With Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019) being counted among the ten top-grossing animé films of all time, the director’s newest offering, Suzume, had moviegoers buzzing long before its release. Known for blending slice-of-life imagery with high-concept fantasy, while singlehandedly making a case for the viability of (quality) 2D animation in the 21st century, could Makoto’s latest top what came before?
Suzume (Nanoka Hara, TV’s Night Doctor) is an orphan living with her aunt in a small town. who meets a wanderer, Sota (played by popstar/actor Hokuto Matsumura), in search of ruins. Following Sota, learns of a malevolent force that seeks to destroy humanity via a series of enchanted portals.
When an encounter with a magical cat renders Suzume being able to see the evil before it strikes, she joins Sota’s mission to seal the portals before it’s too late. The only trouble is, Sota’s soul has been transferred into Suzume’s childhood chair, placing the duo on a cross-country side quest to catch the magical feline before it’s too late.
Filtering aspects of Shintoism through the lens of magic realism, adolescence, and more than a few tropes lifted from classic Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away), Suzume is breathlessly confident in its storytelling. The classic set-up of a wide-eyed innocent drawn into a world beyond her comprehension is charming and direct, without being overly simplistic.
After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a roguish stranger searching for ruins on a day marked by mysterious earthquakes? By the time the film becomes a road trip adventure between a girl and her walking, talking chair, we’re all in for whatever the filmmakers can throw at us.
The joy of the journey
Even without the threat of an impending apocalypse, the protagonists’ trip across Japan is endlessly breathtaking, with Shinkai applying his signature attention to detail to every leg of Suzume and Sota’s travels. From the minutiae of buying a train ticket, and the interior of a Toyota sedan, to the worn deck of a provincial ferry, and beyond – even the most mundane details are rendered instantly recognizable by the filmmakers, elevating the larger-than-life proceedings by grounding them in the recognizable and real.
Reverence for the past
The recognizability factor is crucial to the haunting nature of the portals themselves — with each providing access to a realm where all of time exists, they are ironically located in areas that time has seemingly forgotten. From empty schools to abandoned theme parks, each is a chilling reminder of humanity’s ephemeral nature, to say nothing of Japan’s rapidly aging population.
Unironically, the enchantment needed to close each portal requires calling upon the spirits of those who once roamed each location – their lingering essences summoned to perform one final duty.
Fantasy in the age of social media
Make no mistake: the modernity of the setting isn’t lost on the viewer, as many of Suzume’s events are only made possible by the fact that our title character has her trusty mobile on her at all times. Indeed, one of the film’s best gags has her and Sota tracking the magical cat, Daijin, via its appearances across multiple social media feeds.
Indeed, watching her use her smartphone to get through the film’s multiple challenges is probably the best ad for a smart gadget (and Japanese telcos in general) that we’ve ever seen. The mind boggles at everything Snow White or Princess Mononoke could have managed with access to mobile data (or even just GPS).
They fell in love in a hopeless place
In our review of Weathering With You, we noted that that film treads much of the same ground as Your Name. “featuring young people learning about themselves and the world around them while extraordinary phenomena loom overhead,” and that assessment holds true here. The elements of young love are par for the course by this point, but the chemistry between Suzume and Sota gives the material an undeniably fresh quality that makes us want them to succeed in their quest.
When Sota unilaterally makes the decision that spurs the film’s final act, we feel Suzume’s desperation to take on the world and make things right. While this could have been fleshed out as stemming from more than Suzume’s long-held survivor guilt, it’s easy to chalk it up to the exuberance of youth.
When considering elements lifted from Miyazaki, one needs to look no further than the narrative of a young woman, forever changed in her quest to undo a magical wrong wrought against a headstrong young man caught up in an ages-long battle that neither of them sought to be part of. And that’s before we get to whimsical side characters and predestination paradoxes brought about by accidental time travel.
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because you saw it in 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Heck, Sota even kind of looks like Howl! Thankfully, Shinkai’s decision to anchor his story in the unmistakable environs of contemporary Japanese provinces provides twists that make everything seem new, while giving this generation their own distinct fairy tale.
The bottom line
Blending Japanese tradition with travelogue-worthy imagery and slice-of-life sensibilities, Makoto Shinkai has created an adventure for the ages. As crafted by this master of the medium, the film opines as no mere love letter to the monuments of the past; it’s a heartfelt tribute to the roads which invariably — sometimes painfully — remind us of how far we’ve come, while simultaneously affirming that neither distance nor destination is as important as the people we’ve chosen to keep along the way.