Home » ‘Suzume’ Review – Makoto Shinkai Tears Your Heart in Two

‘Suzume’ Review – Makoto Shinkai Tears Your Heart in Two

by Chris St Lawrence
The 17-year-old female student protagonist Suzume Iwato voiced by Nanoka Hara heads into battle in the new anime film SUZUME from writer and director Makoto Shinkai.

Ever since his 2016 hit Your Name made anime history with its impressive run of critical and commercial success, writer-director Makoto Shinkai has become a renowned name in mainstream anime conversations. His distinctive aesthetic and voice make for films that walk the fine line between reality and fantasy with stunning moments of beauty and heartfelt sincerity. To this, Suzume is no exception: a delightful, vibrant visual masterwork that embraces hard feelings of loss and longing. To say the least, Shinkai’s latest soulful creation will tear your heart in two.

When an encounter with a mysterious traveler leads high schooler Suzume Iwato (Nanoka Hara) to an abandoned resort in the mountains of her quiet town of Kyushu in Southwestern Japan, she discovers a strange doorway that offers a glimpse into an eerily familiar, magical world. She is forced to team up with the traveler Souta (Hokuto Matsumura), a handsome young man who moonlights as a door “Closer” per family tradition, to stop the inhabitants of this other realm from coming through the portal and wreaking havoc. Suzume learns that Japan has dozens of these doors scattered throughout its many abandoned locales and that the world behind them, the Ever After, is home to a powerful dark force – a massive worm-like creature made up of swirling red tendrils – held in place by only two “keystones.”

In her naivety, Suzume unknowingly frees one of these keystones, causing it to come to life as a mischievous god-like white kitten Daijin (Ann Yamane). Before Souta can turn it back to stone and restrain the worm creature, Daijin curses his soul to enter a three-legged chair – a well-loved keepsake from Suzume’s mother who went missing many years ago. Together, Suzume and Chair-Souta must travel across Japan to find and capture the keystone cat in order to prevent the worm creature from emerging from any of the countless doors to slam its enormous worm body down on the planet with enough force to blast it to smithereens. 

Plagued by natural disasters and the passing of time, the world of Suzume fits right in alongside Makoto Shinkai’s previous works from its opening scene. A young Suzume wandering alone, searching for her mother in a town turned to wet rubble and ruins evokes a quiet alternative to the film’s more silly sequences. This makes it clear that despite the gleaning gloss of its color palette, Suzume has an eye too for the somber and mournful.

Earthquakes are a repeated motif in Suzume. Each time the worm creature is breaking through one of the doors, the ground begins to quake and earthquake alerts begin pinging on everyone’s phones. In these moments, Shinkai pulls away from the main characters to show the wider world of the story: a Japan with aching wounds from its seismic past. At every stop, the introduction of new supporting characters adds life and history to this landscape and stakes to Suzume’s journey. In some ways, the reality of impending earthquakes being so omnipresent in Suzume may seem scarier for non-Japanese audiences than those who live near historically active faults, but Shinkai never downplays the severity of these natural disasters among his characters.

Suzume Iwato the 17-year-old student heroine voiced by Nanoka Hara stares into her phone with urgent determination in the new anime film SUZUME from writer and director by Makoto Shinkai.
‘Suzume’ courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd

The threat of a world-ending earthquake holds a growing presence over the plot until it comes to a head in a revelation of Suzume’s past. The heart-wrenching reveal ties to the real-life 3/11 Tohoku catastrophe – an earthquake and tsunami that caused thousands of casualties, displaced many more, and led to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. This addition to the narrative creates a shared sense of pain and loss that ties together all of the story’s elements.

The film’s repeat visits to Japan’s many abandoned places, from landslide-stricken schools to underfunded amusement parks, represent an emotional history filled with living people now gone, echoing the kind of painful, mournful nostalgia that comes with seeing everyday life uprooted and destroyed. It’s this very existential threat, on an albeit more massive, global scale, that Suzume and Souta are tasked with preventing in stopping the worm. Despite feelings of hopelessness in loss, it is the connection to our past and those around us that define our future.

