Review of Suzume (2022)

Moving picture, 122 minutes

Shinkai Makoto (writer-director).

Seen in 2023.

In parts of Japan where the people don’t go anymore, a professional closer has to perform a ceremony. The ceremony returns the depopulated area from its former human inhabitants to the gods of the land. If the closer does not arrive on time, a worm extending from the afterlife causes disaster. 17-year-old Suzume encounters Sōta, a closer, and accidentally complicates his job.

Just like Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019), Suzume combines Shinkai’s trademark aesthetic with a multi-genre adventure that includes some pop Shintō and natural disaster in supernatural form. It adds little to the formula.

In the first half of the film, Suzume is effectively running away from home. Her objective is to help Sōta, not to get away from her adoptive mother, but her journey is still a symbolic fairytale escape from parental authority. That plot element would have worked better if it had been like Weathering with You, where a lower-class youth really does want to get away from their guardian, and has a certain freedom resulting from realistic homelessness. At one point, Suzume helps out in a hostess bar, but she’s not forced into it to the same extent as Hina in Weathering. Suzume is instead more similar to Your Name. There’s an eery, even deathly nostalgia to its supernatural element, and Suzume’s adoptive mother does eventually catch up the girl and reintegrate her into a normal middle-class life instead of throwing her in prison.

Suzume’s physical journey gradually extends across the country. She formulaically meets new people along the way, initially at a very rapid pace. At one point, a college student drives her around while playing Arai Yumi’s 1975 hit “Rūju no dengon”. He says it’s a great song for a drive. It’s also the song set to the opening credits of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), where Kiki, a girl like Suzume, leaves home to grow up with a snarky talking cat. The same student also plays Inoue Yosui’s “Yume no naka e” from 1973, which is similarly associated with anime; it was set to the closing credits of His and Her Circumstances (1998). The worms that cause earthquakes in this movie are halfway between Freudian penis monsters and the mad boar god of Princess Mononoke (1997), riled by human misuse of the land.

Suzume is a tribute to earlier anime, a kaijū flick, and also a road movie, and also a romance, and an action adventure, and a fantasy, and a fairy tale, and a comedy, and a tragedy. Suzume is traumatized by her past, but she is also not traumatized; she has boundless energy and makes whatever snap decisions are required for the plot, without anxiety or fear. The film is a moving meditation on the magnitude-9.0 Tōhoku earthquake, but it also has Disney-esque “funny animals”. Some of the supernatural elements are easily caught on video by bystanders with phones, but the bigger stuff is invisible both to cameras and to normal people’s eyes; a boring contradiction. The society of the closers is secret, but only because secret societies constitute a narcissistic motif in yet another genre. The story is not improved by secrecy.

I think the more basic supernatural premise, which is the need to formally acknowledge depopulation as restoration, is very strong. It’s Shinkai’s best idea, and it connects Japan’s traditional disaster mentality neatly to the more important decline in birth rates. However, it does not apply to the penultimate Tokyo adventure, or the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake that is said to have been caused by the worms.

Ultimately, Suzume is too much of a multi-audience blockbuster, repeating the most marketable parts of Shinkai’s earlier successes and grabbing at everything the audience might know and love. The overall impression is tinged with cynicism. It’s still fun and beautiful, and like the two earlier features, it should be seen in a cinema.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction