Makoto Shinkai made a massive splash in 2016 with Your Name, a coming-of-age anime fantasy that found fondness in the contemporary and cerebral. Given how revered that film became when an international live-action remake came up, there’s a lot of pressure to see what he’ll cook up next. Consider that there have been many anime films that have followed this same pattern since. Suzume doesn’t exactly redefine the formula, but it showcases how some gas is still left in this tank.
The premise is another light dose of fantasy adventure atop a gorgeous slice-of-life drama. Suzume is introduced as a modern Japanese teenager with a sordid childhood. She remains somewhat tight-lipped about it as she lives with her aunt and has an average life at high school. Her routine is thrown off by the presence of the mysterious man Sōta and a door with unknown terrors spilling out of it. It isn’t long before Suzume finds herself on an adventure across Japan to save the world from interdimensional doors.
Much like Your Name, Suzume’s appeal goes beyond the fantastical. That being said, it has fun with the concept of transforming Sōta into a chair for over half the film and chasing after a talking cat to undo the curse. Suzume’s traumatic childhood becomes another problem to overcome, a familiar route that follows the path of anime features such as Belle and A Silent Voice. Her story is not just about stopping some weird worm creature from crushing Japan but about coming to terms with death. This theme is woven well into the arc of Sōta, who has more or less accepted his fate and needs to find the will to survive.
It sounds weird to say that existential dread is typical of this genre, but it surprisingly works well for placing its teenage protagonist in a mature story. Suzume gets to come to terms with her life in a meaningful way where she doesn’t need to rely on her aunt or Sōta to save her. Interestingly enough, Suzume’s aunt, Tamaki, is given a surprising amount of depth as a caregiver who didn’t ask for the life she was given. There’s a brilliant moment where she explodes with her frustrations, and there’s a tearful realization of accepting the cards you’ve been dealt yet still being able to admit they suck. Tamaki also gets a happy ending as her path cross with Sōta’s rival Minoru, a man who takes life as it comes at him, one cheap car at a time.
In what is sure to be no surprise for anybody familiar with the work of Makoto Shinkai and studio CoMix Wave Films, the animation is a marvelous sight to behold. Everything from the grand-scale shots of a towering force above Tokyo to the little details of the sea amid a ferry ride is wondrously assembled. It’s astounding that films like this continue to dazzle by drawing heavy influence on everyday locations and settings. This type of framing makes it easier to get caught up in the whimsy of this tale. It makes the many asides of a venture to an amusement park and a side gig at a tavern look just as beautiful as the surreal setting of the Ever-After, the ultimate destination to fight off the disasters to befall Japan.
Suzume is another Makoto Shinkai anime film that is a refreshing dose of humanity, despite how familiar it feels to so many other anime films of this exact nature. It won’t be the next Your Name, but it doesn’t have to be. Having an abundance of these animated films that are as gorgeous to look at as they are meant for posing more complex teenage characters makes for a pleasing subgenre of animated films. Suzume finds the courage to continue tackling threats head-on, whether they are Earth-destroying creatures or a sad feeling of existentialism. I wish I had these anime films when I was a teen, and I can only hope this picture will inspire today’s young anime fans.