Disclosure, I’ve been to the Suzume exhibit in Tokyo before seeing the movie. To the exhibit’s credit though they really didn’t spoil much. I was aware of some of the characters that showed up, and they showed two edited clips from the movie’s two climaxes, so I knew roughly that something was going to happen but had no idea of the context nor the words that accompanied those scenes.
Now on to the movie itself.
First impression is how short the film felt. The movie started, went right to the plot then never stopped, kept up the pace and tension all the way to the end, which did feel a little sudden. From a pacing perspective this is very different from Your Name or Weathering with You which both had a distinct intro, musical montage transition, reveal, buildup then climax, with notable pauses in between them. Suzume instead came in very quick segments owing to its road trip structure. There is a late climax reveal followed by a longer segment but even that was fairly short.
It is debatable whether this new structure made the film better or worse. It’s better in that it definitely kept things moving, the flipside is it never quite gets enough tension built up to blow it up in magnificent fashion like Your Name did. It’s more gripping throughout the experience but doesn’t leave as strong an impression, at several points I’m left wanting the scene to last just that much longer to properly absorb what was on the screen.
Thematically Suzume is as predicted, Shinkai’s retake on Child Who Chase Lost Voices, about coming to grips with deaths and losses. It’s a very difficult theme which Shinkai flubbed in Lost Voices. In Suzume, there are still some issues; the foreshadowing isn’t laid out too well and the emotional beats felt like they were moved on a tad too fast for them to land solidly. The problems are mostly in the execution rather than how they are envisaged, tonally and story wise they are incredibly well for what is a very difficult topic.
There are a few other elements that played to varying degrees of success. Suzume’s relationship with her aunt was a surprise; it was hinted at early on and still caught me off guard how heavily Shinkai leaned into it, with some of the best dramatic and poignant scenes of the film. The romance with Souta (seriously Shinkai did you really have to give him long hair too like Shun?) is good but not great, their interactions are very cute and sweet and the first climax did hit quite hard (but not hard enough). There’s not enough runway to let it reach the same depth as Your Name with Suzume’s main focus elsewhere.
Your Name had at least 4 dramatic rollercoasters that were all devoted to Taki and Mitsuha’s fate and relationships (Itomori reveal, sunset to pen drop, train scene, open hand) followed by 10 minutes of masterclass trolling at the end with a final ultimate gut punch and name drop. Suzume only really had two, one at each of the climax sequences and the closing scenes were fairly tame. It had to lend other dramatic moments to Suzume and her aunt’s climax and Suzume’s past reveal, and let Suzume have the final moment for resolution too.
Suzume’s romance isn’t the focus and perhaps it’s unfair to judge it too much on that. At the same time I do recognize that Suzume didn’t lend enough moments for Suzume’s personal journey to fully land either. Essentially there were two main plots. The romance and Suzume’s relationship with her past and those around her, each done well but not enough to shine as brightly as the magnified focus of Your Name.
Shinkai apparently mentioned that he originally wasn’t going to have a romance in it and it was going to be two girls on a road trip. From a PR perspective it does explain why romance took a backseat but I’m not convinced the film was going to have no romance at all, two girls on a road trip sounds yuri-tastic to me. The playful relationship between Souta and Suzume with some edits make for the perfect more-than-senpai-kouhai relationship.
Music wise it is the weakest of the three films by RADWIMPS. To be precise it’s the one with the weakest song. Since Shinkai dropped the MV styling this time there isn’t a place for RADWIMP to insert a song. The Suzume theme song is quite hummable and recognizable for the short segments they are allowed to shine through, but won’t be revealed in full till the credits.
Ignore the songs, the music score is much better than WwY and better than YN in places, if not as recognizable as something like the Itomori tune or Date. It’s interesting that Shinkai chose to rely on music and not song to carry the emotional weight of key moments, perhaps a signal that he is more confident in his ability to let a scene speak for itself.
A departure from the whimsical jpop of the previous two, there’s added elements of traditional instruments, chorals, that all gave a very different feel. They evoked a mystical, unsettling atmosphere and fuels the tensions during the action scenes. During the Tokyo scene the music instilled fear like invisible tendrils that reached beyond the screen, still the air and caressed one’s spine.
In terms of visuals there are some notable call backs to Your Name with the starry skies of the other world, and a few harbour town seagulls and boat scenes practically lifted out of Crossroads.
