Makoto Shinkai’s latest lavish anime fantasy is a cosmic coming-of-age crowdpleaser


Source: Berlinale


Dir. Makoto Shinkai. Japan. 2023. 122mins

An irrepressibly bold teenage heroine, iridescent skies, a race against time to avert the apocalypse and lashings of kawaii cuteness – all the trademarks of anime maestro Makoto Shinkai are present in his latest maximalist adventure-romance Suzume. Following the global success of his ecologically and metaphysically themed epics Your Name (2016) and Weathering With You (2019), Shinkai looks set for another hit with a film that lays on its effects – whether comic, spectacular or just unashamedly kitschy – with even more unrestrained aplomb than before.

As in Shinkai’s previous films, the other-world coexists seamlessly with a detailed evocation of daily Japanese life

A real crowd-pleaser, Suzume released in Japan in November 2022, amassing over $102m at the domestic box office to date. With a theatrical roll-out planned across multiple territories during April after its Berlinale Competition international premiere, Suzume is hardly a film for all tastes, but is certain to thrill anime buffs across all ages and continents.

Suzume is named after its heroine, voiced by Nanoka Hara – a high-schooler in a coastal town who is destined to be this story’s world-saving Chosen One, à la Harry Potter or Neo in The Matrix. She’s first seen as a small child, wandering through a disaster-blasted landscape – then wakes up at home, a teenager living on Japan’s southern island. On the way to school, she meets a mysterious young man named Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) who tells her that he’s looking for a door in a ruin somewhere nearby. Suzume knows the spot and arrives before Souta, only to discover that the door is literally a portal to another world.

By opening it, Suzume sets free a cloud-like tentacle of crimson known as the Worm, which has terrible world-destroying properties – and it’s Souta’s job, as one of a group of people called ‘Closers’, to shut these doors and keep the Worm under control. But they need the help of something called the Keystone – do try and keep up – which Suzume has accidentally unleashed, allowing it to take the form of an impish and elusive kitten named Daijin, which leads the duo a merry chase across the length of Japan (in a nice comic touch, becoming a social media phenomenon as it goes). Oh, and in the interim, Souta has been magically transformed into a three-legged wooden chair.

Shinkai takes two major risks in Suzume – one is to elaborate an extremely complex fantasy world governed by a set of rules that mix the transcendental and the jovially comic. The latter obstacle, however, is nicely overcome by the fact that the animation contrives to make Souta much more expressive in his simple geometric chair form than when he’s a generic androgynous anime love object. The other risk is to start the proceedings at such a massively spectacular pitch from the start, and then to keep building as Suzume and Souta tackle portal after portal, with key variations added as we go – most ingeniously when one door turns up in that locale beloved of Scooby Doo fans, the Old Abandoned Amusement Park.

Some significant variation sets in when the action moves to Tokyo and beyond, and Suzume is joined by Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu), the young aunt who has raised her. Further creatures, transformations and world rules make the brew even richer in a carefully paced build-up that takes Suzume back to her roots – and leads to a satisfyingly tear-jerking conclusion of this cosmic coming-of-age drama.

As in Shinkai’s previous films, the other-world coexists seamlessly with a detailed evocation of daily Japanese life, while the character design is typically rich as Suzume encounters various friends and helpers – including a teenager in Louise Brooks bangs, Souta’s hipster sidekick, and two little twins who can match Daijin for comic disorder. And, while Shinkai’s depiction of the real world can be a little glutinous in its palette – those glimmering seas, those candy-blue skies – he really lets rip when exploring multiple variations on the phallic tornado creature that is the Worm, one of its more baroque tentacular manifestations surely being one of the most beautiful near-abstractions in recent animation.

Production company: CoMix Wave Films

International sales: Wild Bunch

Producer: Genki Kawamura

Screenplay: Makoto Shinkai

Animation director: Kenichi Tsuchiya

Editing: Makoto Shinkai

Production design: Takumi Tanji, Masayoshi Tanaka

Music: Radwimps, Kazuma Jinnouchi

Main voice cast: Nanoka Hara, Hokuto Matsumura, Eri Fukatsu, Shota Sometani, Sairi Ito