Tapping into the Japanese national zeitgeist once again with “Suzume,” writer-director Makoto Shinkai surpasses his peers in making films for and about teenagers. Now 50 years old, the anime master christened his latest blockbuster after its heroine, Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara), a 17-year-old orphan on the southwestern island of Kyushu swept up in a cross-country trip to prevent a series of natural disasters. That such a responsibility should fall to someone so young is typical of his oeuvre (see “Weathering With You”), but also an apt way of illustrating the lingering trauma and vulnerability that adolescents feel in many parts of Japan.
Funnier and more streamlined than Shinkai’s earlier hypercharged toon epics, “Suzume” is a massive hit in its home country, where it has earned more than $100 million since opening last November — his third film to pass that milestone. The film made its international premiere at the Berlinale, one of two animated features in official competition (the other being Chinese director Liu Jian’s “Art College 1994”). Theatrical releases are scheduled to follow in most countries on or around April 13.
By now, the world knows Shinkai’s name, thanks to the success of “Your Name,” a gorgeous and inventive global phenom from 2016, which dazzled audiences with its stunning landscapes and fantastical touches. The panoramas alone are reason to see Shinkai’s films, and the helmer outdoes himself this time around: His clouds glow golden, beaming honeyed light (and virtual lens flares) across J.M.W. Turner-worthy horizons. Shinkai is such a stickler for detail that even his backdrops are meticulously animated, with attention paid to everything from birds flapping in the mid-ground to the sparkles reflected off distant waves.
In “Your Name,” the director invented a disaster — a spectacular meteor strike — almost surely inspired by 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake. With “Suzume,” he references the 3/11 tremors and tsunami outright in the film’s prologue as Suzume stumbles through what seems like a parallel dimension alone, facing the surreal devastation: Houses reduced to rubble, a ghostly boat wedged atop a low building. Searching for her mother, she meets a figure there — a woman, her face unclear — though it will take the entire movie for audiences to discover the significance of this encounter.
The rest of the film takes place about a decade later, starting out in Kyushu (sadly, the island was struck by a 5.6-magnitude earthquake just six weeks before the film’s release, lending added resonance). Suzume now lives with her aunt, who gives the girl enough independence that she can disappear for a day or two without raising too much concern. Riding her bike to school one morning, Suzume passes a handsome young man walking in the other direction, and in a strategy lifted from live action, time slows, and the “camera” captures the romantic spark between them (it’s a Shinkai signature to import such tactics into the realm of anime).
The stranger is named Souta Manakata (Hokuto Matsumura). He will later describe himself to Suzume as a “Closer” — someone tasked with closing a series of mystical portals, lest a giant Worm escape and wreak disaster on the country — but at first glance, he’s little more than a crush. After school gets out, Suzume goes looking for him amid some ruins, finding a doorway standing oddly at the center of an abandoned onsen. In what seems like a moment from “Alice in Wonderland,” Suzume removes the Keystone — which transforms into a tiny white cat and scampers away — and opens the door to reveal a star-filled parallel dimension. But instead of passing through it, she inadvertently unleashes a Worm.
As a plot device, there’s nothing wrong with these Worms, which burst forth from portals in different towns, forcing Suzume and Souta to trace their path along the eastern coast. The pair must shut each door before these radioactive indigo Worms can topple to the ground and cause a cataclysmic earthquake. That’s especially challenging for Souta, who’s magically transformed into a three-legged children’s chair — a whimsical notion for a sidekick that proves surprisingly effective. By contrast, it was a mistake to render the monstrous, undeniably phallic Worms via computer animation, as they look more lame than menacing.
Still, the threat is real, anthropomorphizing any number of actual natural disasters that have hammered Japan in recent years. (The country is situated at a kind of seismic epicenter, resulting in roughly 1,500 earthquakes annually!) What’s so smart about Shinkai’s script is the way it integrates the anxiety locals feel about such tremors with an appreciation of the country’s disappearing heritage, as represented in the sites where Suzume finds the portals: a shuttered middle school, a dilapidated amusement park and so on. To find the strength to close each door, Suzume must imagine the people who existed there before. And while she’s not afraid to die, she must rediscover the will to live.
Shinkai brings a contemporary, youth-friendly feel to his films by collaborating with the rock band Radwimps, joined here by composer Kazuma Jinnouchi’s atmospheric instrumentations. The ethereal chanting track that accompanies Suzume’s gravity-defying showdown in the sky over Tokyo is a high point, as is the bouncy theme song. Shinkai also keeps things relevant by incorporating modern technology, like text messaging and social media: One running gag finds the mischievous Keystone becoming a viral sensation as people post photos of its cutesy antics online. The design of the cat Daijin will almost certainly remind “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” fans of the show’s naughty kitty, Kyubey.
Structured as a road movie, “Suzume” invites audiences on a tour of Japan, bypassing familiar landmarks, like Mount Fuji, to concentrate on places that represent the country’s endangered heritage — each cloud and ruin lovingly rendered to deliver the soul-nourishing charge of a real-world sunset. So, come for Shinkai’s skies, stay for the feels. At first, the film may seem like little more than a succession of door-slamming showdowns, but in the end, Suzume has something more profound to say … to her younger self. It’s an emotional payoff to an epic personal journey in which learning to cope is key. In “Suzume,” healing proves more important than preventing disaster.
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