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Suzume star Nichole Sakura explains why “anime is for everybody”

Nichole Sakura voices the titular star in new anime movie Suzume, and she explained to The Digital Fix how she helped translate Makoto Shinkai's latest film.


A new movie from Makoto Shinkai is always something to celebrate. He’s made some of the best anime movies of all time, and Suzume continues that streak by giving us another beautiful, existential adventure.

A teenage girl, the titular character, becomes involved in a long-standing battle to defend life against invading spirits. These dark entities arrive on our plane through a selection of doors that are normally protected by a ‘closer’ – the boyishly handsome Sōta, who gets turned into a three-legged chair by a mythical cat.

It’s a strange fantasy movie. But in our five-star Suzume review, you can read why it’s one of the best movies of the year. Nichole Sakura, who voices Suzume in the English-language dub, gave us some of her time to discuss moving from live-action to animation, the rising tide of anime, and joining Ghosts.

The Digital Fix: I know with productions like this, the time to prepare can really vary for the dub cast. Did you have a long runway for coming into this role?

Nichole Sakura: No, I did not. They sent me the screener of the movie, and I watched it and I was like, ‘This is incredible’. I was familiar with Shinkai before. They were like, ‘OK, well, they gotta they gotta get this done in ten days, and you’re going to start recording in a week’. So there was not a lot of preparation.

But luckily, the director that we had, Bill Millsap is his name, he directed me in to translate the Japanese to the English. He was really great at getting that vocal performance out of me, because I do a lot of work on camera where I’m used to using my whole body to act. It was a very different experience. Very cool but yeah, very different.


In Suzume, there are two stories going on – you have the broader plot about closing these doors, and the more personal journey the hero goes on. What do you think Suzume is looking for through-out the film?

Well, I think when I look at her journey, she is a girl who is a little bit closed off. In the beginning, you get this sense that she is a little bit different from her friends at school, like she’s a little bit living in her own world. That’s probably a result of losing her mom at a young age, and having this immense heartbreak.

I think that the movie is like really about her being inspired by the love that she feels for Sōta to open herself up again and be brave and confront the past, and just allow herself to be vulnerable again, That’s how I see itm and her journey and growing up.

I was surprised by how funny Suzume is, there’s a lot of absurd humour involved. I know you’ve worked on several sitcoms, can you tell me about developing that comedy, and making it landed for English-speaking audiences?

That’s a good question. I feel like a lot of the humour in the movie comes from a lot of visual stuff, A lot of the times it’s like a look, or a certain way that a character moves or a facial expression. So as far as the translating goes that didn’t really go into the comedy of it so much, but I do speak Japanese, I speak it with my mom. So I’m pretty fluent, and part of doing the dub is making sure that the mouth flaps match.


So every time the character moves their mouth, the words are matching that because if it doesn’t, it can really pull the audience out of the experience. It was always a fine dance to figure out how to get the translation right; say the words that match the mouth, and that feel true to the story.

Sometimes I was kind of proud of myself, because our director is the one who like really is in charge of making sure that those mouth flaps are right, and he’d be tweaking the script, and sometimes I’d be like, ‘Why don’t we try this?’, and it would work pretty well. So yeah, I think I maybe I have a knack for it.

One of the funnier elements is that you spend a lot of scenes interacting with a talking chair. When doing material like that, did you find it easier coming into an animated film where you could visual it all, or did you miss the live-action aspects of performing?

I think overall, the experience of acting in a sound booth like by yourself, it’s so solitary. I mean, I was acting alongside a chair, but just like showing up to work in that way, and that being so different than being on a set and constantly interacting with people and having other actors around.

I mean, I’m a pretty sensitive person, and sometimes I can be on set around other actors and the energy can affect me or, or inform the scene. That doesn’t really exist with voice acting so much, because you just show up and you just kind of get to be in this little cocoon. I actually really enjoyed that about it, because I can like to be in whatever mental or emotional state and get sucked into the story.


The fact that it was a talking chair, maybe even leant moreso to that feeling of just, ‘I’m here and I’m just doing my thing’, and nobody can really get in my head right now. But do you also do miss the exchange of acting and reacting opposite a person. I think that they have both their downsides and upsides, both processes.

It’s one of those things, right? Where sometimes to create something, it’s nice to be collaborative, and then other times it is just nice to do your thing and know that you’re in your zone.

Yeah, that’s exactly it!

A through-line in Makoto Shinkai’s work has been teenagers and young people facing the darkness of the world, and learning about themselves in the process. What do you think it is that makes his depiction of teenage years special?

Yeah, I was thinking about that, like, why is it that a lot of his protagonist are teenagers and these teenage love stories? I wonder if it’s because there’s purity to that kind of love. You know, you grow up, you’ve been through a few relationships, and you get jaded or you get more analytical. I think that probably being teenagers just allows for this freefall into love that we all experience for the first time before we get our hearts broken.

