Makoto Shinkai has been directing animated films for over two decades now, but it was his 2016 film, Your Name, that garnered critical acclaim both in Japan and abroad. While both Your Name and his 2019 film, Weathering with You, are notable for the creative development of their respective magic systems and intricate plots, they lack in substance of their female leads and development of the romantic tension between the male and female characters.
Enter Suzume, Shinkai’s latest directorial effort that just became available internationally this past weekend. A teenage girl, Suzume, and a mysterious young man, Sōta, work together to stop a series of disasters from occurring across Japan, all the while as Suzume struggles to make sense of how it all connects with her past.
In this reviewer’s opinion, Suzume is the strongest of this slate of films from Shinkai. Aside from the animation and magic system being as top notch and well crafted as ever, it’s how he improves upon the flaws from his previous works that really made an impression. Many people have remarked over the years on how Shinkai is “the next Hayao Miyazaki,” which I personally disagree with. What I will say is that he definitely drew inspiration from the Studio Ghibli auteur for this one. He has even said in interviews that Kiki’s Delivery Service served as an inspiration for Suzume. It’s notable, not just in the fact that Suzume is a much more well-rounded and proactive character, but also in her interactions with other female characters she encounters on her journey.
Miyazaki’s influence can even be observed in the relationship between Suzume and Sōta. Shinkai’s previous films has its male and female characters ultimately fall in love with each other by the end, and how they were executed felt very forced and cliché. Suzume and Sōta’s bond with one another felt very grounded and organic, and while they do love each other by the end of the film, it’s doesn’t appear to be the romantic kind (which is hopefully the case, especially given the age gap). Rather, it’s one based on mutual respect for one another.
There’s a lot of traveling in Suzume, which is very fun to see and very refreshing after living through three years of a pandemic where, for a time, travel had been very restricted. Getting to go along with the characters across Japan is such a thrill to experience, even if one has never stepped foot there at all. It just goes to show how much variety there is in the different settings all over the country; so much to where Suzume is taken aback when riding a bullet train in Tokyo.
That can easily segue to a recurrence in Shinkai’s films, which is that even if a film starts in a little-known region of Japan, all roads eventually lead to Tokyo for some reason. It has come to be a common element, which is not necessarily bad by any means, depending on how you look at it. It’s just something that’s come to be expected of his work, much like how a natural disaster of sorts is either threatened or occurs, and how the female protagonists tend to have a dead mother.
I definitely take issue with that last one in Your Name and Weathering with You, as it didn’t really add much to the overall plots. At least with Suzume, it’s integrated into the story in a meaningful way.
Shinkai is surely a visionary in the anime world to watch if one hasn’t already, but when it comes down to his three most recent works, Suzume is the one I would highly recommend. Rollicking adventure, a thrilling magic system at play, and a headstrong female protagonist will have audiences hooked onto the edges of their seats from beginning to end.
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