‘Suzume’ Review: Makoto Shinkai’s Highly-anticipated Follow-up Is a Beautifully Animated, Fantastical Coming-of-Age Adventure

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The last two animated features saw Makoto Shinkai gamely explore the respective body-swap subgenre and climate change in ‘Your Name’ and ‘Weathering with You’ with varying degrees of success. The former particularly sets the high bar that successfully combines time travel, fate, teen romance, and picturesque backdrops of rural areas and cityscapes. This result remains Shinkai’s finest hour to date. His much-anticipated follow-up – ‘Suzume’ — since ‘Weathering with You’ in 2019 became a big hit at the Japanese box office last year, accumulating over 14 billion yen ($100+ million) so far and still counting. It has since begun a widespread rollout in several countries this year, and I’ve been anticipating the arrival of Shinkai’s latest animated feature.

The story, as always, boasts a fascinating concept: ‘Suzume’ follows the titular character (voiced by Nanoka Hara), a high-school teenager who lives with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) in Kyushu after her mother died when she was just a child. One day while Suzume is cycling to school, she encounters a mysterious and handsome young man named Souta Munakata (Hokuto Matsumura), who asks her if any ruins are available in the area. Apparently, Souta is looking for a door.

Not just any door but a mystical door-like portal that leads to an alternate world called the Ever-After. His task is to lock the doors (yes, they are more than one) to prevent the Worm, a malevolent force capable of wreaking havoc if it successfully crosses over to the living world.

Well, as expected with this kind of story, things do not go as planned after Suzume unwittingly causes the Worm to escape and triggers an earthquake. Suzume soon joins forces with Souta to stop the disaster at all costs by locating the rest of the door-like portals and stopping more Worms from destroying Japan.

Likewise, Shinkai never ceases to amaze me when it comes to painstakingly recreating some of the real-life locations in Japan in a gorgeous mix of hand-drawn and 3D animation styles. For instance, he successfully captured the rural charm of the quiet Kyushu town, which can be seen during the earlier parts of the movie.

Shinkai incorporates the road-movie genre since the majority of ‘Suzume’ revolved around the titular protagonist traveling from one place to another, allowing the director to give us more breathtaking vistas of different parts of the Japanese locations ranging from Kyushu to the island of Shikoku, downtown Tokyo and the northern prefecture of the Tohoku region. It sure feels like he’s taking us on a journey, and what a sight to behold from start to finish.

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Beneath all the beautiful scenery, Shinkai references real-life catastrophes that rocked Japan in the past, including the devastating 3/11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. But it’s not all doom and gloom in ‘Suzume’ as Shinkai balances the evocative nature of the aforementioned disaster with some of the lighthearted moments, notably the often-hilarious and awkward relationship between the titular protagonist and Souta, who is gradually cursed by the mischievous talking Daijin cat and caused his soul trapped inside Suzume’s tiny three-legged wooden chair. It’s bizarre, but the idea of witnessing a little wooden chair that can talk and move adds a unique yet wonderful sense of whimsy.

The fantastical elements of the magical door portals, the earthquake-causing Worms, and the morphing keystone into a Daijin cat are conceptually interesting. Still, Shinkai somehow depicts them in a superficial manner possible. It was as if he used them merely as a MacGuffin to drive the story forward. The introduction of Souta, the mysterious drifter who later reveals himself as a ‘Closer,’ is barely given a substantial backstory other than we know him as someone who holds great responsibility of locating and locking the door portals with his key.

Suzume and Souta’s quest to locate every door portal possible throughout the movie tends to be repetitive. Sometimes, I feel how I wish Shinkai would spend more time delving deeper into mythology. In the meantime, action sequences between Suzume and Souta battling against the huge smoke-like supernatural entity of Worm are thrillingly staged with an extra boost from Kazumi Jinnouchi and Radwimps’ ominous score. The part where the battle takes place in the sky overlooking the Tokyo cityscape is easily the highlight here.

Still, it’s hard not to get emotionally invested in Suzume’s incredible journey between righting the wrong and overcoming the traumatic past of her mother’s death. Shinkai also does a better job handling Suzume’s coming-of-age story as we see how she grows throughout the journey, meeting different people, from a kind-hearted girl riding a bicycle transporting crates of fruits to a karaoke hostess with two hyperactive kids. Her delightful and offbeat chemistry with Souta is one of the main reasons that made ‘Suzume’ a crowd-pleasing entertainment.

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‘Suzume’ is hardly Shinkai’s best work, but despite its shortcomings, the movie remains a cinematic treat of visually arresting animation, spectacular landscapes, and a likable protagonist.

SCORE: 6.5/10

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