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Well, this is the 300th review I have written, so I decided to journey back to one of the animation world’s brightest stars, Makoto Shinkai. I’ve infamously been one of the more critical voices talking about Your Name when it was one of the most important animated films and films in general from 2016. Shinkai became a household name once that film connected with audiences even though he has been known and made films before that one. However, recently, I have been rethinking my thoughts about Your Name, and how I connect with it more than back then. Not that I still don’t have my own subjective viewpoints about the twist or some of the storytelling elements, but it did make me go out and buy the blu-ray of it and made me think more about why I like this director despite my more mixed thoughts on his filmography. Outside of his amazing visual presentation that is in all of his films, he tackles themes like romance, distance, relationships, feeling alone, and he captures a feeling of something that can be described as an emotional vibe. Sure, some of his film’s logic and storytelling may not be perfect, but if you can connect with the vibe of his films, then you may have a better time engrossing yourself into the worlds he crafts. Even if he isn’t my favorite Japanese director, like Naoko Yamada, Masaaki Yuasa, or Mamoru Hosoda, I still look forward to his films every time they get announced. With how much of a dry spell 2023 has been for animation so far, until we get flooded with them in June, seeing a film like Suzume makes you feel alive and love the animation experience all over again.
Directed and written by Makoto Shinkai, we follow a teenager named Suzume Iwato, dubbed by Nicole Sakura. One day, as she is going to school, she encounters a young man named Sota Munakata, dubbed by Josh Keaton who is looking for some ruins that are around her hometown. A bit of the ol’ case of curiosity intrigues her, and she finds the ruins of the Onsen Resort herself. Upon opening a magical door standing in front of a ruined building, she ends up literally opening up a major can of worms in the form of a large magic worm-like entity that sprouts from the door that only she can see. As it turns out, the mysterious young man, Sota, can see it too, and when she leaves and returns to said ruins from where the giant worm thing is sprouting, she encounters him and helps him seal the door away. After tending to his wounds back at her place, she encounters a cat-like individual named or, well, nicknamed Daijin later in the film, dubbed by Lena Josephine Marano. She realizes that this cat was from the first encounter in the ruins, and before she or Sota can do anything, Sota is then turned into a chair! Yeah, the film doesn’t take any time to show off how fantastical this film is going to be. It then becomes a race for Sota and Suzume to travel across Japan to chase after Daijin to seal the doors so the entity doesn’t cause any major disasters and maybe return Sota to a human.
Some of the reviews have pointed out that Suzume, as the newest film from Makoto Shinkai, is very different from his usual affair with what he likes to tackle in his films. You tend to get a lot about young love, distance in a metaphorical/literal sense, connection, and plenty of visually breathtaking skyscapes. This film definitely feels like one of the few times he went out of his way to avoid using his recurring story beats. Even though it could have been easy to do, this isn’t really a romance. Sure, Suzume somewhat falls for our male lead-turned-chair, but it’s very one-sided. The story is mostly about Suzume finding the strength to feel complete again after her life has felt broken and incomplete, which can be visually seen in the chair that her mother made for her. It’s all about forging the strong connections we make in life, whether it is with family members or with the people you meet along the way.
Even though much of this film’s runtime is the obviously high-stakes race across Japan to seal the doors, it is also about Suzume making connections with the random people she encounters through the journey. The other chunk of this film is also Shinkai taking a creative approach to deal with the trauma and pain brought onto Japan via the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The worm-like entity is such a creative way to portray cataclysmic events. Other themes include fate/destiny that both of our leads go through, and Suzume coming full circle to terms with the loss she has been handed in life. It might be Shinkai’s most intimate film that while having grand-scale sequences seen throughout, lets our characters be more of the focus. Since it begins with the whimsical and fantastical stuff from scene one, you aren’t having to deal with the whiplash of something like Your Name or the third act of Weathering With You. Even though most people think of Miyazaki and Takahata as directors who focus on characters, Shinkai has a real charm and appeal with how he writes his character dynamics, as everyone works so well off of one another and doesn’t feel like overly archetypical anime characters for the majority of the runtime. Just because it’s an animated film doesn’t mean it can’t have grounded characters. The director even held back on going full-tilt anime in terms of the humor and expressions, which would have been distracting when the characters are already so full of life. Not that having hyper-expressive characters and wacky anime-style humor doesn’t work, since it’s still thrown into the film from time to time, but it all comes down to the execution of what kind of tone and story you are trying to create.
It should be no shock to anyone that CoMix Wave Films and the other talented teams of animators that brought this film to life always put in some incredible work. The mix of CGI backgrounds, buildings, and vehicles blend extremely well into the 2D elements, Shinkai’s typical design philosophy is as recognizable as ever, especially with how every female lead now has that red string of fate motif that was from Your Name, and the character designs pop. However, the animation on the chair is incredible. Even with its limited moveset, you can absolutely tell how much personality was shoved into its movements. Even when he made Voices of a Distant Star, Shinkai has had this magic touch of making the world around you feel ethereal and vast. The constant wide shots of the landscapes and sky views really make the viewer look small. The world and universe around our leads look vast, and in context make them look so small compared to everything else in the universe. Due to how the film is executed, it makes one feel like the most important part of your life and so on and so forth. The voice cast is also very good. It’s one of the first times Crunchyroll has used a mix of character actors and the usual voice actors that you see in anime titles. Granted, it’s a Makoto Shinkai film, so they were going to get some slightly bigger names, but you expect that from distributors like ElevenArts and GKIDS, so it’s a little surprising to see Crunchyroll do it as well. Still, it’s very cool to see a successful animated film from overseas using a mix of actors. Nichole Sakura, Josh Keaton, Jennifer Sun Bell, Roger Craig Smith, Amanda C. Miller, Rosalie Chiang, Allegra Clark, Cam Clarke, Joe Ziegla, Lena Josephine Marano, and Mela Lee. They do good job with their respective roles and bring a lot of fantastic performances to one of the best films of 2023. This being a Shinkai film, he teamed up with the band RADWIMPS and Kazma Jinnouchi which offer another ethereal and delightful score that brings a whimsy that is a refreshing take from most film soundtracks these days.
Honestly, even with all is said and done, Suzume is my new favorite Makoto Shinkai film experience. Seeing it on the big screen helped, but even on the smaller screen, this film feels the most focused on relationship dynamics between characters as they journey through the challenging world of relationships and find connections with those close to them. It helps that he has indeed moved away from what he has done in the past, and in interviews said he is done with making certain types of films that people love from him in order to branch out and craft new and exciting tales. It’s what’s fun when you journey through a director’s filmography to see how they change and grow as time goes on, from their own art style to what kind of stories they like to tell. It’s why animation is such a fun medium of storytelling. You can do anything with animation, and the only limits you have are the ones you put on yourself. If you can find a way to watch this movie, please do. If you want to see original 2D animated features on the big theatrical screens you all ride and die for, then you need to see them if they are in your area. Don’t go see the sequels, remakes, and whatever that you think flood every single screen. Actions speak louder than words, and your actions in supporting films like Suzume speak louder than complaining about it on Twitter. Now then, thank you all for 300 reviews, and I’m going to take a small break from reviewing films, (well, unless I get a screener of course), to work on some editorials, but I will see you all in June!