Review: ‘Suzume’ is a thrilling, endearing, and at times dark ode to Japan
Makoto Shinkai clearly has a specialty — the “Your Name” and “Weathering With You” director is often said to make the same movie over and over again. It’s true that the three most recent entries in his filmography have all been fantastical, coming-of-age melodramas centered around some sort of ecological disaster, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Audiences know what they’re getting with a Shinkai film: gorgeously-rendered anime vistas, strong female leads and an emotionally-charged storyline guaranteed to make viewers feel something. While it doesn’t reach the poignancy of “Your Name,” Shinkai’s newest film “Suzume” is one of the highlights in his œuvre.
Suzume is a classic Shinkai heroine, and the story follows her as she travels across Japan to close doors that release calamities into her world when left open. An intelligent and determined highschooler with a tragic backstory, she’s a likable protagonist that easily draws viewers into her story. The mysterious Souta is her companion throughout the film, but they are unfortunately under-developed as a character. The film’s action begins quickly, with many main plot points happening in the first 15 minutes, and hardly ever lets up on its pacing. While the film reserves some moments to illustrate Suzume’s growth, characters like Souta are left behind. Since Shinkai doesn’t spend nearly enough time developing Souta, Suzume’s affection for him feels forced, and even the few cute and whimsical moments between them weren’t enough to justify the incredible love Suzume feels for him. Still, Suzume and her adventures are endearing enough to keep audiences invested throughout.
It’s no accident that disasters feature heavily in Suzume’s adventures. Shinkai has spoken extensively in interviews about how the 2011 Great Sendai earthquake and tsunami that led to around 20,000 deaths was a turning point in his life. From that point onwards he wanted to make films that grappled with the human effects of ecological disasters. Even more than with his two previous films, “Suzume” sees Shinkai dive deep into the destructive power of nature. The film makes reference to real-life catastrophes that have occurred in Japan’s history, including the Great Sendai earthquake and resulting Fukushima nuclear disaster. Shinkai’s inclusion of real Japanese catastrophes illustrates that he's more tapped into shared national trauma than before.
But his focus on Japan in this film isn't all about pain. More than any other Shinkai flick, “Suzume” functions as his ode to his country. To prevent Japan’s destruction, Suzume must travel across its islands to close each door that threatens to allow more disasters to ravage the country. Viewers follow Suzume from her home in Kyushu to the island of Shikoku, on to an awe-inspiring realization of downtown Tokyo and finally, to the Tohoku region in north Honshu. Shinkai recreates these real-world locations with incredible detail, weaving together 3D and hand-drawn animation to stunning effect. Like with any Shinkai film, the breathtaking visuals aren’t just style for the sake of it — they add power to the story’s emotional resonance.
For the most part, “Suzume” is a winning film. While its rapid pacing and thin characterizations will likely keep audiences from having the level of emotional response Shinkai intends for them to feel, most people will still leave the theater with a smile on their face. If you’re not a fan of Shinkai’s penchant for somewhat convoluted plots and melodramatic emotional beats, “Suzume” isn’t for you, but if you can get past that, this film is a cute and thrilling adventure story that takes audiences on a memorable journey across Japan.
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