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Nichole Sakura – Voices “Suzume” A Makoto Shinkai Anime Inspired by the 2011 Japanese Earthquake


Nichole Sakura is the voice of the titular character in Suzume, director, Makoto Shinkai’s anime film, inspired by the 2011 earthquake in Japan. It is also a coming-of-age story for the 17-year-old protagonist, Suzume. Set in various disaster-stricken locations across Japan, and beautifully rendered, Suzume must close the doors causing devastation and in so doing come to terms with loss. The film has already earned more than $103 million in limited release internationally, prior to its April launch in the US.

Known for her work in Hulu’s Maggie, CBS’s Ghosts, NBC’s Superstore, and the upcoming film, Micro-Budget, Nichole Sakura spoke with us from Los Angeles via Zoom, about her very personal connection with the character, her heritage, why she’s so good at comedy and the challenge of doing voice work.


How did you come to Suzume?

I was lucky enough to be presented with the opportunity. I immediately went, “Oh my goodness, yes!” It was 100 percent something I wanted to do. I was familiar with Makoto Shinkai’s work before being offered this film. It was just a no-brainer. (Laughs.)

Other than the Director, was there an aspect of the character with which you identified?

They sent me the screener for it. I definitely related to it. I watched it with my mother. My mom is battling an illness right now. Her death is something I think about a lot and I’m preparing for. It’s something that Suzume’s character has already overcome.

Her mother died in the great earthquake of 2011 in Japan. She’s already dealt with a great sense of loss. I’m getting emotional talking about this. The film is really emotional. You see these flashback scenes of Suzume and her mom where Suzume is a child. There’s something so beautiful about the way Shinkai executed it. It really catches that mother/daughter relationship so well, and the sense of loss.

I recently heard someone describe it as: There’s life before your mother passes and there’s life after your mother passes. That’s the quality that the film touches on a little bit. That sense of loss and the fact that you have to eventually open yourself up again to life and be vulnerable. It’s scary to lose people but it’s scarier to never experience love again. It really got me on a personal level.

This was inspired by the 2011 Japanese earthquake, and since you live in Los Angeles, you have experience with earthquakes. Is the idea that the film may help younger audiences cope with earthquakes?

It’s hard to conceptualize a huge disastrous catastrophe. Suzume’s story makes it more personal. Something I thought quite interesting about the earthquake element in the film, is that there is an old Japanese folktale about a giant catfish that lives under the sea, which is the explanation for Japanese earthquakes. Whenever the catfish waves its tail, the earthquakes happen. I don’t know if that was the direct correlation for Makoto Shinkai’s inspiration. In this movie the earthquakes are caused by this giant worm that comes up from the bottom of the earth, that Suzume is intent on containing.

It felt like there was some inspiration from the Japanese folklore that the Director was showing the audience. Earthquakes are very real in Japan and it’s cool to see a story about it.

The character is very brave and is willing to open closed doors. How good are you at opening doors to unexplored worlds?

I think I’m really good at that. I’m someone who doesn’t understand something until I experience it. I’m not good at saying, ‘Nicole, maybe you don’t wanna do that because it’s going to bring you these emotions.’ I’m very good at opening doors. Sometimes I go through the door and go, ‘maybe I don’t want to be here; but now that I am, I’m going to gain some lessons from it. I’m going to learn from it’.


When you were young, you opened the door into acting. What was the impetus?

My mom is Japanese, my dad is from an Irish Catholic background. I was raised in this environment, where self-expression was not something that was culturally celebrated. My mom was the one who introduced me to a lot of movies when I was young.

There’s this amazing anime movie called Grave of the Fireflies, about this brother and sister. It’s very dramatic and a tragic commentary on WWII, but a cartoon. To me as an eight-year-old watching a cartoon, but actually, I was incredibly moved by it.

