‘Suzume’ Review: Makoto Shinkai Has Crafted Your Next Anime Obsession
This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival.
Thanks to films such as Your Name and Weathering with You, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding anything filmmaker Makoto Shinkai presents to the world. Therefore, it’s fair that expectations were over the moon for Suzume, Shinkai’s latest anime feature. Fortunately, Shinkai has struck gold again with yet another crowd-pleaser story that perfectly blends supernatural threats with a deep appreciation of everyday human relationships. While it doesn’t boast the same emotional impact as Shinkai’s previous films, it still has all the elements to become the next anime sensation across the world.
Suzume follows the titular character (voiced by Nanoka Hara), a typical Japanese high schooler whose life is uprooted once she crosses paths with the handsome and mysterious Souta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura). Souta comes from a long lineage of Closers, people responsible for finding mystical doors to another dimension from where an evil force known as the Worm is trying to escape. Souta’s duty is to prevent the Worm from ever coming to the living world as even a fragment of the monstrous force is capable of causing earthquakes that put thousands of lives at risk. When Suzume inadvertently sets an apocalyptic event in motion, she must then join forces with Souta to contain the Worm so it doesn’t destroy Japan.
For most of its runtime, Suzume works like a road trip story as Suzume and Souta journey through Japan finding Doom Doors and getting closer to stopping the Worm. Of course, there are some key fantasy elements we don’t want to spoil, but Suzume still finds time to let the protagonist meet new people along the way with whom she forges connections. Not coincidentally, the main mystical weapon used to fight the Worm are the happy memories of people long past. So, while tapping into these powers to fight against the Worm or spending the night over at a stranger’s home, Suzume is learning that only by seizing the day and helping each other can humanity survive against calamity. Sure, some of these encounters are cursed by cringey dialogue, but Suzume still gets points for diving into the mundane and making it essential for its supernatural plot. Fantasy only has meaning when it helps us to understand the world around us, and Suzume perfectly ties up both elements in an exciting story.
Things are not so smooth when it comes to animation. While Shinkai is known for the beautiful way light effects and CGI are used to bring his animated worlds to life, Suzume uses 3D animation to mixed results. When used to support 2D animation, CGI can be a formidable tool. However, when full 3D elements are waved around the screen, it becomes clear that no computer can create the same wonders as traditional 2D Japanese animation. As a result, some key objects and characters stick out like a sore thumb, drastically diminishing the aesthetic impact Suzume could have had.
We also have to talk about the third act weirdness when the narrative structure of Suzume is unexpectedly subverted. While the changes Shinkai introduced in the script help keep Suzume fresh, a necessity considering the feature is two hours long, it also invites confusion when it comes to the rules of this fantasy setting. When the credits roll, there’s still much we don’t know about how the fantastic universe of Suzume works. While there’s nothing wrong in leaving some gaps for the audience to fill in for themselves, many of the secrets Suzume keeps to itself cut down on the movie’s emotional payoff. As such, the ending will be the most divisive aspect of Shinkai’s latest feature. While this conclusion doesn’t rob Suzume of its overall charm, it gets in the way of the movie becoming a storytelling masterpiece.
Despite its flaws, Suzume remains a great addition to Shinkai’s growing list of cinematic successes. For two hours, the movie balances human encounters and thrilling combat for the fate of Japan. All the while, Shinkai uses magnificent landscapes as the background of a story about love, trauma, and finding out who you are. There’s much to love about Suzume, and more than enough for us to be excited about whatever the filmmaker comes up with next.
Suzume is in theaters starting April 14.