Review: Suzume

Suzume is the latest movie from acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai, and it would be unmistakable as one of his projects even if you didn’t know the director going into the movie. It has all of the hallmarks of a Shinkai project: stunning sunsets, fantastically detailed backgrounds, themes about making connections despite separations by time, space, and/or dimensions (and finding ways to cross those boundaries), melancholy longing which drives characters to action, and a special kind of easily-relatable, not-overly-schmaltzy sentiment that few other anime director have ever been able to deliver even half as effectively as Shinkai does. A complaint could be easily made that it feels too similar to his other recent works, but honestly, I don’t see that as a problem. Shinkai may not vary his formula much, but he has certainly mastered his particular style, and that shows beautifully in this film.

In this particular iteration, Suzume is a 16-year-old girl in Kyushu who gets caught up in a grand problem with interdimensional doors thanks to a chance encounter with a young man who’s preparing to become a teacher. . . while also, of course, fulfilling a long-standing family obligation to keep these mystical doors locked and sealed. Suzume’s unwitting encounter with one of those doors sets in motion a chain of events which could lead to earthquakes and widespread destruction if she and Souta (who soon gets turned into a three-legged kid’s chair!) cannot do something about it. But Suzume’s ability to interact with the doors and witness their effects (when most can’t) may have everything to do with an encounter with such a door during a great calamity she suffered through as a child, a calamity which, in many ways, defined both her life and her relationship with her aunt/adoptive mother. And certainly, going on a cross-country jaunt to deal with the doors (and a mysterious talking cat associated with them) without explaining anything puts a strain on that relationship, too, even as she’s clearly falling for Souta.

One of the more interesting and distinctive features of this particular project is the emphasis placed on abandoned places. This is a device that Shinkai has used before, but not to this degree, as the doors most commonly appear in places that have been abandoned. Whether this has particular meaning is unclear, though it does make a certain amount of supernatural sense that portals to a world for those who have passed on would be found in such places. It’s also entirely possible that Shinkai may have just gotten fascinated by the real-life abandoned facilities scattered across Japan and decided to highlight a few of them as a gimmick. The detail on these settings is just too phenomenal for them to not be based on real-life places. Coupled with this is the imagery of the remnants of catastrophe, both in real-life and in the otherworldly space. The effect of the Great Kanto Earthquake (whose 100th anniversary comes up later this year) is one, and the other, even though it is never specifically mentioned, is clearly the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011; sharp-eyed viewers might also catch a reference to the Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster associated with that event.

Another point of emphasis is the encounters that Suzume has along her journey, a device which which was also used heavily in immediately-previous project Weathering With You. By any reasonable analysis, the sojourn Suzume goes on is a dangerous one for a 16-year-old girl even without the supernatural element figured in, but as in Weathering, she meets and befriends a number of mostly good-natured people who help her along the way even if they don’t at all understand what she is actually doing and why. These are not complete charity cases, as Suzume does odd jobs and babysitting in some cases and is helped by someone who has his own reason for seeking out a missing Souta in another case. The strain Suzume puts on her aunt (whom she conspicuously refers to by name, rather than ever calling her mother) with these antics and her evasiveness about what she’s doing also gets dealt with. Suzume, by comparison, is a fairly standard Earnest Girl who unquestioningly follows her heart and instincts; as most girls her age are, she’s quite mature in some respects but spectacularly immature in others. However, even without there being much novel about her, she still makes for a fine heroine.

As we’ve come to expect from Shinkai films, the visuals are a thorough treat; this may even be his best-looking film to date. I have already elaborated on the sterling background detail work, but the animation effort is also quite sharp, character and critter designs are inviting without entirely being anime-typical, and special effects impress. A wonderful musical score also delivers throughout, helping to highlight a key late emotional point.

The movie is currently circulating in American theaters in both subbed and English dubbed forms; this review is based on the latter. This is the first significant anime dub for Nichole Sakura, who gives Suzume a somewhat deeper voice but still handles Suzume’s emotional aspects well. Josh Keaton (He is Thomas from Tiger & Bunny 2) also has limited anime credits but is a perfect fit as Souta, whether in human or chair form. Lesser roles are a mix of a few familiar anime voices with relative or complete newcomers, but nothing felt off the mark. In particular, voices that were supposed to be young kids sounded like genuine young kids.

After a slight downturn with Weathering With You, Shinkai is back to Your Name-level form with this one. Despite the familiarity of the story pattern and sentiment, this is still going to be one of the year’s top anime releases.

Overall Rating: A

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