Makoto Shinkai returns with another visual delight that entices the senses. His movies often deal with subjects such as nature, life and growth. Suzume has these in abundance, delivering its aims with euphoric colours, astonishing music and something fundamentally human at its core.
Suzume (Nanoka Hara) is a 17-year-old girl living a mundane existence in Kyushu with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu). Suzume lost her mother when she was a little girl and has never gotten over this loss. One morning she follows a young man to an abandoned ruin where a door to a dimension known as the Ever After exists. Suzume accidentally opens it, which causes earthquakes to occur all across Japan – disasters brought upon by a giant supernatural entity known as a “worm”. The man, Sota (Hokuto Matsumara), discloses that doors like the one they found exist all across Japan, and they all must be shut to prevent the worm coming out and wreaking havoc. Thus a bizarre but predictably spellbinding road trip begins.
Shinkai has taken the anime movie scene by storm in recent years. Your Name was one of if not the 2010s’ greatest animated movie. It was while on tour discussing his other films – including Your Name – that Shinkai first conceived the idea for Suzume. It was an appropriate birthing place as Suzume is ultimately a triumphant declaration on the continual potential and mystery of life.
The fluidity of the hand drawn animation, and the life-like designs of real world locations, are a visual feast for the eyes. Light and shadow make the designs so dazzling you feel as though you can step into the film itself. There is something particularly visceral about the use of colour, with the warm blues and greens of Japan’s geography being harshly contrasted by the scorching reds and blacks of the worm. The lush night visuals and greenery of the Ever After evoke a dreamlike quality – as if it’s too good to be true. Twined with the score from Kazuma Jinnouchi and the band Ragwimps, whose incorporation of choirs and organs gives the film an almost biblical feel to its execution, and we have a film that feels as big as it looks. It’s hard not to get lost in the animated splendour of the cinematography and art direction.
Yet where the main course for Suzume lies is in its themes and how the narrative and character arcs emboldens them. Similar to Mamoru Hosoda’s equally magnificent Belle, the lead character is a little girl crying out for her mother deep down. Content with being stuck in the past, Suzume is challenged by the road trip adventure that Sota and other colourful characters encourage her to take. In trying to prevent natural disasters, Suzume is slowly but surely learning the beauty of the life she has rather than the rose-tinted past and theoretical possibilities she could have had in an alternative timeline.
The progression of this narrative isn’t always smooth. There are four instances of shutting dimensional doors within the first half of the film’s runtime, with the connecting threads between each sequence following fairly similar patterns – Suzume meets a loveable character who shows her around the new area of Japan she’s in before she has to quickly run away and shut one of the doors. They are good, functional scenes, but it does generate a sense of meandering or repetition. Meanwhile other decisions, such as the feats Sota performs in service of shutting the doors, especially given the specific circumstances he is under, feel a tad far-fetched even for a film about magic doors and cloud monsters. You can still suspend your disbelief but there’s the occasional wrinkle in the cinematic continuum.
However, at its core, Suzume is about the human condition and how we evolve in the face of change. More specifically it is about not being stuck in our turbulent pasts, but rather reflecting on them, growing from them, and ultimately accepting what cannot be changed so that we may embrace what can change in our futures. However meandering or strange at times, the narrative of Suzume reinforces this, coming together beautifully in the final act, where Suzume is willing to risk everything for a new future rather than continue to dwell in her grief-stricken past. That the story goes from a fantasy to something closer to romance directly highlights this. Suzume’s arc imbues the spectacle with emotional resonance and satisfying thematic engagement. It is a small-scale story of personal change and acceptance told in a gigantic, hypnotically gorgeous way – the very thing that makes Shinkai such a marvellous storyteller.
Michael Crichton once said that all change is like death. The individual must, in a way, leave their past self to die before any transformation can finish. All the greatest stories are about change, so, in a sense, all the greatest stories are about death and how we try to make sense of it. Suzume does not shy away from the turmoil of death, but rather celebrates all the weird, wonderful and even woeful things that can occur in life, regardless of death’s inevitability. It is another compelling, beautiful story from one of the anime’s richest minds. As Guillermo Del Toro has rightfully been championing, animation is cinema. Suzume is cinema.
Animation, Action | Japan, 2022 | 12A | Cinema | 14th April 2023 | Crunchyroll | Dir.Makoto Shinkai | Nanoka Hara, Hokuto Matsumura, Eri Fukatsu, Shôta Sometani, Kôshirô Matsumoto