Is it possible to be both a one-trick pony and yet also incredibly versatile with your trick?
That’s the question I am left with as I have just watched Makoto Shinkai’s newest offering, Suzume. Of his previous works, I’ve seen his two most famous: 2016’s Your Name., and 2019’s Weathering With You. And here’s the truth of the matter: Shinkai loves doing teenage love stories based in what seems to be a normal world with science fiction or fantasy goings-on. He takes the idea of tragic young love and juxtaposes it against destruction and themes of fate, giving us stories that leverage small-time, relatable stakes (will these characters find love?) against much bigger consequences (will parts/all of Japan be destroyed?!).
I basically just described both Your Name. and Weathering With You to a tee. And you know what? That same description fits Suzume, as well. So the guy does what he does!
(He has several movies that pre-date Your Name., but I have not gotten a chance to watch those yet. So I feel like I MIGHT be oversimplifying! It’s possible, at least)
Here is the thing, though: While the themes and concepts of these three films may be similar, the imagination and creativity behind the world-building of each tale is wildly different and highly commendable. It’s some real Spirited Away level of “how does someone dream up these concepts?” type stuff.
I love–LOVE–both YN and WwY. Your Name. was a movie I watched and immediately hopped onto Letterboxd in the wake of seeing it to update my ten favorite movies ever. While Weathering With You wasn’t quite that powerful for me, I have watched it twice in the last two-to-three years, and I have it scored as a 5/5. They are two of my favorite animated flicks ever.
And so I’ve been waiting as patiently as possible for Suzume since it was announced… quite a while ago at this point. It was released in Japan back in… I want to say November, and I had heard of it when it was still just in trailers there! We had to wait until this past weekend to finally get it in North America.
Suzume tells the tale of another pair of star-crossed young protagonists (Suzume and Sota) as they find themselves racing against time to stop disaster from striking Japan. Their story involves traveling almost the entire length of the country and closing magical doors to keep an ancient force at bay. And as they adventure together, we find out what Suzume’s history is with what resides behind the doors…
They are joined at various intervals by an enchanted three-legged chair, a talking cat, Sota’s best friend, Suzume’s aunt, and various other characters that enter and leave their lives on their quest. Wait, I lied. There actually ends up being TWO talking cats. Even by Shinkai’s standards, Suzume’s world is exceptionally magical and mysterious, man.
TWO UPS AND TWO DOWNS
+If you have seen Your Name. and/or Weathering With You, this up won’t be a surprise whatsoever: this movie is gorgeous. Is it as much so as Weathering With You? It’s hard to say. I think Weathering is probably the best looking animated film I have ever seen. At its best, Suzume equals it at points, but it also has moments early on that just feel “good”, I guess. There were also parts in Suzume where the CGI animation looks a lot more blatantly CG than it ever did in Weathering (in the latter, I had thought the entire flick was hand-drawn until I later discovered otherwise).
But I’m really here saying, “Oh yeah, this isn’t quite as good as the best animation ever”, so… this is still a definitive up. The cityscapes and weather and countrysides of Suzume are all stellar, and the animation teams deserve all the plaudits they can possibly get.
+There is an excellent fake out where you will feel that, for the most part, the movie is over. There is still the love story to resolve, sure, but it all seems as though the central action is over and the crisis is averted at great cost. Especially if you are someone like me, for whom the movement of time while you are watching a good movie is a barely myth. You could tell me one hour or three hours has passed, and either will seem plausible.
But here’s the thing: this bit happens at around the halfway point of the flick, and there is A LOT of story and action still to unfold. I was surprised–pleasantly so, I should add–that Suzume just kept on going at that point. A lot of movies can hit a fairly deserved resolution but keep motoring on to their own detriment (as much as I love it on the whole, I’m looking at you, Django Unchained). Suzume does it, and everything that takes place afterward feels both entirely necessary and entirely Makoto Shinkai.
-Oh man, I gotta find two downs, huh? Okay, how is this: you’re either going to pay this movie’s entrance fee of accepting this world of magical cats and worms and chairs… or you are not. Especially early on when you are still getting your bearings, if you think this is all far too silly, you may not feel the connection to the story that Shinkai is asking of you. He really just throws some absurd stuff at the viewer and expects you to not only buy into it, but keep up. As fantastical as his previous efforts have been, they don’t really prepare you for everything Shinkai does here.
–There is a moment of conflict in the back end of the film where Suzume and her aunt have cross words and the second magical cat is introduced, and it all just… goes nowhere. There’s not a particularly good excuse as to why Suzume and her aunt fight or why the two cats have their own conflict with each other. It feels like it happens to build drama for a sad scene, but it is immediately over with and all of the characters just carry on as if nothing happened.
Shinkai has never been a creator where anything feels directionless, so that scene felt foreign and didn’t quite work for me. After it happened, I kept waiting for an answer as to why, but it never comes.
Aw, nuts. Didn’t I JUST SAY yesterday that Renfield leapt into the #2 spot in my 2023 New Release rankings? Well, that was a short lived stay. Suzume is enchanting and imaginative, and for me, it’s right there, neck-and-neck, with John Wick 4. Those are two movies that are hard to weigh against each other since they are so radically different, but I already want to rewatch both. So for now, let’s call them 1 and 1A. I won’t have to decide which tops the other until year’s end.