There’s also a sweet innocence about it. They’re experiencing something for the first time and we’re watching that happen, and there’s a childlike quality to it, which I relate to even like being in my 30s now. That’s something that I try not to lose.

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I don’t know the answers all the time, and sometimes I feel like in our society we’re taught that we should know everything and that we should have it all figured out, and sometimes I just really don’t. I don’t know how to tie that all together, but I guess there’s something beautiful about not having all the answers and having this openness to you, because you’re a little bit inexperienced.

On the subject, Suzume has a subplot that sneaks up on you a little bit, where the aunt says some things that are quite dark. Were you taken aback or struck by that at all?

It’s a really interesting relationship, right? I can’t really think of a relationship like it in an American film that I’ve seen recently. It’s something that on a personal level, it really struck me because I think at the core of it is this sense of the sacrifices that we have to make for the people that we love, and how complicated that can be.


Especially like, in American culture, I think a lot of it is about, do what’s best for you, self care. I was reading this article the other day about how therapy talk has been weaponised by people, because they’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, I have a boundary now’ or like, ‘I don’t have the capacity to deal with your stuff’. I have probably done that myself. It’s this hard balance of knowing when that’s OK, and when, as human beings and family members, you need to extend yourself to someone that you love, or the importance of doing that, how much that can impact somebody.

There are a lot of themes about sacrifice in Japanese culture, and that relationship is how we’re seeing that in this film. This aunt, she’s sacrificed a lot, but there are also beautiful things about that sacrifice. She loves Suzume. Life isn’t always about finding the most pleasurable experience, maybe sometimes it is about doing the hard things and having long lasting joy from them.

You were also involved in Star Wars Visions, one of the best Disney Plus shows in my opinion. What was it like doing that project in comparison to this one?

So I have a terrible memory, but it was definitely shorter. I don’t remember anything about having to match mouth flaps. I really can’t remember if they had the animation complete or not. I’m pretty sure that they did. I think that I think that they animated it to fit my mouth. This just felt more like we have the film to begin with, and we want to honour this vision from Makoto Shinkai.


Star Wars felt a little bit like a more normal voiceover experience. More straightforward, but also amazing. I was I was so stoked to be part of that. Like, this is so cool, it’s anime meets Star Wars. I mean, yeah, I guess I’ve gotten really lucky in the voiceover space.

You were also a guest in Ghosts season 3, another show that I love. Is that comedy series as fun to make as it is to watch?

For me, acting is such an intimate personal experience. What we do is not like showing up to a normal office and clocking in and clocking out, leave your personal stuff at home. I think as actors, it’s almost hard to separate the work from your personal life, from who you are.

We bring so much of ourselves to work. Any environment where the people are sweet, and they just create this safe place for the actors to play, that’s like a dream come true. That’s exactly what that set was. Because everyone on that set is honest to God, so funny and so sweet. Just so welcoming, and as a guest star, when you walk into an environment of people who have been working already for months or years, you know, it’s like being the new kid at school.

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The fact that they were so welcoming, it just says a lot about how awesome they are. I think that also just speaks to the success of the show. I have nothing but amazing things to say about them. It’s a really fun set because people are just happy, and they’re nice. It doesn’t get much better than that.

One last question – you attended the premiere in LA for Suzume, and it feels like anime is getting more attention. Time was only Studio Ghibli got that kind of attention. As a performer, do you think the perception around anime has shifted?

I love anime, I grew up watching Studio Ghibli, and obviously I was familiar with Shinkai before this. I feel like I’m under-qualified to answer that question, because I don’t know that I followed it really closely as a fan. It seems like it’s always had a really strong fanbase.


I have this – I sound so LA – personal trainer. This guy works at a gym and he’s this bro, and he’s a huge anime fan, and then we were talking about anime, and this other guy in the gym is like, ‘Oh, yeah, I love anime too’. And I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I always thought anime fans were this and that’, and he’s like, ‘No’. I just thought ‘Wow, there’s such a wide audience for the for the medium’. There are people you don’t think would be big anime fans, maybe it’s your grandpa or the postman. Like, anime is for everybody.

So, it’s not surprising, especially with the internet now people can find everything, and why I love watching anime is because I feel like I can really suspend my belief when I’m watching a cartoon. For some reason I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, the camera is doing this’, and ‘Oh, let me look up the actor on IMDb’. I get so easily distracted sometimes. But with anime I just forget, I forget all of that, and I get so pulled into the story. I think that’s when it catches you emotionally it’s such a visceral or unexpected feeling.

Suzume is in cinemas now. Have a look at our guides to the One-Punch Man season 3 release date and Dragon Ball Super season 2 release date if you want to know what else is coming, as well as our new anime list. We also have lists of all the best Netflix anime and best horror anime for your reading pleasure.