If you’re interested in an animated film that doesn’t come from a long-running video-game franchise, Suzume opens this week in a multiplex near you. The latest film by Makoto Shinkai is of a piece with his other films Your Name and Weathering With You, with people experiencing mystical bonds with weather phenomena and natural disasters in Japanese history.
The title character is Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara in the original Japanese-language version and Nichole Sakura in the English-dubbed version), an ordinary schoolgirl in the Miyazaki prefecture on Kyushu. On an otherwise typical day, she impulsively follows a mysterious young man named Souta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura and Josh Keaton) and encounters a door through which she can see the afterlife, though whenever she tries to walk through it, she ends up on the other side of the door instead of through it. After that, she has visions of a giant worm trying to make its way through the door, and only she and Souta are able to prevent the thing from falling onto the city. All that happens in the first 10 minutes, before the movie’s opening credit sequence, by the way.
The weirdness only increases after that, as Souta hails from generations of door-closers who prevent the worm from causing earthquakes and tsunamis. The worm is held in place by a keystone whom Suzume accidentally turns into a talking cat (voiced by Ann Yamane and Lena Josephine Marano), who then curses Souta into becoming a walking, talking, three-legged wooden chair that has special significance for Suzume. She and the chair chase the cat all the way north to Tokyo, followed by Suzume’s aunt (voiced by Eri Fukatsu and Jennifer Sun Bell), who is tracking her phone and has been raising the girl since she was orphaned by a tsunami. In many ways, this is a road trip movie, as Suzume and her chair travel by ferry, bullet train, and a sports car driven by Souta’s friend (voiced by Ryūnosuke Kamiki and Joe Zieja), who is also looking for him. Along the way, she befriends a delivery woman in Shikoku (voiced by Kotone Hanase and Rosaline Chiang) and a karaoke hostess in Kobe (voiced by Sairi Ito and Amanda C. Miller). She’s also able to track the cat’s movements across the country on Instagram, where people keep posting pictures of him because he’s so darn cute.
Some day, I need to watch all three of Shinkai’s most recent movies side by side. Maybe then I’ll pin down exactly where he’s coming from. All his films are beautiful to look at, to be sure. For me, though, Suzume and his other films don’t quite come together into a powerful statement about the environment or the power of memory or collective trauma or any of the other subjects that they touch on. Perhaps they would if I had lived in Japan through the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown, which this film also addresses indirectly. Still, even if his movies don’t come up to the level of the best anime films, these ambitious and extravagantly imaginative works have a place in our multiplexes, and I’m happy that they’re here.
Voices by Nanoka Hara, Nichole Sakura, Hokuto Matsumura, and Josh Keaton. Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. Rated PG.