Makoto Shinkai's third feature continues his fantastical vision with a teenage girl who accidentally opens a magical portal, but fails to make the same impact as Your Name and Weathering With You.
The specter of the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami hangs over Japanese cinema, with many of the biggest hits and creators influenced by the disaster. Just as Nobuhiko Obayashi created a trilogy of films shaped by the twin disasters of that and World War II and creators like Hideaki Anno used it as basis for Shin Godzilla, each of the recent mega-hit movies from beloved anime director Makoto Shinkai are impossible to separate from the impact the disaster had on the director. He cited 3.11 as an inspiration for Your Name, and the topic is similarly broached in the weather-based disaster imagery of Weathering With You.
Suzume is perhaps the most explicit film broaching the topic that clearly fascinates them deeply, with a retort on the human spirit breaking through to help another in tragedy, even if it doesn’t entirely pay off.
Despite being two hours in length the film wastes no time getting into its road-trip across Japan. Before the titles even roll, high-school student Suzume meets the mysterious Sota on his way to seal a magical door in an abandoned city in order to prevent miasma seeping out to cause disaster-level earthquakes, follows him to assist in the task, before accidentally releasing a keystone supposed to prevent larger disasters.
It’s here, shortly after the title screen, when a talking cat turns Sota into a walking, talking chair, and a cross-country adventure to seal these doors and track down this frisky feline gets underway. The journey to prevent national catastrophe takes us from southern Kyushu to Tokyo and even further north as the link to Suzume specifically is revealed, but without time being spent to make us care for the budding romance that’s supposed to form between our two primary characters to the detriment of the emotional core necessary for the film to connect (even ignoring that one is a university student and the other is a minor).
How this brisk pacing and conveyer belt of new characters and settings makes you feel will likely determine your overall enjoyment. Suzume is haunted by the death of her mother that inextricably ties her to the alternate universe beyond the doors, but we barely get time to understand just how this loss has and continues to impact her. Similarly, Sota as a chair is undeniably funny, but we learn so little about his motivations for his journey for so long that it’s hard to engage with the grave nature of his plight as a three-legged stool.
Which is a problem when at its core is a story about the human spirit persevering and coming together in times of disaster. Just as the 3.11 quake took Suzume’s mother, the direct recreation of the Fukushima disaster scenes frequently act as a reminder of the door’s symbolic role as the turbulent event bringing strangers together. Yet if characters supposedly emblematic of this spirit are unrelatable as we spend more time promoting local delicacies and singing karaoke in Kobe (admittedly the film’s best sequence), is a final act crescendoing this rousing spirit really going to pay off?
Suzume offers the fluid and detailed animation fans like myself have come to expect from the most beloved name working in anime today, and its seamless integration of CG and traditional animation for Sota’s chair form is a genuine triumph. Yet for a director whose career has centered human connection at every turn to create some of the most vulnerable and emotional stories on romance and human connection within the field of Japanese animation, it feels like a rare misfire. After a third strike at working through his emotions towards the national grief of 3.11, maybe it’s time to rebuild for something greater.
Published 23 Feb 2023
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