If you were waiting for an animated movie made in response to the 2011 Fukushima earthquake about an ordinary human being recruited by a magical creature into averting a further earthquake by assisting them in defeating a giant subterranean worm, you’re in luck, because you have two to choose from! My recommendation would be that you not miss either of them though because Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume is, if anything, even better than Pierre Foldes’s Blind Willow Sleeping Woman, and yes, they both do share that same folkloric premise.
It would be hard to think of two more different approaches to the same plot point though as each one bears all the authorial trademarks of their respective auteurs. Suzume is a Makoto Shinkai film through and through and if you’re familiar with his work then you’ll know that’s a very, very good thing, as it means you’ll be in for grounded high concept fantasy, enchanting, funny characters, and some more of the most spectacular sky-scapes ever put to film.
Suzume fits very much into the mold of his more recent romantic fantasies, Weathering with You and Your Name his undisputed masterpiece, but thematically it’s a distant echo of one of his earlier transitional works Children Who Chase Lost Voices (whose alternate, less poetic title Journey to Agartha is referenced in an Easter egg, written on a time capsule). As that film’s title suggests, their common theme is dealing with the loss of a parent and how that bereavement can linger throughout a child’s lifetime, leaving them lost and searching for someone to guide and nurture them. I have a soft spot for Children Who Chase Lost Voices, I love it, as I do all Shinkai’s works, but it’s status as a bit of a Miyazaki wannabe is hard to ignore completely. I’m very glad Shinkai chose to revisit this theme with a vision that’s unmistakably his.
Suzume begins as the title character makes her way to school and finds herself distracted by a handsome boy. On a whim, she decides to follow him and in so doing, she interferes with the performance of his duty to seal the portal connecting our world with another, one where all time exists simultaneously, where we all go when we die, and where the ancient gods of our world preside. Twenty minutes later, she’s participating in a triangular foot chase between herself, a mischievous talking cat, and the wooden stool her late mom made for her as a child, which has now become possessed.
That such a wild ride as Suzume has you in for feels neither messy, overstuffed, nor riddled with tonal clashes is testimony to the skill Shinkai has acquired over his years as a director. Now on his seventh feature film, he’s a fully mature filmmaker and he’s starting to make this look easy. He keeps the movie constantly moving at a fresh, exhilarating pace, but never once (okay, maybe once) does he outpace the viewer or overload us with information. He keeps the story clean, accessible and rich with relatable emotional resonance. Yes, at the film’s center is a bubbly romance between the gawky, guilt wracked teenager and the humorless boy with a very serious burden to carry, but the inspired ways he punctures these cliches with fresh, silly comedy are just delightful, and do more to endear you to the characters than a thousand self-important speeches ever could.
One place Shinkai has shown growth in his writing is in his increasing willingness to incorporate more secondary characters, and allow them to carry more narrative weight. Weathering with You was especially notable for this, and Suzume continues in this tradition with its road-trip structure introducing a plenitude of supporting players whose interactions with the core cast are hopelessly endearing, funny and poignant, fleshing out the world and lending the apocalyptic threat real stakes despite the consistent levity and warmth. But the core of the story still resides in the title character and her unspoken desire to heal the wound struck to her formative little heart all those years ago. We know her search for consolation cannot be granted, and she never acknowledges this as a primary motivation, but it’s always there, just out of sight, urging her on subconsciously.
It’s always the first and last thing anyone says about a Makoto Shinkai film so, of course I have to bring it up…just how gorgeous is this film!? Each individual raindrop refracts the light into a miniature rainbow. Other animators…just give up! Simply being absorbed into the world of his films is enough to feel like you’re feeling the power of cinema, and of animation in particular, at its most acute. His ability to create worlds that mix the forces of nature and pit them against the fleeting efforts of modernity, combined with a willingness to embrace the current as well as the traditional gives his films a life and vigor that is both enchanting and awe-inspiring. His films look and feel both timeless and contemporary with a willingness to incorporate social media into his stories in a way that’s hilarious and satirical yet non-judgmental and is far more natural and organic than the labored approach offered by some of his contemporaries (sorry, Mamoru Hosoda, you know I love you, but… Belle needed redrafts).
And it sounds as good as it looks too, with another phenomenal score by Japanese Rock band RADWIMPS, who incorporate a little bit of acid jazz this time (it was the only way they were ever going to capture the seat-edged, live-wire comic spirit of that bizarre chase scene I described earlier). It also has a collection of Japanese pop hits worthy of any road-trip, which are used to hilarious effect to comment on the action in the second half.
I cannot recommend Suzume highly enough, nor any of Makoto Shinkai’s films. If you’ve never seen Your Name or 5 Centimeters Per Second then you’re in for a treat and a half, but start with this while it’s in theaters. I can think of no other filmmaker, in live action or animation, whose works better reward being seen on the biggest screen possible. Just go! Find a showing, take your seat, and let yourself be swept away by the sweetest, funniest, most magical, and definitely prettiest film you’ll see all year.