Though Makoto Shinkai’s works are known to heavily feature romantic conflicts, Suzume stands out a bit as a coming-of-age story that seems far more interested in its themes and other character relationships. Suzume’s aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu), for example, is one of the key emotional pillars of the movie alongside her mother. Unfortunately, this choice to explore more familial relationships results in the traditional love interest’s lack of real depth. Souta’s backstory is fleshed out enough so as to not leave many questions, but it doesn’t feel like enough to really ground his character and liken the audience’s hearts to his plight – which, being stuck in the form of a chair and slowly losing sentience, is pretty bleak.

In some ways, it seems like Shinkai almost abandoned the skeletal remnants of a romance in early drafts, having preserved only hints of romantic feelings along with cheesy lines of devotion from Suzume. This is arguably for the better, though, since Souta is at least a few years older and almost done with university whereas Suzume is only part-way through her high school education – a not-so-savory basis for romance. If the age gap wasn’t a problem, strengthening their relationship would make for a more believable connection between the two and help better motivate some of the decisions Suzume makes in the film’s later half.

The small white kitten cat Daijin god voiced by Ann Yamane appears in the new anime film SUZUME from writer and director Makoto Shinkai.
‘Suzume’ courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd

It’s hard to talk about Makoto Shinkai’s films without talking about his unique aesthetic and sense of tone. It would be easy to separate the two, claiming his visuals carry a simple style and flair – his tone the result of existing within the fantastic realism genre. However, Suzume definitely makes that case for a joint experience of quietness. Rather than flashy visuals to up the energy, Shinkai’s painterly landscapes and hyper-detailed frames feel designed to mimic a breath hold, an attempt to capture the kind of beauty that stops you in your tracks and think about what you’re experiencing. Working again with art director Takumi Tanji (Your Name), Shinkai’s images here are striking as ever, a bold and imaginative reflection of a broken society full of love and care.

Supporting this aesthetic and tone, too, is the music by rock quartet RADWIMPS, who returned after previous collaborations in Your Name and Weathering with You. Much like their last creative ventures with the writer-director, their songs in Suzume effortlessly reflect the pervasive senses of dream-like longing and quiet gravitas in Makoto Shinkai’s film, but they also take on some sprinklings of new epic flavor with the addition of co-composer Jazuma Jinnouchi (Star Wars Visions: The Ninth Jedi).

As previously mentioned with the film’s depiction of natural disasters, Suzume also manages to find a healthy balance of comedy and drama – a very important thing for a film featuring a walking-talking chair, a scheming cat god, and world-ending phallic worms. Its shifting tonal structure loosely hearkens back to that of Your Name, taking an outlandish concept and slowly turning it into something far more meaningful by simply engaging with it without irony. Shinkai’s characters may not be the most fleshed out in Suzume, yet they have conviction, and that’s more than enough to win you over.

Suzume is one of Makoto Shinkai’s most satisfying works to date. While it may bear more than a few similarities to the writer-directors latest greatest hits, the sincerity and standout art direction of Suzume make for a film that feels fresh amidst a Hollywood-centric landscape of cinematic camp and irony. Immortalized in the moving image, Suzume will most importantly forever stand as a memory of Japan’s history and the feelings that persist in the wake of devastation. Without lived experience, it’s near impossible to definitively determine whether the film is deft and appropriate in its handling of such a tragedy as 3/11, but its presence and importance in the plot will surely be a valuable talking point when it comes to educating young audiences about the lasting trauma that continues to exist throughout Japan and the rest of the world.

As such, Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume further supports the existing and growing importance of animation within the larger cinematic landscape: if there is any justice in the world, Suzume will find wide audiences in theaters across the globe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Suzume hits theaters April 14!

Follow writer Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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