Two things stand out. There isn’t a scene that was made just to show off visually like the firework scene in WwY or the falling comet in YN. Overall the quality was raised higher even if the lack of a showcase piece made it hard to point out any scene specifically. 3D effects are used more liberally (and perhaps too liberally, some places especially flowers could better have been done as 2D composites). The 3D animated Shouta as a chair is a thing of marvel, and I was surprised how much emotion the chair could convey as a wooden chair without deforming into an anthropomorphic nightmare.
The other is that the cuts are long. Shinkai’s previous works tended to have rather quick cuts as transitions, but Suzume had a lot more tracking and zooming shots from the use of 3D and long action sequences. There is so much running and flying Shinkai has to be testing the waters for a more action oriented film, a brave direction as that is not his forte definitely.
Two scenes really stood out to me, one is the skies over Tokyo with the visual intercut and doom it managed to evoke, that disaster is ever so near yet people went about oblivious and hapless.
The other scene is Suzume in the shower and then getting dressed, fine as a hairlined and unbroken vase.
Suzume is a film with a lot more subtleties and plays with a more delicate touch compared to the laser focused Your Name. While Your Name contains more symbolisms and layers, as a theme that is being tackled, the approach is a lot more direct. With Suzume’s theme Shinkai had his work cut out for him, it’s much harder to distill down, or to even describe. Best exemplified by the tagline. Your Name was simply Searching for you whom I have yet to meet. Suzume’s was… On the other side of the door exists all times, which while true it’s more a descriptor of something that exists in the film than its theme. And it seemed the promotion team couldn’t decide either and sometimes promoted with the words ittekimasu.. Ittekimasu, which roughly translates as “going now”, “I’m leaving and will be back”, are words that actually prove to have multiple meanings that ties into the theme.
On the surface level, it’s a word to suggest Suzume starting out on her journey, throughout the film it also relates to Suzume finding her determination to depart on her last quest, then somberly for all those who said the words in the morning but could never say “tadaima” or “I am home/back” on 3-11, and finally for closing the wounds of the past and moving forward to a bright tomorrow.
It’s a faceted tagline fittingly viewed from many many angles, the problem is by itself without context, it doesn’t evoke that same poetic beauty. At least it’s better than Weathering with You.
Back to the tagline, there are too many ways to look at the overall message of loss, acceptance, remembrance and embracing the future, it’s hard to be distilled to a single sentence.
A lot of things that happened or shown throughout the film adds their light touches that weaves finely on the side of the line that is the obscure. It feels like a lot of elements could be removed without impacting the plot, but ultimately makes the film weaker overall. And I think that is what makes Suzume such a hard film to assess, because it is a film not just about a single story or an event, but about society, about people, about experiences, about the past and future and connections.There’s many mundane moments in Suzume that works in the end because they provide a portrait of daily life in the past, present and future. Ask people what makes a society, and there will be an infinite number of responses.
For me, Shinkai did succeed in conveying the message he wanted. In a very strangely reminiscent of the Shinkai of old, that tranquil emptiness. I wasn’t happy, nor particularly sad during the first viewing. None of the moments brought me to tears or made me cry out with amazement. But something lingered long after I walked out the theatre. A calmness, full and unfulfilling. That made me thinking back again and again to what happened, enough to drive me into going back to watch it again the next day, even at full ticket price; something I had never done before.
I am not from Japan. Though I love Japan and go there almost every year, my understanding and affinity to the country is distant. I was not there when 3-11 happened. My memory of that event was the horror of seeing the tsunami on the news, that Madoka (and many other animes, but mainly Madoka) was postponing their episode release. Followed by the lengthy distant worry of happenings at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
I went to Japan the first time later that year, at the close of the year. Already then the earthquake felt like a distant memory. The Christmas light shows in Tokyo went on as usual. There were prayer candles as part of the light exhibit in memorial and solidarity with the Touhoku regions. But like the dirtied banners draped across pedestrian walkways, they felt more ceremonial than heartfelt, at least to me.
When I later visited the Touhoku a few years later, the aftermath of the earthquake felt a little more real. Sections of the local train lines remained inoperable, and there was a sense of economic hardships long from the bubble collapse exacerbated by the quake.
3-11 was always distant to me, it was something I understood, but never affected.
