by Matt Weiner
With yet another worldwide success, director Makoto Shinkai’s newest film Suzume cements this stage of his career as one of the effective filmmakers dealing with ecological and psychological calamity.
Shinkai excels at balancing personal drama with major, world-altering stakes. Suzume feels in the same vein as his recent blockbuster successes, such as 2019’s Weathering with You and the smash hit Your Name. But Suzume also shows the difference between formula and formulaic.
There is plenty of coming-of-age and falling in love to be had during Suzume’s road trip. But there is also the inescapable backdrop of disaster, death and loss, as refracted through the 2011 earthquake that killed over 20,000 people and that Shinkai said has deeply affected his recent films.
That disaster is personal for Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara), the 17-year-old orphan who lost her mother at an early age. A chance encounter with the mysterious stranger Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) opens her eyes to an unseen world, where a dark worm-like force threatens to break into Japan, which, if successful would result in earthquakes and a catastrophic death toll.
The battle between hope and environmental doom stands out in Suzume, and here, too, Shinkai doesn’t lose his sense of optimism. This is helped along visually by his vibrant animation and palette. Whether it’s real-world Tokyo or the ethereal visions of the Ever-After, Shinkai’s exquisite art is both lived-in and otherworldly. To that Suzume adds a welcome bit of action and levity, helped along by Souta’s transformation into the cutest chair you’ll likely see all year.
The tonal shifts can be jarring for a film dealing with the end of the world, but it’s of a piece with Suzume’s story. Whether it’s the whole world ending or a more personal loss means your world is ending (or at least changing), you have to hold onto what matters. And there’s a quiet sweetness to the fact that even as the apocalyptic visions in his films sharpen, what matters to Shinkai above all appears to be love.