'Suzume' by Makoto Shinkai | Film Review
There is a defining boy-girl duo in many films of Makoto Shinkai's cinematic universe, especially his latest 'Your Name' (2016) and 'Weathering with You'; his latest, exuberant and highly dramatic 'Suzume' features a Dorothy-like Odyssey into the half-forgotten personal past and the easily pushed aside communal dangers.
Suzume (Nanoka Hara) is a 17-year-old girl living in southwestern Japan and the inconspicuous Kuyshu town. Having to live with her aunt Tanaki (Eri Fukatsu) after her mother died, she looks like an inquisitive girl trying to push her trauma aside. A chance encounter, and the heartthrob Sōta (Hokuto Matsumura), who's looking for ancient ruins and doors to close will mar Suzume's own fate.
With one dramatic episode piled intensely (but wisely) upon another, Suzume needs to face both the abandonment of the old life rituals, the natural disasters that are about to literally devour her and her companion in every step, and rein the memories of her own childhood. The superhero fantasy character of the film (here more pertinent than Shinkai's other efforts) is never a solitary trip, but a community effort; Suzume and Sōta (a teacher in training) need to spend some time together. Sōta has to spend most of the time in the form of a three-legged children's chair, while a very obnoxious speaking cat named Daijin has decided to every effort possible to sabotage their trip.
We soon learn that the whole Earth is in danger and that the worm itself (only seen in its full face in the last act) is in danger of coming out, apparently causing a lot of earthquakes in the meantime. The couple needs to work as 'Closers' and seal (but only temporarily) the doors from which the worm can reveal itself -from Kuyshe all the way to the big city of Tokyo, a wonder of urban design for Suzume. Yet, the solution will come only when the estranged Keystone (Daijin?) returns to its place.
The primitive and the highly refined alternate in the film, and also in its visual aspect; the worm details come from as if a graphic novel/book on folk legends, while everything else (including the kids' phones) are sophisticated and up to date -only granting an exception for comedy relief when a convertible decides not to work at all (in the film's second half).
The film's narrative arc manages to be more than an episodic accumulation of events, and its midpoint overturns our certainties about the main characters. In fantasy films, sometimes the hero is the least interesting character; yet here Suzume is a bunch of contradictions. Brave and still despaired over her fate, ready to welcome new friends but too timid to accept love and acknowledge it.
'Suzume's repertoire of values pushes it beyond an easy country vs. town/past. vs. present distinction. Its environment has more of the immanence vs. transcendence of the Japanese society itself. Ordinary life, friends and relatives, and individuality are important; yet community and transcending your own worries (which in turn means sacrifice) is something that both Suzume and Sōta must learn to do.
Sometimes formulaic in its 'back to Kansas' treatment of the third act (mostly an anti-climax), Suzume still offers a challenging portrait of a young woman in need of getting her priorities straight -even if she has to fight with all kinds of tombstones (keystones) to put them back to rest. Its aesthetics offer both a well-ordained and an uncontrollable version of the respective present and past, and its characters make the journey inviting and engaging in their frailed earnestness.
Suzume opens in the US 14 April 2023.
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