Move over Miyazaki, there’s a new Japanese anime master in town!
Hyperbolic of a proclamation as this is, director Makato Shinkai has made a big name for himself with international audiences over the last seven years. Though Shinkai has been making movies since the early 2000s, it is undeniable that his 2016 feature Your Name took the world by storm and put him on the map. Its combination of time travel, sweet romance, and a catchy soundtrack from RADWIMPS made it an instant hit and stirred hearts. The follow-up Weathering with You was not quite as good but still great, and now Suzume, which hit American theaters this past weekend, continues the run.
Suzume nearly matches Your Name, and one can’t help but notice familiar elements at play between the two. Suzume also revolves around a boy and girl pair, one from the big city of Tokyo and the other from a small town, and involves the machinations of time, natural disasters, and adolescent emotions as characters experience revelations about themselves and the world. It’s easy to forgive this familiarity as Shinkai blends these elements differently and captures your heart in big ways.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake is an underlying part of the narrative. Grappling with the profound sense of loss that Japan felt in the wake of the disaster, much of Suzume is about struggling onwards in the face of tragedy. Despite the melancholy of a dark world, Suzume posits that our connections to those around us can help us process grief and find a way to a bright new day. These connections can be friendships, familial relationships, or of course romantic ones.
Suzume differentiates itself on the romance side by barely hinting at it throughout the film. Unlike Your Name and its pure focus on the characters falling in love by engaging in an ultimate act of empathy, Suzume only has small amounts of flirtation between its main characters Suzume and Sota. The primary focus of the film is their mission to journey across Japan and seal keyholes to prevent further disasters (did someone say Kingdom Hearts?). Their relationship only develops insofar as both characters interact with this overall mission. It’s a different way of conveying romance that really pays off in the end, allowing the audience to build this dramatic tension and then finally release it.
The film isn’t without its flaws. There are some goofy plot choices, specifically involving the way information is conveyed to “keystones,” which are divine beings made flesh. They feel sloppily written and mostly serve as plot devices. There is a subplot of one keystone trying to form a connection with Suzume, but it’s underwritten and resolves in a weird, unclear way. There is also a bit involving Sota’s grandfather that is likewise left unresolved. And while perhaps not a fair knock, it is disappointing to have RADWIMPS involved again but to get no real songs until the end credits. The excellent use of “Nandemonaiya” and “Sparkle” in Your Name. made for some excellent scenes in that film that feel missing here.
These are ultimately minor flaws. Suzume is on the whole another excellent entry into Shinkai’s canon. He has captured an international audience with his ability to write profoundly human stories inside fantasy/sci-fi worlds, using gorgeous animation. His intense photorealistic approach helps ground these movies in reality, even when they feature giant red worm monsters and characters leaping around like shonen heroes. Shinkai is a skilled enough writer of characters that even when one of the leads is stuck inside a chair, you still form that connection with him. With the bright optimism of Suzume, despite its weighty material, Shinkai has again proven himself a shining star of anime filmmaking.