Mid-way through Makoto Shinkai’s latest, you realise what separates this from his previous works like Your Name and Weathering With You. For over decades now, Shinkai’s vision (a modern-day legend himself) has been compared to the greatest there ever was: Hayao Miyazaki. Now, with Suzume, he decides to go full throttle with references and tributes to Studio Ghibli’s legacy that is sure to set Miyazaki fans into raptures of delight.
However, Suzume is still very much a Shinaki film set in the recent mould of what we are accustomed to from the Japanese animator; if Weathering... dealt with a world affected by climate change, here, he references the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that caused a catastrophe all over the country.
The premise is as ingenious as always; Suzume Iwato is a 17-year-old orphaned school girl who lives with her aunt after her mother, a nurse, was killed in the tsunami. A chance encounter with a mysterious, handsome stranger leads her to (accidentally) open a portal to an alternate dimension only she can see, but cannot enter. It’s revealed that Suzume, unknowingly, has set into effect a calamitous chain of events that involves a talking cat called Daijin who is opening similar doors across Japan... so that a giant worm can enter the real world to cause cataclysmic earthquakes.
That’s not all; the only person who can help Suzume reverse this drama — the stranger is revealed to be a “Closer” named Sōta Munakata (he basically chases these portals down and closes them) — has been inexplicably transformed into a three-legged chair (!) by the seemingly-wicked Daijin.
So just like Mitsuha in Your Name and Hina in Weathering with You, we have a young heroine fighting her inner turmoil, suddenly thrust into a fantasy adventure, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. So Suzume and Sōta (still bemoaning his chair avatar) set off on a whirlwind trip all over Japan — in cars, trains and ships — trying to stop Daijin from wreaking havoc and closing the doors before natural disasters ensue.
It makes for absolutely heady viewing. The world-building backdrop is littered with dazzling sequences of sunlight, clouds and rain droplets that Shinaki and his team are so renowned for, and his mastery over light and shadows remains as spell-binding as ever.
The narrative is interspersed with everyday people, buildings, greenery and even landmarks like Mount Fuji, even as we are introduced to an eclectic bunch of supporting characters who make this journey all the more colourful: Suzume’s aunt Tamaki, Tamaki’s co-worker Minoru who has a crush on her, Sōta’s friend Tomoya and his red convertible, as well as local bar owner Rumi, her twins and the establishment’s jolly patrons.
Shinaki’s aim to highlight the beauty in the ordinary is genius, but Suzume — unlike his previous films — is at its best, when, despite the serious undertones, it charms us with humour. Be it Daijin’s mischievous antics, Sōta the chair frantically chasing the cat on three legs across picturesque landscapes (the animation is astonishing here), or Suzume’s gently-growing feelings for her chair-boyfriend (even sitting on him once), Shinkai never fails to keep us amused. He is aided by frequent collaborators, the rock band Radwimps and composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, who provide an exhilarating background score.
And then, there are the many Miyazaki nods. The wide-eyed cat takes us back to Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service; the giant worm, inspired by the Japanese myth of the underground catfish Namazu who thrashes and shakes the earth whenever the god Takemikazuchi lets his guard down, is reminiscent of the folklore in Spirited Away; while Sōta’s transformation is, of course, a throwback to Sophie and Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle. Heck, there’s even a side-character directly mentioning Whisper of the Heart!
Towards the end, there’s an eerie resemblance to Netflix’s sci-fi drama Stranger Things and its heroine Eleven. The parallel dimension, filled with ghostly rubble and devastation, is named the Ever-After and could be interchangeable with the Upside-Down; it also houses a monster lurking in the shadows struggling to escape the portal, while our teen protagonist fights to take it down.
Yet, at every point, Shinkai asserts his signature on the visuals and plot, though it does unexpectedly drag in some places without focus. You also do miss his trademark pathos and romanticism, but then comes an emotional sucker-punch that more than makes up for it — and how.
While not matching the raw beauty of The Garden of Words (still Shinkai’s most grounded, seminal work) or the dramatic beats of Your Name, the themes of Suzume’s coming-of-age journey — coupled with the emotional and physical healing that survivors of natural disasters face — make it a worthy successor to the director’s previous blockbusters.
A girl and a chair fall for each other while chasing a talking cat; what’s not to love?
Suzume no Tojimari is currently running in theatres