'Your Name' and 'Weathering with You' filmmaker Makoto Shinkai is back with another gorgeous and heartfelt animated gem.
Sarah Ward
April 13, 2023


When the Godzilla franchise first started rampaging through Japanese cinemas almost 70 years ago, it was in response to World War II and the horrific display of nuclear might that it unleashed. That saga and its prehistoric reptilian monster have notched up 38 movies now, and long may it continue stomping out of its homeland (the American flicks, which are set to return in 2024, have been hit-and-miss). In such creature-feature company, the films of Makoto Shinkai may not seem like they belong. So far, the writer/director behind global hits Your Name and Weathering with You, plus The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimetres per SecondChildren Who Chase Lost Voices and The Garden of Words before that, sadly hasn't applied his talents to good ol' Zilly, either. But Japan's animators have been musing on and reflecting upon destruction and devastation for decades, too — stunningly and heartbreakingly so.

In Studio Ghibli's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Grave of the Fireflies and The Wind Rises — in Howl's Moving Castle, Porco Rosso and From Up on Poppy Hill as well — conflict lingers in a variety of ways. In 2016's gorgeous and affecting In this Corner of the World, war is utterly inescapable. And in Shinkai's recent work, it's another catastrophe that casts a shadow: the Great East Japan Earthquake and the resulting Fukushima nuclear disaster. He's made his past three movies, including his latest beautiful and heartfelt effort Suzume, with that incident clearly in mind. Indeed, although it hops all over Japan, acting like a travelogue in magnificently realistic animated form, this new tale about a teenage girl, matters of the heart and the earth, supernatural forces and endeavouring to cancel the apocalypse firmly has its soul in the part of Honshu that forever changed in March 2011.

Suzume meets its namesake (Nanoka Hara, Guilty Flag) on Kyushu, Japan's third-largest island, where she has lived with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu, Survival Family) for 12 years. More than that, it meets its titular high schooler as she meets Souta (SixTONES singer Hokuto Matsumura), who catches her eye against the gleaming sea and sky as she's cycling to class. He's searching for ruins, and she knows just the local place — an abandoned onsen, which she beats him to. There, Suzume discovers a door standing mysteriously within a pool of water, then opens said entryway to see a shimmering sight on the other side. That's an ordinary act with extraordinary consequences, because Shinkai adores exactly that blend and clash. To him, that's where magic springs, although never while spiriting away life's troubles and sorrows. Every single door everywhere is a portal, of course, but this pivotal one takes the definition literally.

Suzume can't walk through the opening; instead, she's left peering at the enticing evening-hued realm lurking within its frame. That said, she does unwittingly unleash a monster that Souta and his family have spent generations trying to contain. The worm lives up to its moniker, sprawling high into and across the sky, and sending its red tendrils far and wide. As his grandfather was, plus a long line of other relatives before that, Souta is a closer, which means he's tasked with shutting the doors that pop up at Japan's abandoned places — including a school and an amusement park — to keep the worm away and humanity safe. Sometimes, he needs a keystone to do so; however, the one in Suzume's hometown turns into a cat when she picks it up. Also transforming, but not by choice: Souta himself, who swiftly takes the form of a three-legged yellow chair that his new pal has owned and loved since she was a pre-schooler.

What's a girl, a walking-and-talking seat and a tiny white kitty — Daijin, aka that metamorphosed keystone, which can also speak (as voiced by newcomer Ann Yamane) — to do? The latter cutely but quickly scampers, unsurprisingly attracting ample social-media attention, while Suzume and Souta follow as fast as they can. Most road trips don't involve attempting to save the planet, but Suzume's is as scenic as any cross-country jaunt by ferry, scooter, van, train and car thanks to one of Shinkai's ever-reliable hallmarks: his breathtaking visuals. Whether or not any member of the film's audience has been to Japan themselves, watching this spectacular affair feels like stepping right into Miyazaki, Shikoku, Kobe, Tokyo and more. Once again, as he did with Your Name and Weathering with You as well, Shinkai brings the Japanese capital to the screen with detail so gloriously lifelike that it makes for simply exquisite animation. That gift is shared with everywhere that Suzume, Souta and Daijin visit, mesmerisingly so.

It's both a fitting and knowing touch to get Suzume's heroine residing in the city that shares its name with Studio Ghibli great Hayao Miyazaki. By the watching world, Shinkai has been anointed the Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro filmmaker's successor frequently since Your Name proved such a delight and smash — and so stirring, melancholy and dazzling — and, while thoroughly earning those comparisons yet another time, he leans in. Whisper of the Heart, which is similarly about a teen chasing a cat, gets a direct (and lovely) shoutout. Nods to Kiki's Delivery Service also ripple, again thanks to the crucial adorable feline. As its characters tumble through episodic adventures sparked by that fateful first door, Suzume adds references elsewhere, starting with Alice in Wonderland. It's easy to see the thematic trilogy it's happily forming with Shinkai's last two movies, too. There's a mythic air and a determination to make something meaningful and with a message that's oh-so Ghibli always, though; like the animation house, Shinkai crafts films as devoted to getting viewers marvelling at the planet, life on it and the relationships forged as they are committed to entrancing the eyes with their radiant sights.

Already the fourth-grossing Japanese film of all time globally — Your Name is third, and Weathering with You ninth — Suzume is vivid in every moment. Aided by its music from Shinkai regulars Radwimps and composer Kazuma Jinnouchi (Star Wars: Visions), it's rousing in all the fashions that a feature can be, in fact. Its guiding light makes cosmic romances, fantastical voyages and supernatural disaster flicks as well, plus contemplations of growing up and taking care of nature, and ensures that they swell and swirl with all the emotions that they demand. In a national cinema industry so well-known for confronting the country's past that it turned part of it into a giant stalking lizard, Shinkai keeps finding bewitching and sensitive methods to achieve that feat, and wonderfully. Here, as Suzume battles her own hulking force, she faces life-changing heartache that no one can ever truly get over, still learns how to go on but never lets her history slip away. It's no surprise that Suzume is as sweet and swoonworthy as Shinkai's work comes, and as earnest, intricate, intelligent, involving and enchanting.


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