discipline of delight.
Suzume is replete with breathtaking animated effects, from the way sunlight glints off ripples in a bright blue sea to how the characters’ hair ruffles gently in the wind. The empty, abandoned places in the film are not bereft of such lovingly detailed treatment either. Tangible mementos of a once-vibrant place remain, whether in the form of broken vending machines or a creaky, dilapidated Ferris wheel.
These scenes come tinged with a nostalgic atmosphere that longs for the glory of what once was. As Souta puts it, “Deserted places have lost their anchor.” Souta tells Suzume that she needs to “listen to the past [and] hear their voices” to lock the doors successfully. In doing so, Suzume hears a rushing cacophony of voices from people who once lived, worked, and played in these now-bleak locations.
There is a poignancy to how the film depicts these abandoned spaces and how the means of bringing order out of chaos is to “hear” the past and remember all who once called them home. It strikes me, too, that I find myself lingering comfortably in such nostalgic ruminations of my faith.
As a Christian for over two decades now, I regularly reminisce about times I had experienced God or saw God’s promises come to pass, like in the three-hour-long worship nights at youth camp or the Christmas musical I wrote and directed with church friends in the span of six weeks. I think back to other Asbury revival–like moments in my faith and wonder when, or if, I will experience the divine sweetness of God’s presence again.
This is not to say that nostalgia is bad. Nostalgia is only and essentially human, writes my colleague Kate Lucky: “In a world that rushes us forward to the impending deadline, the growth goal, or the five-year plan, a moment of bittersweet recognition reminds us of what we’ve already had.”
Nevertheless, God calls us out of overindulging in spiritual nostalgia as it all too often descends into a sour bitterness that dismisses his promises and his presence in our lives in the present. In Scripture, we see God telling Israel—and us—not to fear because he has redeemed them, called them by name, and considers them his (Isa. 43:1). This beautiful, weighty assurance that we belong to God and are known and loved by him may be evident when we look back at God’s sovereign providence, but it can also be woven into the minutiae of our present lives.
Rather than retreating into the past, God calls us to be present to him in the day-to-day, growing ever more spiritually awake and aware as his precious, beloved children. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:18–19).
Forget me not
This bittersweet yearning for the past isn’t the only theme that the film explores in its artful weaving together of fantasy and history. The other key narrative thread unfolds through the exploration of Suzume’s experience of amnesia.
Suzume has recurring dreams of her four-year-old self crying and searching for her mother in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. In these dreams, young Suzume roams a grassy field under a starry night sky. Later, she realizes that these dreams are actually her forays into the Ever After: the world beyond the mystical doors that she and Souta have been locking up. Although the Ever After is regarded as a place where souls go to rest and the living cannot enter, Suzume once again ventures in when she visits the ruins of her old home and finds (no surprise) a door to this ethereal, liminal space.
In one emotional scene, present-day Suzume meets the younger version of herself in the Ever After. “The night might seem endless … but the light will come once again,” says the older Suzume to her younger, grief-stricken self. “Who am I? You could say I’m your tomorrow.”
The circularity of this moment is heart-wrenching, and it reveals how alienating the experience of amnesia is. In forgetting moments as priceless as those of her mother crafting and giving her the three-legged chair, Suzume has also forgotten who she is. The dialogue between older and younger Suzume becomes a powerful turning point in the film as it ushers in healing and hope for the future.
Suzume’s gradual remembering—of herself, her mother, and her past—as well as her renewed appreciation of her present existence provides some insights for how we approach the Christian life as well. Spiritual amnesia arises when we forget what God has done in our lives and how he has shaped us into who we are today. I have a hunch I’m not alone in struggling to answer questions like “Who has had the biggest impact on your life as a Christian?” Remembering and recounting people who have been our mothers and fathers in the faith aren’t merely fun icebreaker activities. Doing so recognizes that God has been holding all our tomorrows in his hand and will continue to do so.
Still, it’s easy to make our faith painfully routine and forget God in the process. “When it comes to God, I too forget the familiar all over again,” writes the self-professed “spiritual amnesiac” Philip Yancey for CT. “For example, wrenched from my normal routine on a trip somewhere, it will suddenly occur to me that, except for a cursory blessing before meals, I have not given God a single thought all day. Forget the essence of the universe and the central focus of my life? Yes, I do.”
Habits like setting an hourly alarm to pause and reflect jostle Yancey out of his spiritual amnesia. For me, journaling and counseling have been productive avenues to remember and recount God’s faithfulness and presence, particularly in seasons of despair and distress.
Yet, Suzume reminds me that developing another spiritual practice—that of delight—is essential in our ongoing oscillation between spiritual amnesia and nostalgia.
The discipline of delight
Suzume may be an animated film, but its portrayal of the world’s beauty and the goodness inherent in almost every character is so masterful that I cannot help but marvel and, yes, delight in it.
After being immersed in a dark movie theater for two hours, I emerged into a sunlit afternoon. The world post-Suzume seemed more substantial. Where I would typically plunge into an e-book or scroll through my social media feeds after walking out of a film, I chose instead to notice the sights and sounds around me. The colors of the sky appeared brighter. I felt the breeze on my skin and heard the chirps of the birds. My soul felt quiet within me, like the film’s troublemaking cat, Daijin (Lena Josephine Marano), nestling himself quietly in the back seat of an open convertible. A sense of hope and peace enveloped me, and I felt grounded and settled (instead of impatient and frustrated) as I waited for the bus to arrive.
I worry that we have neglected to delight in God in our incessant toggling between spiritual nostalgia and amnesia. Nostalgia hinders us from being present to God in this very moment, whereas amnesia may lead to a willful forgetting of God and a constant striving for bigger and better spiritual experiences instead of what Dallas Willard calls a “transformation into Christlikeness.”
These rhythms can be interrupted by cultivating delight as a spiritual discipline, in which we pay closer attention to all that is around and within us and form a deeper, joy-filled awareness of God’s presence.
As Tish Harrison Warren writes, “The more I have tried to seek God—the more I reach for truth, beauty and mystery that I know exceeds my grasp—the more bright, vivid and vital the things of earth become.”
The spiritual practice of delight does not produce any discernible outcomes, which makes it even more valuable and necessary since our faith ought not be held hostage by achievements and goals. Spiritual delight involves cultivating a holy kind of listening, which creates space for hospitality toward God and others, according to spiritual director Margaret Guenther. Spiritual delight invites us to ponder all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Phil. 4:8) rather than wallow in fear or be consumed by distraction.
Suzume is not a Christian film. In fact, much of its mythology is based on Shintoistic ideas of how divine gods and humanity relate to one another. But Suzume has led me to experience delight again, even if it seems inconceivable in a world constantly bombarded by terrible, deadly news. The spiritual discipline of delight requires us to live open-heartedly in the present, deepening our relationship with Jesus without leaving one foot stuck in the past and the other in an imagined, ideal future.
“Life is a fleeting, fragile thing, but we fight and hope to live one moment more,” says Souta in a pivotal scene. His words echo that of the author of Ecclesiastes: “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (Ecc. 6:12).
Delighting in God opens a doorway that leads us out of bitter regret and blissful forgetfulness. This door is always and already open, and God invites us all to enter amid the ordinariness of our present realities. Won’t you step in?