The Plot: Teenager Suzume (Nanoka Hara) dearly misses her mother. Now living with her aunt, she’s still haunted by memories of the past. When she encounters college student Sota (Hokuto Matsumura), he piques her curiosity with his otherworldly talk of mystical ruins. When Suzume explores a ruin, she opens a door between worlds and accidently unleashes a malevolent force that only the gifted like her can see. It also has something to do with cat Daijin (Ann Yamane), who casts a spell on Sota and turns him into Suzume’s beloved three-legged chair. The duo go on a quest to restore Sota’s true form and close all the doors before disaster is unleashed…
The Verdict: There is something quite magical about Japanese animation. It often transcends cultural barriers and dismisses any cynical thoughts about animation being aimed squarely at children. Animation is a valid cinematic artform in itself, as evidenced by the consistently creative output of companies like Japan’s Studio Ghibli, America’s Pixar and Laika and our own Cartoon Saloon. Just ask writer-director Makoto Shinkai, who gifted the world with his previous anime films Your Name and Weathering With You. They were both critical and commercial successes and spoke with an authentic Japanese voice but with the accessibility of a live action film that just happened to be in animated form. His latest film Suzume continues that trend, pushing the boundaries of imagination while keeping it grounded in the real world. This dazzling wonder gets to the point where the animation becomes less an aspect of the film and more of an integral part of its storytelling ethos.
Shinkai’s story is structured around the life of an ordinary teenage girl caught up in an extraordinary adventure. She’s tasked with bridging the gap between two worlds as they threaten to collide with each other with disastrous results. The magical doorways she pursues in the film are a way into another world, but they’re also a way for a destructive force to simultaneously get out into her world. She is the equilibrium between the two and Shinkai is careful not to overburden his heroine with the fate of the world. Just the fate of a city, but that’s still significant storywise. He also subverts expectations by not playing into a predictable teenage romance early on, converting his male lead into a wobbly, talking chair with attitude. This makes for a lot of coy humour between Suzume and Sota, as they go off on their odd-couple pursuit of a smarmy but too-cute troublemaker of a cat (cuteness being a popular aspect of Japanese culture of course).
It makes for a consistently engaging story as tough decisions have to be made about doors, dimensions and averting disaster in the near future, peppered with just the right amount of lightness. All of this is wrapped up in a beautifully designed package across a satisfying running time. The animation moves across Japan’s countryside and cityscapes, above and below them and the other world in that thin frame holding the mystical doors. The animation doesn’t just tell the story in a visual sense. It’s deeply embedded in the story and vice versa, so that it almost resembles live action in some frames but also with the wild visual flair that live action might otherwise lack. Suzume is a gorgeous feast for the senses with a notable wow factor throughout. It cements Shinkai’s place in the firmament along with Hayao Miyazaki, whose Kiki’s Delivery Service is an influence here. It’s an ideal blend of the epic and the intimate which never loses sight of its heroine and her own emotional coming-of-age story. Magical indeed.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Epic & intimate
Directed by Makoto Shinkai.
Starring Nanoka Hara, Hokuto Matsumura, Eri Fukatsu, Koshiro Matsumoto, Ann Yamane.