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Review: “Suzume” (Annie Award Nominee for Best Feature)

Currently one of the five Annie Award nominees for Best Feature, Suzume, the latest film from director Director Makoto Shinkai, debuted internationally in theaters March 2023 and quickly became a box office success.

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Suzume‘s story begins when the titular girl, a young high-school student, passes by a handsome stranger named Souta who asks her for directions to some ruins.  After directing him to a nearby site, her curiosity leads her to follow him there.  What she finds is an old door standing by itself in the middle of nothing, accompanied by debris and statuary that she should not mess with, but does.  The consequences of these actions lead Suzume on a long road trip across Japan to try to shut mystical doors that only she and a select few others can see, before enormous alien worms can escape through them and fall to earth, crushing whatever lies beneath them.  Accompanying her on this journey is a suddenly-sentient three-legged chair that is a memento of her late mother, killed in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and a talking cat that might be a friend or foe or possibly both.

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SUZUME: Suzume’s chair

Director Shinkai, who burst onto the international scene with his hit films Your Name and Weathering With You, brings us his third tale of youngsters struggling to save the world from a disaster few adults seem to see or acknowledge.  Suzume‘s character design and animation are both sophisticated and cute and show continued advancement in details and acting from his earlier films.  Main voice actors Nanoka Hara (Suzume Iwato) and Hokuto Matsumura (Souta Manakata) do an impressive job for their first excursions into anime, imbuing their characters with the strength, humor, and heart required of random people suddenly pressed into serving as the country’s guardians.

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SUZUME:  Souta Manakata

While on one level, Suzume is a fun action film, complete with a buddy road trip throughout Japan, on another it is a story about mourning and putting things to rest.  Shinkai has stated in interviews that he was heavily influenced by the impact the Tohoku Earthquake had on the country–the idea that there are places throughout Japan that have been lost or in decline from natural disasters or a slowly decreasing population.  While Suzume and Souta struggle to find the mystical doors and close them, it is no coincidence that they are all found in deserted towns or abandoned amusement parks, and that the closing of the doors requires reflection and acknowledgment of all the people who enjoyed those spaces and are there no longer.  This sense of loss is mirrored, in a much smaller but no less intense manner, by Suzume’s memories of her mother and the day she lost her, and the internal journey she takes to process her grief from childhood to the present day.

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It’s not all heaviness and angst, however, as Suzume also feels like a more intentionally funny movie than Shinkai’s last two, with several Easter Eggs for Your Name and some of the Studio Ghibli films as well.  The contrast between big climactic action sequences with enormous supernatural worms and the wobbly, erratic gait of a three-legged child’s chair makes for some nice comedic timing.  It’s also a welcome relief that most of the people Suzume meets along her way are kind and care for her the way we hope people would care for a young person alone and on the run.

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Towards the end of the film, Suzume gets a brief vision of some of the people who (presumably) did not survive the 2011 earthquake, all going off to work or school that morning saying different versions of “I’m leaving now.”  It’s a small thing, but heartbreaking to think of all the people who assumed they would see their loved ones again that day and never did.  In Suzume, tragedy can loom as large as a mystical earthquake-causing worm, or as small as a five-year-old orphan, and the struggle to deal with loss takes time and courage, whether you are a teenager, a talking cat, or a three-legged chair.

Suzume:  In Japanese with subtitled English and dubbed English versions
Rating: PG, for action/peril, language, thematic elements and smoking
Playing: Now streaming on Crunchyroll.

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