Each of director Makoto Shinkai’s animated films has told powerful, moving stories about people trying to connect with one another both because and in spite of larger-than-life forces in the world that could easily tear them apart. Suzume, Shinkai’s newest feature produced by CoMix Wave Films and distributed internationally by Crunchyroll, is no exception. But unlike some of Shinkai’s other recent critically acclaimed projects like Your Name and Weathering With You, there’s a striking directness to the metaphors at work in Suzume that gives it an unexpectedly potent punch.
More road trip movie than the kind of romances Shinkai’s known for, Suzume tells the tale of how high schooler Suzume Iwato (Nanoka Hara originally, Nichole Sakura in Crunchyroll’s English dub) discovers the secret, mystical causes behind the earthquakes that plague Japan and becomes wrapped up in an epic race to save her country from an impending tectonic cataclysm.
As both a local and an orphan who seemingly lost her mother in a natural disaster, Suzume’s intimately familiar with the immediate devastation that earthquakes can cause and how they can be felt metaphorically reverberating through people’s lives long after the ground stops shaking. But as much time as Suzume spends thinking and dreaming about her past, most of the adults in her life — like her loving, slightly overbearing aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu, Jennifer Sun Bell) — have to keep their eyes focused on the future because it’s integral to their idea of productivity and happiness.
Most of Suzume’s peers simply don’t have or want to make the time to think about how landslides have led to massive portions of their town being made unlivable and left to crumble into ruins that people don’t really think about because they’re out of sight. But when Suzume crosses paths with a mysterious and devastatingly handsome out-of-towner named Sōta (Hokuto Matsumura, Josh Keaton) who asks her specifically about a nearby abandoned building, she can’t help but be intrigued and curious about what he’s up to. As tends to be the case in Shinkai’s films, a fledgling infatuation is part of what pulls Suzume’s leads into each other’s orbits. But what gets Suzume racing up a steep hill toward the ruins isn’t a desire to see Sōta; it’s a horrific vision she has of a massive worm-like creature made of smoke bursting into the sky — something that only she can see for some inexplicable reason.
Shinkai’s love for Hayao Miyazaki and his approach to fantastical adventure storytelling is palpable and visible all throughout Suzume. But narratively, it shines through most brightly in the way that Suzume’s chance encounter with Sōta brings her face-to-face with a door to another dimension — and a trickster cat deity called Daijin (Ann Yamane, Lena Josephine Marano) who’s more than happy to leave the door open and let the worm monster try to cross over into Japan.
In one of Suzume’s first shifts toward action that really speaks to how wondrously studio CoMix Wave Films is able to bring Shinkai’s ideas to life, there’s barely any time for Sōta to explain what the worm is or how he’s part of a long line of “closers” who’ve worked to keep its tendrils from crashing into the Earth and causing earthquakes. Suzume’s a quick enough student, though, and after she and Sōta manage to close the first portal, it isn’t long before she decides that she absolutely needs to accompany him on his journey to close more of them and make Daijin return to his post as a guardian keystone statue.
In the same way that it was easy to read Shinkai’s Weathering With You as a reflection of what it means to live in a world upended by extreme climate change, in Suzume, you can clearly see Shinkai grappling with the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011 that killed nearly 20,000 people, injured thousands more, and caused catastrophic damage across the country.
Though Suzume never feels fatalistic or at risk of becoming lost in the darkness of its metaphor, it also never lets you forget that each and every single instance of the worm bursting through a portal carries the risk of causing a calamity like the real-world 2011 quake. But one of the most powerful concepts woven throughout the film is how the key to keeping the darkness at bay isn’t preparedness or simply responding with magical force but, rather, holding space and having a deep reverence for the past and all it can teach us about the present.
There’s a certain degree of random and somewhat twee energy coursing through Suzume as it’s first laying out the series of events that leaves Sōta transformed into a walking, talking, child-size chair who needs Suzume’s help tracking Daijin across Japan’s various islands. But there’s a subtle brilliance to the way the movie uses the duo’s journey to illustrate different facets of its larger ideas about the past, memory, and growing up.
In Suzume, Shinkai’s signature use of oversaturated colors and playing with light to give natural settings an almost otherworldly splendor is in full force. Here, though, it works more to emphasize the beauty there is to be found in everyday, ordinary places and happenings when people slow down to appreciate them as the things that make life worth living. At times, it’s almost disorienting how seamlessly Suzume’s able to shift gears and become more of a coming-of-age story about a girl learning to make her way through the world both on her own and with the help of unexpectedly kind strangers. But instead of ever feeling like it’s veering off course, Suzume’s paced in such a way that makes its brief tangents into the lives of other characters feel like it’s taking the scenic route on the way to a truly moving finale.
Those showing up to Suzume hoping to see a completely new side to Shinkai might be somewhat disappointed because, in everything from its sun-drenched depictions of the Japanese countryside to its deeper metaphorical meanings, you can see how the movie’s the result of his doubling down on the things that light him up as a filmmaker. But that doubling down is also what makes Suzume feel like one of Shinkai’s strongest outings yet that’s almost certain to become even more of a classic with its wide release.
Suzume hits US theaters on April 14th.