Anime: Suzume (2023)

I always believe how and who you watch a movie with tend to colour your lenses on how you appreciate a movie. The how was on a short staycation with some friends in Johore Bahru and the missus and I saw this in 4DX which really added to the whole experience. So I will try to be as objective as I can. But seriously, when it ended I was utterly convinced this is officially the first movie that will be on my long list of the “Best of 2023” list.

My first Makoto Shinkai movie wasn’t the massively popular Your Name (2016); it was 5 Centimetres Per Second (2007). I still remember the day I popped the disc in thinking it will be a regurgitation of something I have seen a thousand times. 63 minutes later the movie blew my mind. The anime, three interlocking stories which closely observe a couple through their childhood, adolescence and adulthood was a thing of exquisite beauty. I knew then this is a director to look out for and then he gave the world Your Name in 2016. Between these two mentioned animes, I hunted down everything Shinkai made and witnessed his development and growth as a storyteller. My heart palpitated with anticipation when I saw the movie schedule at a cinema near my hotel and I secretly hoped that the stars would align that I could see it. On the last day, a three-hour window opened up and since the rest of my travelling party weren’t keen, I went for the 4DX experience with my usual partner-in-crime. The movie was the perfect icing on the cake to what was already a wonderful holiday.

Drawing inspiration from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which decimated homes and lives in Japan, Shinkai crafts a story that examines trauma, grief, healing and ultimately finding out who you truly are in the huge scheme of things. It is also a genre blender with fantasy in the foreground, a road-movie in the background and a coming-of-age story at its heart. It is a spiritual sojourn through a land who has rebuilt around the devastation but never quite erased the pain and sorrow of losing loved ones as evidenced in the dilapidated relics where nostalgia hanged like a thick blanket.

The premise borders on the fantastic: Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara), a 17-year-old high-school teenager lives with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) in Kyushu after her mother died during the Tohoku disaster. Suzume meets a young man named Souta Munakata (Hokuto Matsumura) on a journey to look for doors. Suzume follows him to a dilapidated building in the mountains and finds a free-standing, undisturbed door as if “it” alone were saved from devastation. The door is a portal to an alternate world called the Ever-After. Souta’s task is to lock the doors (yes, they are many) to prevent the malevolent Worm from escaping to this world. If it is successful it would wreak havoc and destruction. Suzume unwittingly opens a door that sets off a chain reaction. Soon, doors all over Japan start opening one after another. Souta at this time has been cursed to become a three-legged chair and together with Suzume, they will race against time to close all the doors and change Souta back to the human form.

That story probably sounds absurd but the skill Shinkai displays here is that he is able to somehow make all the characters relatable and appealing. A case in point would be Souta who isn’t interesting as a man, but as a chair he is full of character. Even the cat is a wonderful attention grabber and a laughter inducer. These wild characters reveal humanity both literally and figuratively, and the scenes burst with infectious energy and clever invention. Once we are convinced by the earnestness of the characters, the situations they are embroiled in take on epic proportions. Suzume isn’t mindless escapism but a wondrous journey through half-familiar worlds, a beautiful and surreal reflection of reality.

Visually, this is stunning work. You don’t need to watch the big battles to see the attention to details, just watch the lovely minutiae in the scenery of the countryside and the ruins. By incorporating the road-movie genre, Shinkai also gives us breathtaking vistas of different locations of Japan ranging from the countryside of Kyushu to downtown Tokyo to the northern prefecture of the Tohoku region. I also particularly like the old songs that are featured and I got a rise when I heard Seiko Matsuda’s “Sweet Memories”.

If I were to nitpick, I would say that the Worm lacks identity and they looked phallus-like. Somewhere here is a good place to insert a joke in bad taste which will do the wonderful movie a huge disservice, so I will refrain. I also thought there is little backstory to the idea of door closers. All that aside, I was emotionally vested in Suzume’s journey to discover herself and her growth as she meets various people, from a girl transporting a crate of oranges to a karaoke hostess, is well-drawn. What I didn’t count on was the emphatic closure of her arc with regards to the loss of her mother. My tears at this point were well-earned.

Suzume isn’t Shinkai’s best work and with great storytellers I always feel their next work will be the best one. Nonetheless, this is a cinematic treat that should be enjoyed in the cinema and for this reviewer, this is the first good movie of 2023.

4 / 5

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