Japan is once again on the brink of picturesque collapse in the latest film from anime director Shinkai Makoto. Natural disasters, of course, have long provided a vital narrative catalyst in Japanese cinema, at least since the end of World War II. From giant monsters in Godzilla to alien invasions in Neon Genesis Evangelion to vampire gangsters in Yakuza Apocalypse, something is always threatening to destroy the island nation, usually either from above (where bombs come from) or below (where earthquakes and their resultant tsunamis start). All the Japanese have with which to defend themselves is the strength of their traditions (as in Shinkai’s Your Name.), the bonds of love and friendship between young people (his Weathering With You), or in the case of Suzume, both.
Suzume is a 16-year-old high school student who, during her ride to school one morning, sees a beautiful young man who asks directions to the local ruins. The man is searching for a door; Suzume follows him, and inadvertently opens a gate to another world housing a malevolent spirit that, when it escapes, causes massive earthquakes. The young man, Sōta, is a Closer: the latest in a long family line of humans who, when needed, travel around Japan channeling the communal feelings of the dead to close the doors to this Other World. Suzume’s bumbling also accidentally frees a cat that had been locking the spirit down and ends up turning Sōta into a chair. Suzume and Sōta the Chair then take off after the cat on a long road trip across the length of Japan, meeting a helpful array of people and averting disasters by closing doors along the way.
All of this is pretty typical anime material of course. What distinguishes Shinkai’s work is his visual sense, or more specifically the prettiness of his images. Blending hand-drawn and computer animation, Shinkai’s films are filled with gorgeously rendered landscapes and sunsets and night skies, though the flow of his action remains fairly typical. At best, Shinkai is something like the Zhang Yimou of anime, though detractors might counter that he’s actually the genre’s Thomas Kinkade. His best films — namely, the short features 5 Centimeters With You and The Garden of Words — meld his impeccable images with overwrought melodrama that leans into the bright sentimentality of his imagery, creating something truly unique. His most recent features more readily resemble recognizable anime story forms, blending coming-of-age narratives with apocalyptic events. This has had the effect of making his films less distinctive, but much more popular.
Even as Shinkai gives into the demand for wild chases and flowing wraiths of smoke and energy, though, the filmmaker still finds time for quiet moments. Suzume, as much as it has a conventional story, takes its time getting to its climax, wandering off on little detours that explore the lives of the regular people Suzume and Sōta meet on their quest. A single mom running a bar, a high school girl working at her family’s restaurant, a wannabe teacher who smokes cigarettes and drives a convertible that’s always on the brink of falling apart. Shinkai has cited Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky as one of his favorite films, and that makes so much sense. It, too, is a formulaic movie about a young girl saving the world (or Japan, they’re much the same thing). But like all of Shinkai’s works, the most distinctive scene is a quiet interlude near the end, where the hero discovers a beautiful garden and just… rests there for a while. At his best, Shinkai builds whole movies out of unnecessary scenes like that. Suzume, merging both its coming-of-age and apocalypse tropes with those of the road movie, finds a number of ways to deliver moments of respite from the relentlessly forward momentum of its narrative. And all are frankly far more satisfying than the anguished, yet healing, personal revelations, or the blatant topical connection to the 311 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami represented by the movie’s inevitable climax.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.