You ever get the feeling that certain directors are one hit wonders? That’s the feeling that I’m starting to get whenever I think about Makoto Shinkai. In 2016, he finally gained global attention with the film Your Name, a wonderfully directed and beautiful anime film that several writers on our site love. Since then, each new Makoto Shinkai film has gained intense media attention, whether it be 2020’s Weathering With You or his latest film, Suzume.
Yet after watching Suzume, it’s hard not to see the director trying to recapture that magic that made Your Name so captivating. Then when I start to look back at his earlier films, like The Place Promised In Our Early Days, or 5 Centimeters Per Second, I see that he’s relied on a lot of the same tropes and ideas for most of his career and I start to wonder if Your Name was just the one that got people’s attention. It’s almost certainly his best movie, but now everything just seems to be unable to escape the shadow cast by that film. Because as it is, Suzume is yet another Makoto Shinkai film that explores a lot of the same ideas that were explored in Your Name and Weathering With You, just a bit more blatant and a lot more puzzling.
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Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release Date: November 11, 2022 (Japan), April 14, 2023 (United States)
Suzume (Nanoka Hara/Nichole Sakura) is a 17-year-old girl who is on her way to school one day when she passes by a stranger named Sota (Hokuto Matsumoto/Josh Keaton). Sota asks her where he can find a door, yet doesn’t say why he needs to find this door. He simply indicates that it’s important for him to find it. She tells him to go to a nearby abandoned resort but secretly goes ahead of him and discovers a door standing by itself. She opens the door and it reveals a serene and beautiful starlit field that she can’t enter, which is very familiar to a place she visited when she was younger searching for her mother. After opening the door though, a random idol appears that she picks up, which turns into a cat and runs away.
By opening the door, a rush of demonic energy from a monster living underneath Japan called “the worm” that is trying to escape and crush Japan under its massive bulk eventually emerges from it and threatens Suzume’s town. Suzume rushes to the door to find Sota trying to close it. Sota is what’s known as a closer, a person who goes to these doorways across Japan and seals them to prevent the worm’s revival. After successfully closing the door with the assistance of Suzume, Sota is turned into a chair by the idol-turned-cat and it’s up to Suzume to travel around Japan to find the cat and discover a way to turn Sota back into a human while also preventing the worm from completely reviving and destroying the country.
For the first fifteen or so minutes of Suzume, I was at the very least interested in what was happening and enjoying all of the little world-building bits that the film laid out, such as Suzume’s backstory, the mysterious nature of this otherworld beyond the doors, and the darkness that lives underneath Japan. It’s, at the very least, competently handled, but the film then quickly derails itself with what I can only describe as strange directorial decisions. I’ll be blunt, turning one of your main protagonists into a chair is dumb. It’s stupid to watch this chair run around the world, leaping dozens of feet into the air, and Suzume developing a romance with a freaking chair. Like, just saying that out loud is stupid. A woman falls in love with a chair.
There’s a lot of overcomplication that takes place in Suzume that turns what could have been a relatively simple road trip film about a couple going from location to location stopping a monster into a movie that’s way too busy for its own good. For the first half of the film, Suzume and Sota are traveling around Japan and taking in the sights, comparing the bustling nature of civilization with the elements that are abandoned. These forgotten landmarks are the most interesting parts of the movie visually as we see nature and time slowly reclaim these places, with the world being none the wiser about what is lost. The movie is at its best in these segments as we just watch the pair go to a new location, meet a person or two, seal the worm, then move on to the next place. It’s formulaic, and most of the people they interact with don’t matter at the end of the day, but it’s an acceptable formula for the first half.
It’s when we reach that halfway point that things start to become even rockier and complexities really take away from the rest of the film. The pair have to contend with a frankly ugly CGI monster that clashes with the beautiful 2D artwork on display. Once the monster is defeated, there’s a twist that happens and changes the emotional stakes of the film, but those higher stakes ring hollow became of how little I actually grew to care about Suzume and Sota by that point. Suzume comes across as obsessive over Sota in the brief time they spend together and Sota has relatively little expression over being turned into a chair and comes across as boring and dull. If this is meant to be a love story between these two, I don’t buy it for a second. So when the second half of the film decides to pivot itself more on that romantic angle rather than the formula it had up until that point, the plot suffers from a lack of believability.
It’s made even worse by moments that come out of left field without any build-up or foreshadowing. There’s a scene late in the movie where Suzume’s aunt, Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu/Jennifer Sun Bell) begins to vent all of her anger and frustration at being forced to become her guardian right to Suzume’s face, only for the film to reveal that she was possessed the whole time. There is no explanation for how and why she was possessed, or why the possession made her hostile. It’s a moment that happens to create dramatic tension and then is instantly forgotten and forgiven by the next scene.
The film just seems so haphazard with its decisions that it makes to movie barely cohesive. Yes, the scenery and imagery on display are still gorgeous, which is standard for a Makoto Shinkai film, but the pretty animation can only do so much when a lot of the plot borders on nonsense. But Suzume isn’t a film that is style over substance. There is a core to this movie that wants to focus on lost and forgotten parts of our lives, natural disasters, and memories, but it’s buried by a central relationship that I don’t connect with and choices that actively detract from its messages. Again, this is a film where a woman falls in love with a chair. A CHAIR.
I’m sorry, but no matter how hard I tried, the flaws of Suzume prevented me from really mustering anything positive toward it. The film simultaneously plays it too safe for the first half and takes big swings in the second half that don’t connect. The characters are uninteresting and are only made more by the decisions made by Shinkai to differentiate this film from its predecessors. It serves to detract from the plot at best and become a parody at worst. After seeing Your Name, I was excited to see what Shinkai had in store for his future projects. Now, I couldn’t care less.