‘Suzume’ Review: “A Beautiful Culmination of Shinkai’s Works”
Makoto Shinkai is a director whose filmography and eye for storytelling hailed him as the next Hayo Miyazaki, the acclaimed Studio Ghibli Director whose filmography stands tall as a prime example of thematically rich storytelling and beautifully detailed worlds and mythology. Usually, such comparisons to two directors’ bodies of work lead to derivative conversation. However, it’s hard to ignore the inspiration Shinkai clearly takes from the iconic works of Studio Ghibli while still being uniquely his own voice. Suzume is a clear example of such a delicate balance of homage while still having its own identity. The movie is also a huge step forward for the director to become the next prominent auteur in this underrespected medium.
Telling the story of a high school girl happening upon a mysterious man named looking for ruins, Shinkai sticks close to the formula that’s worked for him in his previous two films while making enough deviations in character work and scenic landscapes to make Suzume stand out. Going Beyond the Boy Meets Girl story, Suzume becomes firmly rooted in Japan’s tragic history with natural disasters. Specifically, the 3.11 disasters that struck the country are an underlying focus, grounding the fantastical world Shinkai created in the dark reality of Japan’s past. Whether through Your Name or Weathering With You, natural disasters have played a role in Shinkai’s recent filmography, especially with this latest work.
As a giant mythical worm makes its way through gateways found in abandoned locations all throughout Japan, Suzume and Souta, a closer cursed by a god meant to keep the worm form from escaping, must close all the gates and prevent disaster from spreading. The god, referred to as daijin in the film, is personified as a small and playful white cat. A cat that turns Souta into a chair from Suzume’s childhood. From that point on, Suzume resolves to help Souta return to human form, find the daijin, and stop the worm from causing more earthquakes across Japan. There’s also a familial element to Suzume, with the title character going through an awkward phase with her aunt and guardian, Tamaki.
Playing out as a road trip/romance film, Shinkai, more than ever, excels with his photorealistic backdrops thanks to the constantly changing scenery. However, it isn’t just in the film’s atmosphere that the director vies for realism. In mimicking real-life cinematography with his animation, Shinkai’s team gives Suzume a different feel compared to a Ghibli movie. The result of Suzume’s cross-country trip to prevent disaster is a melancholy tone that’s expected from the director but dialed to 11. A significant focus of Suzume/Souta’s quest to close doors of destruction involves acknowledging the past and the lives lived in the now abandoned areas of Japan, serving as a commentary on the rural depopulation of Japan.
Between the talking chairs, cats, and natural disaster metaphors, Suzume may sound like it has too much going on. However, the film always feels manageable with its lore. The relationship between Suzume and Souta is always the focus, with the imaginative world hidden underneath the landscapes of Japan only supporting its development. The Japanese and English dub casts both do a great job of bringing the characters to life; even the supporting characters get time to shine in their small moments. Whether it’s Souta’s classmate Serizawa playing a vital role towards the end of the film or Suzume’s aunt Tamaki providing much-needed emotional heft, the film has an outstanding balance of characters.
Of the two main characters, Souta receives the short end of the stick in terms of character development. We learn a lot of basic things about him, but when it comes time to learn more about the history of Closers in his family, its relegated to a short scene or two involving his grandpa. Moreover, the daijin at the center of all the trouble in the film feels superficial and rushed in its development. While the visual aspects of the lore and magic in this film are stunning, there isn’t much more explanation to them other than being a powerful metaphor.
On the other hand, Suzume is perhaps the most charming of Shinkai’s main characters yet. Her resolve and strength throughout the film make her rare, vulnerable moments much more powerful. The flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film tie her character to the tragic real world of Japan in ways that are incredibly emotionally powerful. She more than lives up to being the title character, and the teenage runaway aspect that was explored in Weathering With You is done differently with Suzume. Her runaway status focuses on the varying sorts of livelihoods and ordinary people in Japan rather than Suzume herself.
Then there is the soundtrack for the film, done by RADWIMPS in their third straight collaboration with Shinkai. The music doesn’t hit the emotional highs of Your Name, but that’s a high standard, and it still does its job to deliver some genuinely emotional poignant moments in the film. Even more impressive is how RADWIMPS has managed to make each of their soundtracks for these past three Shinkai films sound so distinct from one another. And the track titled after the film is undoubtedly the best song in the entire movie.
Overall, this film feels like a culmination of Shinkai’s work. After Your Name and Weathering With You, the director has taken the best aspects of those two films and brought them together for Suzume. Perhaps most refreshing is the change from the odd and selfish ending of Weathering With You, one of the most controversial aspects of that movie. Suzume opts for a more traditional conclusion to this type of story, and everything is neatly tied up at the cost of losing the melancholic and powerful ending Your Name has. However, what Suzume does better than both of those movies is establishing a magical and fantastical connection to Japan’s real-world struggles and triumphs. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Suzume is Now Playing in Theaters.
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