To say that Makoto Shinkai’s work as an anime auteur speaks to a personal affection of the wider world would be an accurate statement in need of explanation. Arriving late to his string of nature-centric, character intensive melodramas, I could still gain enough sense of all his storytelling tricks, and what all his films are trying to say, on a slowly sliding scale. To follow a pair of ingenious, environmentalist tales like Your Name and Weathering with You can’t be all that unfathomable. A film like Suzume proves how easy it can look, until the weight of one-upsmanship topples over the need to tell a compelling story. One that’s arguably his most personal, using the real-world heartbreak of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake as a framing device, with care and respect intact.
Suzume’s plotline is still very engaging, if not also a tad incomprehensible with how often it distracts itself. Wasting no time to establish its emotional counterweight, we’re introduced to the title character (voiced by Nanoka Hara in the original Japanese, Nichole Sakura in the English version), a headstrong high schooler still coming to terms with losing her parents in the aftermath of that disaster. Since then, she’s been living with aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu, Jennifer Sun Bell), living a quiet life while studying nursing. The idyllic calm is suddenly thrown out of sorts when Suzume crosses paths with staunch environmentalist Sōta (Hokuto Matsumura, Josh Keaton).
A brooding college age student risking his own future, he enlists Suzume’s help to shut a gateway door opening an entryway for giant electrical worms looking to damage communities with the same power and intensity of a typical earthquake. Seems like an easy enough task, until an omniscient cat with Instagram savvy named Daijin (an electrifying Ann Yamane, Lena Josephine Marano) wanders into frame, cursing Sōta to live as antiquated children’s chair with one leg missing. From there, it turns into a near-madcap road trip, the pair learning plenty about themselves, and confronting otherwise buried traumas while chasing down their feline foil and stopping another overwhelming natural incident.
In Shinkai’s careful drafting, balancing fantasy and historical reality evolves into less of a challenge, more of a drawn-out battle. The director is willingly breaking from his comfort zone of cozy fantasy melodrama, by either a shattering or negligible margin. This depends on which lens he’s shifting toward; here, it’s not exactly one-size-fits-all, nor even a single era. The passage of time often behaves this way, depending on the individual. In Suzume’s mind, she expresses a fervent longing for the past, a desire to make sense of her family life before the quake all but suppressed that joy, leaving only fear concealed by a false confidence. Her aunt may disagree, and Sōta is initially oblivious to this prospect. And yet, a communal shred of prior regrets, buried sorrow, and future promises easily bond their ventures together. Rewardingly so, with no forced romantic tension, beyond Tamaki and a random friend of Sōta’s who pops up at an awkward time to show support.
When Shinkai veers off a figuratively paved driveway for his story, thankfully it’s not often enough to fully derail the audience off focus. There may be an identity crisis to overcome in the first act, as Suzume faces the bleak reality of her new friend as a three-legged chair, and the chaotic hijinks that soon follow. It’s a fair move, to go the slice of life route partway, then gradually pivot to a firmer grasp of consequence in the second act. Making newfound memories with optimism unchallenged, before building up the courage to think with maturity and rationale, and seek closure for a turmoil-panged past life in the final minutes. A closing battle bordering on the surface as sci-fi symbolism, more a trial of one’s recollection, separating a memory from its dark repercussions. And, if luck plays out, grant the space to reframe such a haunting or middling vision into a positive.
That might be a moot point when tackling a real world event that can permanently alter the course of history for an entire country. But Shinkai still shows great respect for what was, and for what can be. What shouldn’t, or can’t be forgotten from the past, and what’s worth remembering in the present moment. He sustains a delicate touch throughout, even when the mood teeters in a tricky web to escape from the other side. Ultimately, the pacing takes a few lumps here and there, Shinkai struggling to keep a steady course. Any tonal change leaves a momentary pause in forward motion, recovering quickly enough to avoid a complete ruination.
From a constructive viewpoint versus the thematic, Shinkai is far from perfect. It’s a half step below Weather; then again, it only had a straightforward fantasy element to contend with, environmental factors deployed only to a subtle extent. On the latter, this director recognizes the opportunity to channel his inner Miyazaki, knowing he won’t fully eclipse his idol as much as he can be among many a contemporary. Even with where (and when) it staggers, there’s much open space to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak. Shinkai, along with supervising animator Ken’ichi Tsuchiya, find a series of beats to display both untouched natural intonation – each gate is placed in the middle of an abandoned tourist attraction, with the first amid a body of water around decaying ruins poster-worthy – and interpersonal connection. We may be quick to forget how fleeting encounters with random people can leave an impact. Shinkai bravely emphasizes the value in that idea, its heart growing more as the road less traveled builds in familiarity.
It won’t be a drastic secret, seeing what’s juggled about during Suzume. Even without it feeling like it was what it sets out to be, either a poetic countenance of life’s challenges, a tempestuous action-adventure, or a naturalistic road adventure. I couldn’t quite see the cohesion bonding these three paths, if there was any. Or if it was more of a loose amalgam, leaving Shinkai to better confront his emotional fire as events play out. For him to craft a coming-of-age tale that doubles as a time capsule to history, directly witnessing a change in national spirit, takes a fearless demeanor, and an eye for poignantly venting his own fears.
Suzume is Shinkai at not quite his finest, nor his most efficient in effectively portraying reality – he still has a way to go. But it’s for certain his most vulnerable, and his most authentic work from what I’ve encountered thus far. There may be a routine sameness lying with his efforts as a director, and that would hold him back if he weren’t so intent on differentiating his work at the same time. That overbalance on familiar patterns wins out here, shocking the system when it’s suddenly something outside the norm. Often, that’s exactly how great art, and better storytelling evolves to something special. Suzume still makes that look alluring, unique, at times provoking, and well worth revisiting. Just like a lasting memory, good or bad. (B-; 3.5/5)
Suzume opens in both subbed and dubbed versions April 14; rated PG for action-peril, language, thematic elements and smoking; 121 minutes.