REVIEW: Suzume (2022)

An Anime feature film by Makoto Shinkai

The anime industry has long grappled with a profound dilemma: how to infuse fresh talent into its ranks to fill the void left by retiring and departing veteran creators. We find ourselves in an era where second-generation anime directors, such as the revered Hayao Miyazaki, now stand in their octogenarian glory. While Miyazaki may never formally bid farewell to his craft (he seems very stubborn), aficionados worldwide can’t help but ponder the burning question: who will emerge as the next Miyazaki, Rin Taro, or Isao Takahata? Thankfully, a refreshing new wave of influential directors has finally arrived, injecting vitality into an industry that has long been perceived as an exclusive domain of seasoned maestros. An “old man’s game” if you will. And at the forefront of this new generation stands the remarkable Makoto Shinkai, the visionary responsible for masterpieces like Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters per Second, Your Name, and the subject of our discussion today, the awe-inspiring new film, Suzume.

“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.” 

While Makoto Shinkai often finds himself entangled in comparisons with the iconic Hayao Miyazaki, his new film, Suzume, boldly showcases his distinct worldview. While most Ghibli productions slow down and look at the minute details in a living and breathing Japan of the 1950s or 1960s, Shinkai’s films tap into profound emotions and voice contemporary societal concerns of a modern Japan. Suzume fearlessly tackles weighty themes, with the most notable being the erosion of the nation’s rural fabric. In recent years, this issue has gained impetus due to declining birth rates and the magnetic allure of sprawling metropolises.

Ghost towns now haunt Japan’s landscape, as entire cities stand abandoned, silently testifying to the ravages of time. Take, for instance, Nagoro, a township defiantly combating its dwindling population through the eerie presence of homemade dolls, vaguely resembling humans. Another example is Aoshima, an island teeming with hundreds of stray cats, bereft of human companionship. These melancholic spectacles serve as harbingers of a rural way of life teetering on the brink of extinction.

Another powerful theme present in Suzume is Japan’s arduous journey toward healing and coming to terms with the cataclysmic 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. This calamity, known worldwide as the catalyst for the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear power plant disaster, inflicted profound wounds upon Japanese society. On that fateful March 11, between 20,000 and 30,000 souls perished or went missing, presumed lost forever in the ocean. Although Japan valiantly forged ahead, constructing new neighborhoods, parks, and schools, the scars of loss run deep, transcending any policy response. Today, in the heart-wrenching tapestry of coastal towns ravaged by tragedy, echoes of grief still reverberate among those who remain.

In the world of Suzume, forgotten and desolate places, eroded by the relentless sands of time, disrupt the delicate boundary between our realm and the afterlife. Mysterious doorways link the two realms, demanding the attention of our protagonists to seal them shut, otherwise calamity could ensue. The fading memories of forsaken individuals and abandoned locales inadvertently beckon a supernatural force dwelling in this other dimension, capable of infiltrating our world through these portals. This formidable entity, growing in power with each forgotten village and lost soul, wreaks havoc and triggers natural disasters. Japan has been ravaged by natural disasters in the past, with millions of people losing everything. This monster is a grim reimagination of this very real nightmare faced by the country. The film serves as an odyssey of reconciling with the past and empowering oneself to forge a brighter future. By remembering and embracing these forsaken places instead of shrouding them in grief, Japan can overcome the looming specter of destruction.

Just from the description, you can tell that Suzume has a fair bit of action but like with most of Shinkai’s films the main plot revolves around a romance story between between Suzume, a high school girl, and Shota, a mysterious man tasked with safeguarding the barrier between our two worlds. As is characteristic of many of Shinkai’s works, the story explores the anguish of lovers torn apart or seemingly destined to be separated. Shota finds himself cursed, transformed into a broken child’s chair, his grasp on his former existence slipping away with each passing day. The movie encompasses a captivating travel adventure as Suzume assists Shota in fulfilling his duty while encountering kind individuals along the way. These side characters possess their own stories, intricately woven and fully fleshed out, rather than serving as mere background noise for the main protagonist.

As with any work by Makoto Shinkai, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous, especially the backgrounds and scenic flourishes throughout. People like to jokingly refer to Shinkai’s animation style as “cloud porn”, and it’s hard to argue simply due to how absolutely stunning everything looks. It’s crazy to think that as far back as his first film, Voices of a Distant Star, he has been able to achieve such amazing animation, and that film was made on his own laptop by himself!

Suzume marks a significant collaboration between Shinkai and the Japanese rock band, Radwimps, a surprising endeavor that may surprise fans. This partnership, which has yielded box office hits like Your Name, Weathering with You and now Suzume, encompasses not only the narrative but also the captivating score. The combination of Radwimps, acclaimed composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, and the talented singer Toaka has resulted in a soundtrack that adds another layer of brilliance to this masterpiece. This collaboration reminds me of the dynamic duo of Satoshi Kon and Susumu Hirasawa, whose partnership produced many of my favorite films and remains profoundly underrated.

Personally, my litmus test for Suzume was watching it with my seven-year-old son. I feared it might be too dramatic or lack the flashy action sequences that captivate a young boy obsessed with video games. However, to my delight, he adored it! For days, he has been asking if he can stream it again, but I regretfully inform him that it’s not yet available. Hopefully, it will be released on home media soon.

Without a doubt, Suzume shines as the pinnacle of animated films this year, surpassing even The Super Mario Brothers. Its masterful blend of drama, action, romance, and mystery ensures that each viewer takes away a unique experience. The animation quality is nothing short of breathtaking, perhaps being his best looking film to date. The story adeptly navigates current events and social commentary without resorting to heavy-handedness, displaying a well-composed narrative that resonates on multiple levels. Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume represents a zenith in his illustrious career, yet it feels like he has only scratched the surface of his potential. It is time to recognize Shinkai not as the “New Miyazaki” but as an incomparable visionary in his own right – Makoto Shinkai continues to redefine the boundaries of animated storytelling.


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