THE STORY – As the skies turn red and the planet trembles, Japan stands on the brink of disaster. However, a determined teenager named Suzume sets out on a mission to save her country. Able to see supernatural forces that others cannot, it’s up to her to close the mysterious doors that are spreading chaos across the land. A perilous journey awaits as the fate of Japan rests on her shoulders.
THE CAST – Nanoka Hara, Hokuto Matsumura, Eri Fukatsu, Shota Sometani, Sairi Ito, Kotone Hanase, Kana Hanazawa & Matsumoto Hakuō II
THE TEAM – Makoto Shinkai (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 122 Minutes
While the work of many animators often utilizes recurring themes (such as Miyazaki’s take on man’s relationship with nature or Pixar films’ focus on love and friendship), writer/director Makoto Shinkai is drawn to tales that use weather and its potential disaster as a way getting to the heart of his characters. “Your Name” (2017), considered by many to be his masterpiece, is a body-swapping romance inspired by Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake, while his follow-up, “Weathering with You,” centers on a young orphan who possesses the ability to control the weather, often to potentially deadly effect.
In this latest feature, “Suzume,” Shinkai returns to that 2011 earthquake to examine how many survivors are haunted and still grieving from the event. That trauma is seen through the eyes of 17-year-old Suzume, whose single mother was killed in the quake and was then taken in and raised by her loving but overprotective aunt Tamaki. One day en route to school, Sumuze is stopped by a young man, Souta, and asked how to find nearby ruins. Souta explains that he’s a “closer,” meaning it’s his job to find free-standing doors in abandoned locations and close any such portals, which, if opened, will emit giant worm-like creatures that prompt earthquakes throughout Japan.
Suzume accidentally kicks over a keystone at a local ruin, which turns into a cat that scampers away. Souta explains that they now have to find the cat and turn the feline back into a keystone before many portals across Japan may unleash more deadly worms. But, despite the cat’s big-eyed adorableness, he shows himself to be a vengeful creature. Wanting Suzume’s friendship all to himself, the cat places a curse on Souta, turning him into a three-legged children’s chair, a transformation that considerably complicates their quest.
One of Shinkai’s greatest strengths is his fearlessness in upending audience expectations whenever the opportunity arises. Here, the dashing Souta is presumably set up to be the film’s love interest when, suddenly, after being turned into a chair, he instead becomes the comic relief. In fact, the film’s most deep and growing relationship is saved until its second half, when Suzume finally comes to understand and appreciate how her aunt Tamaki shelved so many of her own dreams when she chose to take in her orphaned niece. Inspired by that moment, Suzume finally finds the courage to face her greatest unresolved issue: her desire to find closure in her mother’s tragic death.
It’s that extra character step that makes Shinkai’s writing so distinctive. In many recent animated films, young female heroes must be shown as spunky spitfires who break the rules and kick butt. This is boring. And Suzume is anything but that. Sure, she can be petulant, whiny, and perhaps a bit damaged — but, after all, she’s a teenager, so she feels real. Yes, she throws herself into life-or-death situations, but she momentarily pauses, as any teen would, before jumping into the fray. Our ability to identify with her enables us to become truly invested in her survival when she faces growing peril.
The bold strokes of Shinkai’s approach to the story are fully matched by his visual sense. His meticulous eye in capturing modern life, even down to its signage- an image here of a McDonald’s exterior that made me jump at its minute detail- has been duly praised. Still, his masterstroke is how he captures the power of weather with such precision. In “Suzume,” he feels no need to show off by recreating a major tsunami or earthquake, instead using subtle details to suggest the power of the weather to come: churning clouds, the few light drops of rain that signal an incoming downpour, a rumbling tabletop just before the earthquake to come. Weather is ever-present in “Suzume” but is always subtly presented.
Because the action is set up so quickly — the story’s stakes are clear before we can take our first handful of popcorn — the narrative, by necessity, needs to slow down to catch its breath. But, “Suzume” slackens a bit too much in its second act to the point of dragging at times. (A bit more judicious editing in this section could have helped reduce its longish two-hour runtime). Still, that complaint is a relative quibble compared to the big swings that Shinkai makes and with which he almost always connects.
Shinaki has often been described as “the next Hayao Miyazaki,” an unfair comparison of both men. No one can touch the Japanese master’s legacy, and Shinkai isn’t trying to do that. Instead, with a film like “Suzume,” he is forging his own path, one that I suspect will, with every passing film, expand the boundaries of what stories that animation can tell and the visual vocabulary with which to tell them.