Suzume is a staggering achievement that represents the pinnacle of everything that Shinkai's been working towards in recent years.
If you’ve seen even just one image from Suzume, you’ll know doors figure prominently in Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime movie. Like anime itself, these doors represent a gateway into a fantastical new world, one that’s gorgeously drawn and rendered by Shinkai and his team. But there’s a lot more to these doors than meets the eye; they’re also rooted in the pain of the past — and most crucially of all, audiences would do well to remember that gates work both ways…
Suzume follows the titular high school girl upon a chance encounter with Sota, a ‘Closer’ who seeks out magical doors found in abandoned places across Japan. After discovering one of these doors for herself, Suzume accidentally lets loose a magical keystone that transforms into a cat and curses Sota, turning him into a talking, three-legged chair.
Together, this unlikely duo chase the cat across Japan to lift Sota’s curse and close the other doors to prevent an eldritch creature from destroying the country with a cataclysmic earthquake. As an earthquake survivor herself, Suzume also has to come to terms with the loss of her mother who died in the Tōhoku disaster of 2011.
Following Weathering With You, Shinakai’s new movie confirms Shinkai as the genius fans have long known him to be, even before the record-breaking Your Name made him a household name in Japan. Signature elements crop up again here, including the usual teen love story and an overwhelming preoccupation with natural disasters set against a fantasy movie backdrop. However, that doesn’t mean Suzume is simply a rerun of what’s come before.
Daijin’s arrival as a dangerously cute yet cruel cat of mystic origins provides Suzume with the kind of anime villain that’s often been absent in Shinkai’s previous offerings. The road trip format also lends more focus to the narrative while introducing a range of anime characters we want to get to know better, including Sota’s chain-smoking student friend along with a generous hostess mother and her twins who become as fascinated with Suzume’s walking, talking chair buddy as we are.
In lesser hands, Sota’s transformation could have strained to be too whimsical or even Disney-esque, but his and Suzume’s story is grounded by a far more serious matter at hand which lends their quest some much-needed gravitas to help balance things out.
Suzume is Shinkai’s most mature feature to date. The dialogue is less sentimental than it has been in previous efforts, helping it pack an even bigger punch, and the visuals are some of the best you’ll ever see on screen. At least, until Shinkai’s next film, no doubt.
Fans have come to expect something incredibly special when it comes to Shinkai’s animated movies, so it would be easy to just affirm that’s the case here too and move on. But no, really. Every individual frame in Suzume could quite comfortably sit in the Louvre. The detail in every raindrop and every flower petal is just astonishing to see captured so effortlessly here. Or at least, it feels effortless, which is not to discount the huge amount of work that goes into animating films like this at such a high level.
As they do in Your Name and Weathering With You, colours pop and sparkle here in such a gorgeous, heightened way that somehow feels both natural and fantastical all at once. The characters live and breathe like few cartoon characters ever have before on screen too, including Sota who somehow walks exactly like you would imagine a three-legged sentient chair would.
Suzume doesn’t just represent the pinnacle of Shinkai’s artistry on a visual front. For his latest soundtrack, Shinkai enlisted the band RADWIMPS again, but their rock ballads of old are mostly replaced here with an otherworldly score and delicate, aching vocals from singer Toaka. The result is haunting and more refined than any other music Shinkai has used in his films to date — and that’s saying something given how much the previous soundtracks have resonated with fans worldwide.
It’s just as well this adventure movie is more mature and elevated in so many respects, because the focus here demands more sensitivity than any of Shinkai’s films to date.
It’s no secret that Your Name in particular was inspired by the Tōhoku earthquake that ravaged Japan in 2011, but metaphors around the real-life disaster give way here to overt references that actively seek to explain and even recreate what happened on that tragic day (as well as The Great Kantō earthquake of 1923).
For anyone who lived through these experiences (or something like them) firsthand, this will be a lot to handle at points, but it’s to Shinkai’s credit that a film starring a talking chair is able to explore this real-world trauma as sensitively as it does.
The reason why this works so well is because Suzume frames all this trauma on two fronts. While the main quest at hand taps into a collective pain that only Japanese audiences who lived through this firsthand will fully grasp, there’s also a deeply personal, singular element to Suzume’s own story that resonates beyond that national experience.
Each doorway she journeys through balances the tension between the past and the present, the collective and the singular, and of course, the real and the fantastical, to create something deeply moving and even healing, much like Suzume as a whole. Whether it lives up to the impact of Your Name will depend on the personal experiences that you yourself bring to the film, but just know that you’re in safe hands here with the greatest anime director still working consistently today.