Movies were gateways for me, this door to emotions. It was a great way for me to express myself. I could be on stage and that was a safe place where I could do anything and no one was going to tell me, “Be polite,” or “Say all your Hail Mary’s.” I really wanted to be goofy. So that’s why I liked acting.

Coming from two foreign parents, what were your cultural influences?

I don’t know if I can express the thought the way I intend. Sometimes in Japanese culture, woman can be encouraged to be less vocal about their opinions or to advocate for themselves. I was heavily influenced by my mom. Those were the traits that I took on. It’s a really beautiful society and culture. It’s all about thinking about the collective. That’s what’s expected: you treat others as you would have them treat you.

America is about being the person that can speak for themselves and fight for themselves. It was really hard for me to adjust to that from a business aspect, especially in Los Angeles. But I fell in love with the art of it. The things that it brought me. I am still struggle with figuring out how to advocate for myself sometimes.

Representation is getting better, especially for me as a mixed-race person. It was always such a struggle. I never fit into one box. When I was really young, you were either “The Caucasian Girl-next-door,’ or ‘The Asian Math Elite’ – those stereotypes. Visually, I didn’t fit either.

Now I am finally finding that they are creating more space for people who look like me, or without categorization – so you don’t know where that person is from. It’s great.

There are a lot more Asian stories being told. Real progress for me is when I get to play a role that is not defined by the characters ethnicity. That’s the goal, to tell stories like that. I am influenced by being Japanese, but I am in America and immersed in this culture.

You just completed Maggie for Hulu, which does that: celebrates your character as an individual. Will there be a season two?

Unfortunately, not. Any career change for me I look at as one door closing and another opening. That was a role where the characters aren’t defined by ethnic backgrounds. It was really fun to be part of it, to turn up and voice my opinions. They were very respectful and open to what their cast wanted.

What about Ghosts (CBS)?

I just finished three episodes of Ghosts, and also wrapped an independent film called, Micro-Budget, a comedy about a filmmaker, who is a hack. I’m the lead in the film that he’s making. There was a lot of improvising.

You have a lot of comedy in your body of work? Did that come naturally to you?

I don’t know why I have this career in comedy? I grew up loving and doing dramatic acting while studying. Comedy seems to be something I’m naturally gifted with.

For my fifth-grade talent show I did a series of impersonations. I played all these different characters. It was a transformative experience for me. I’d transferred to this new school. I was really shy kid but went on stage and did all of these characters, and everybody loved them. That was my comedic side. I guess it’s always been that. People say those who are good at comedy are usually the ones who were the outcasts, and that’s why we develop that sense of humor to cope with the world.

How challenging was it to get the emotion of Suzume with your voice alone?

I’ve done voiceover work before, but nothing to this extent. The voice director, Bill Millsap, got my performance to where it needed to be by guiding me with internal thoughts to build layers of emotion into the delivery, like building a layer cake. If you’re on camera, you have your body and eyes to tell the story. I had all these different elements to put just into the voice.

Superstore brought you a lot of attention, how did you deal with it?

I don’t feel famous. I like getting recognized. Prior to Superstore I was a struggling actress working in restaurants. To finally be on a show and have people appreciate your work was an incredible feeling.

I have this nice level of notoriety where it’s not a constant thing but when it happens, it’s really nice.

In the film, Suzume carries a childhood chair that is imbued with the love of her mother, and the person that she is falling in love with. Do you have a memory or item that you and your mom shared?

We’ve been going through a lot of old things. Going to Japan every year as a kid with my mom was such an amazing part of my childhood. My aunt was a seamstress. She made us matching dresses, like a mother/daughter thing. The other day I found one of those dresses. Obviously, I can’t fit in it anymore, and my mom’s version is too small for me. It’s a little dated looking, but those are things I really cherish. I’m thinking of making a quilt out of them. To reuse the fabric. My mom and I used to call each other ‘Futago’. It means twin in Japanese. I was her little twin. I love those matching dresses.