Review: Suzume

The animation is stunning, the voice acting flawless, and the soundtrack expansive, but what makes writer-director Makoto Shinkai’s latest film Suzume so very brilliant is the way it plays the heartstrings: this film will have you tearing up over an item of furniture and almost—almost—disliking a cat. In short, Suzume is set not only to break global box office records, but the Internet itself—all while tackling such weighty topics as rural depopulation, childhood grief, and the loneliness that comes with the atomization of modern life.  

Suzume is the work of a storyteller in his prime. It builds on the core of fantasy-tinged romance Shinkai is so well-known for (Your Name, Weathering With You), but unleashes a whole new level of imaginativeness, pressing into the supernatural and dialing up the peril to create 120 minutes of gripping action adventure, peppered with hints of horror and wrapped up in a coming-of-age road trip. These varying genres blend together well in the tale of high school girl, Suzume, and college student, Souta, who team up to save Japan from a destructive force that lies deep beneath the earth—and the troublesome feline, Daijin, who seems bent on unleashing it.

Daijin is Best Boy. There, I said it.

Suzume and Souta’s pursuit of Daijin is facilitated by social media’s love for cute cats (which Daijin seems very aware of and all too ready to exploit, the cheeky floof!) and takes them across most of Japan. This is not the Japan that might be familiar to viewers from other films, however; it is instead the Japan of lost places, sites that are falling into ruin through abandonment and neglect. Time and again, Daijin’s antics lead the two young people to locales emptied of life—not the ancient ruins of former days, but the towns, villages and resorts that only a decade before were abuzz with people, now chased away by natural disasters or drawn away by the allure of the city. It is the decaying mountain onsen town, echoing with the whispered plans of regular visitors who will never come again, the middle school that was not worth repairing after a mudslide took out the gym, the amusement park that could not keep up with the demand for higher, faster rides and wilder thrills.

It is also the Japan that is losing in the scramble of modern life, where days are difficult and people work hard only to fail to make ends meet. It is the entertainment district of Kobe, where a single mother plies izakaya guests with drink and keeps the mood bright through karaoke duets with drunken patrons, living off their tips, and the farms where even a bountiful harvest needs supplementing with a side business to support a family. There is a beauty to this Japan that has nothing to do with graceful traditional arts or grandiose modernism and everything to do with the people who—whether now or in the past—have made it home.

It is this connection between place and people that sets Suzume apart from other anime and manga that take environmentalism and natural disasters as key themes, such as films by Studio Ghibli, from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo. Like many such works, Shinkai’s film is a modern retelling of the folk tale of Namazu and the great deity that sleeps beneath the islands of Japan, and is prone to shaking them when awakened from slumber. But what distinguishes Suzume is the explanation it offers as to what it is exactly that disturbs the dormant deity and how the protagonists are meant to quell its earth-quaking malcontent. Rather than painting humanity as the culprits, exploiting and destroying the natural world, Shinkai’s film depicts a more nuanced symbiosis between human and natural life, where a loss of inhabitants sets the natural world adrift in despair, unleashing a loneliness so profound that it awakens the sleeping god of disruption beneath. It is the emotions of its people that tether a place to the world, providing it with the comforting anchor of a weighted blanket, so when these emotions disappear, the land is orphaned. (Much like the protagonists.) It is up to Suzume and Souta—and perhaps viewers too—to assure it otherwise. It’s a moving metaphor and one that rehumanizes a vital agenda that can at times tend toward villainizing humanity.

It is with this same eye for complexity that Suzume approaches its exploration of relationships and family dynamics. Not all the relationships, granted, for although the thread of romance weaves throughout the film, it does not have the same room to breathe and grow as in other works by Shinkai. Instead, Suzume broadens its gaze to take in the full gamut of relationships at play in a life on the cusp of adulthood, making this a rich coming-of-age story. Just as Suzume sets out to encounter a Japan she has not yet known, so too does she take those first frightening steps in navigating her painful childhood memories and the frangible relationship she shares with the aunt who raised her, Tamaki.

While Suzume may be most excited by her growing affection for the handsome Souta, it is her relationship with her aunt that beats a constant, if at times muffled, rhythm throughout the story, as much through Tamaki’s absences and the things that go unsaid between the two, as in their scenes together. Suzume and her aunt dance around one another on tiptoe, and have done so since tragedy brought them together a dozen years earlier, never quite saying what they mean, speaking only in ways that either burden one another or leave no impression at all as they fail to connect. Yet there is a deep love there. In this sense, their relationship parallels that of the abandoned places and their lost inhabitants—or at least it is on that same path, unless Suzume and Tamaki can face together the lonelinesses that they remind one another of. In many ways, it is this relationship rather than the romance that provides the emotional anchor of the film.

Despite its profound themes, Suzume is also a very funny film, full of lightheartedness! It incorporates what is one of the most outlandish fantasy elements I have seen in anime—which is saying a lot—while yet presenting the twist so seamlessly that it comes across as perfectly believable. This is accomplished in no small measure through the dynamic character animation, excellent voice acting (I can speak here of the Japanese cast), and most of all, the clever use of humor and whimsy, particularly in the ten or so minutes immediately after that key moment, which lulls the viewer into a delighted suspension of disbelief. This is certainly Shinkai’s funniest screenplay to date, making this a truly heartwarming film.

The last word must go to the soundtrack, which sees Shinkai reunited with Japanese rock band RADWIMPS, who also scored Your Name and Weathering With You, and new collaborations with composer Kazuma Jinnouchi and vocalist Toaka, as well as Abbey Road Studios in London, a full orchestra, and the Prague Chorus, which together lend this score a truly epic sound. If you have seen the trailer for Suzume, then you have probably already fallen in love with Suzume’s theme, but this is only a teaser for what the full score has on offer! This is a soundtrack that does justice to what is the most captivating work yet from an accomplished auteur.

Suzume is being distributed by Crunchyroll and opens in theaters across the US and Europe on Friday, 14 April.

3 thoughts on “Review: Suzume

  1. I’m planning to watch Suzume this Firday, and I have high hopes for it. I’m a big fan of Makoto Shinkai’s films, and based on this review, it seems like this latest work captures the same emotional depth and stunning visuals that I’ve come to love in his previous movies.

    1. Ooo, ENJOY! Personally, it’s my favourite of his for many reasons, but let’s just say it’s incredibly rich both visually and emotionally! Hope it speaks to you!

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