Suzume Review: The Shinkai Formula At Its Best

Produced by CoMix Wave Films

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Only In Theaters

I don’t usually review anime films. These days, we’re fortunate enough to get wide theatrical releases, even outside the mainstream breakthroughs like Dragon Ball Z. If you had told me a decade ago I could see a harem anime movie like The Quintessential Quintuplets, I would have scoffed, but here we are.

Unfortunately, anime films still have limited runs. By the time I tell you whether or not an anime movie is worth watching, chances are it’s already left theaters. My only hope that this review will be relevant is that Crunchyroll will pick it up sooner rather than later.

Still, since I watched Suzume, I’ve been thinking about it, and before even a single person was reading this blog, I wrote it purely for the sake of giving voice to the jumbled thoughts in my head. Suzume is an important film, and I’d like to talk about it, as well as the many complaints leveled against the film’s writer-director, Makoto Shinkai.

If you’re familiar with his body of work, you probably know where I’m going. Shinkai has been accused of “making the same movie three times” and relying too heavily on his formula. The question I want to ask is whether or not that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Formulaic is an interesting word in that it is often used negatively, but that it doesn’t have to be. A lot of great stories are formulaic, including some of the best anime you’ve seen. How many episodes of Cowboy Bebop follow the same formula? It’s not that formulae are bad, but that the story built around the formula needs to show us new and interesting situations. Formulae are a skeleton, and the story is the muscle.

Which brings us to Makoto Shinkai’s three latest films: Your Name, Weathering with You, and Suzume. Each of these movies follow star-crossed lovers who are brought together by supernatural phenomena, be it body switching, weather manipulation, or an eldritch spirit of destruction hidden behind doors in Japan’s many abandoned cities. As the star-crossed implies, these phenomena only give our leads enough time together to make it hurt when it rips them apart, and we follow the measures they’ll go to in order to overcome fate.

Suzume’s titular protagonist is tangled up in a budding disaster when she accidentally removes the keystone keeping that aforementioned eldritch spirit in check. The keystone’s spirit, a cat named Daijin, takes revenge on the “closer” trying to return him to his rightful place, Souta, by turning him into a chair. Yeah, it’s a very silly movie, and half the comedy is chair-themed.

Suzume and chair!Souta have to journey across Japan to find Daijin and avert new disasters when the spirit threatens to break through at different points on their travels. All in all, it’s a standard set-up for one of Shinkai’s films, but to call it yet another iteration of his formula would be grossly mischaracterizing the muscle on this particular skeleton.

While the romance and character writing of Shinkai’s films is usually at the forefront, there is an element of his stories that I believe have led to their success. Shinkai paints a magical world that doesn’t hide from our own reality, but exists around it, growing between the cracks of our concrete city blocks.

While whimsy is not in short supply in anime, Shinkai pulls it off in spectacular fashion each time. The films never stoop to explaining why the supernatural phenomena exist, they just do. They are as much a part of Japan as their characters or the schools and cities they inhabit. While this might strike some readers as hand-waving magical contrivance, it grants a profound sense of wonder to each of his stories.

The red string of fate can tie two people together across any distance. The weather can be subject to the whims of a teenage girl. An ancient god can be held in check by a cat spirit in Tokyo.

This heightened reality, where magic beyond our comprehension can exist unchallenged, facilitates the melodrama of its romantic leads. That each of them begins as ordinary students only builds into the fantastic nature of the world; while everyman characters are a staple of fantasy, to allow the viewer to imagine themselves as the characters, Shinkai’s stars allow him to express the simple message that magic is everywhere in the world, and anyone can tap into that.

While that’s a simple theme on its own, Shinkai wields it to greater effect with each story he tells. In Suzume, he has used that magic to give us a look at the haunted majesty and melancholy of Japan’s abandoned cities, the haikyo.

Suzume wears its appreciation of Japan’s wonders, natural and rustic, on its sleeve. Souta and Suzume seal the worm back into its cage time and time again with a prayer to the gods, symbolically returning the land to the forces that existed before humans carved a place for themselves in it.

To understand the haikyo that populate Suzume, you need to understand a bit of Japanese history. Following the second world war, Japan entered a period of unprecedented prosperity. For nearly fifty years, a rural country rapidly industrialized and developed, building cities, schools, and attractions that dot the countryside. That changed in the market crash of the early 1990s, and coupled with a stagnating birth rate, people began to abandon these cities en masse. Now, rural Japan is filled with these ruins.

Each of the doors that Suzume and Souta must seal is tucked away in one of the haikyo: an abandoned school, a city center, an old amusement park. Shinkai, born in 1973, was able to witness the peak of Japanese postwar optimism and its downfall, and the nostalgia he carries for the haikyo resonates in Suzume’s story.

I’m forced to draw a comparison between the haikyo and Souta’s prayer. What have we done with the land we took from nature? Was this expansion a product of greed or naive wishful thinking, a belief that this period would last forever? There’s a fascinating parallel between these lost ruins and the childhood Suzume left behind, memories repressed after the 2003 earthquake and tsunami claimed her home and the life of her mother.

I’d like to go further into that, but I’m trying to be light on spoilers for the sake of the review, so maybe I’ll follow it up in its own essay later.

Suzume is yet another incarnation of Makoto Shinkai’s formula, but it’s far from a braindead cash grab based on the same idea. In each of Shinkai’s films, there is a real beating heart that demands to be examined.

By taking the same narrative framework, Shinkai is able to apply familiar ideas to new situations and force the audience to consider these themes with rapt attention. That he is able to weave a story about nostalgia for the ruins of his own childhood into a tale of a girl coming face to face with what she lost in the tatters of her youth just demonstrates his strength as a storyteller.

We already knew that Shinkai could spin a beautiful love story, but with each development of his formula, he is able to tackle more complex issues and to greater effect. Suzume is some of his best work yet, and I have no reservations in giving it an Entertaining Fantastic.

If you liked this review and think I should tackle more movies, you can let me know with a comment or a like. If you want to see more of the Otaku Exhibition, you can follow on WordPress for notifications every week, or on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where you’ll get just a dash of extra snark with each hot anime take. Until next time, thanks for reading.


2 responses to “Suzume Review: The Shinkai Formula At Its Best”

  1. Completely agree. I was unsure how I’d react to this one, but I loved how it pushed the Shinkai style forward and brought in different themes, in particular connected to Suzume’s family. Also gets me excited to see where Shinkai goes in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

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