I was there in Taiwan on the night of 9-21 quake, when I was still little. I still remember being woken up by my mother, and running down the stairs of the apartment. Driving our car out to an area clear of highrises while the orange flames of the oil refinery burned against the dark cloudy skies. We didn’t know whether the refinery had exploded or not at the time, fortunately the flames were from burning off excess fuel as part of the shutdown procedure.
I remember the next few days watching the news of search and rescue going through collapsed buildings. Not much more beyond that, I was still too little to understand the gravity of the situation.
Maybe in some small ways the scenes of earthquake and the loss in Suzume struck me more than I realises and its message burrowed deep within.
The theme and the goal of remembering the event and other unfortunate events in life, and how to find closure and continue on, was worthy of praise for even daring to tackle.
There’s a lot of small details that adds to that sense of loss, wrongness and overcoming them. The chair is missing a leg, the butterflies that accompanies Suzume, the red spider lily flowers, the odd things about Suzume that’s hard to put a finger on the first time watching.
Shinkai poured a lot of detail into Suzume and it’s without doubt his best and faceted character.
Her design isn’t as recognizable as Mitsuha with her braid or Hina with her hooded vest, which made her characterization all the more amazing.
She is very colourful both in personality, expressiveness and appearances. She’s a bit more mature but doesn’t lose that youthful girlishness. Throughout the film she does what she likes, whether it’s skipping school to look for a handsome young man, or running up a departing ferry chasing after a cat and a chair, or deciding to hitchhike across Japan. She relies on Souta as Souta is the closer who knows about the mimizus and doors, but is also quite happy to pull him in directions she wants, pointing out Souta is just a chair and in no position to refuse her help, pulling Souta over to sit on him so as to not leave him out of the party.
Yet she’s still vulnerable and have that youthful innocence to her; not being able to tell wine glass from water glass when pulled to help out at the night bar whose owner had given her a ride from Shikoku to Kobe, being frightened when she almost fell out of a ferris wheel, or longing to see her mother, or at the end shriveled up shyly not sure if Souta is going to just leave her on the platform.
In outfit she has two main sets, a school uniform and a casual outfit with an open denim jacket, white T and short culottes, and switches often between unkempt hair, ponytail, braid and a very sisterly half-up small ponytail, and a fully down straight hair.
It’s a really sweet combination, especially with the hair, that allows her to be presented in many different ways, whether it’s mature, frail, playful, frightened or forlorn.
She is the most human of Shinkai’s characters so far, her lack of a distinct style makes her memorable, not as a striking poster girl but deep within the heart, how much like a regular person she is. She is very plain, and very special.
She’s the one actively driving the story forward as the main character. Souta is arguably a side character. And that goes for the romance also.
From the first moment Suzume crushes hard on Souta, skipping school to look for him, calling him a handsome man, before laughing at herself for basically hitting on him. Throughout the journey their relationship remain one sided, Suzume tries to kiss Souta on multiple occasions, sits and steps on him, admittedly with him as a chair. Souta on other hand felt like he appreciated her as a companion but hadn’t gotten to inspect his own feelings.
And throughout, the way she calls out Shouta’s name shifts gradually, and notably in one scene multiple times in very stricken longing fashion. In short, Suzume is likely a little rotten inside but that’s just fine with me.
More than her general appearance though, it’s what’s deep beneath her that is troubling and captivating.
At the very start, the moment her eyes saw Souta, she was immediately drawn to him. When she went to search for him in the abandoned resort, she called out that she feels she has seen him before. This was immediately brushed off by her laughing at herself for making a cringy pick up line. This ended up being much more by the end.
When the worm came out the door, she ran to help Souta without much hesitation despite facing a danger never seen before. This happened again at the abandoned school, and Souta admonished her asking is she not afraid, to which she replied curtly she is not. Suzume said this again and with more elaboration to Souta’s grandfather, that she is not afraid, and death is only a matter of luck.
This is a pretty odd take from a 17 year old girl in hindsight, even if initially it might be seen just as the heroine effect.
After losing Souta, she falls out of the darkening sky in a mesmerizing scene of tearless quiet. Her eyes covered by wind swept hair, her beautiful form still and accepting, embracing the death that is to come. Full of distress and terrible beauty.
This aspect of Suzume is something Shinkai could have emphasized more, that there is something odd about her view of life and death. It’s there, but too subtle.
Suzume isn’t afraid of death because of her survivor issues which skewed her view on life. To her it didn’t matter if she ends up in a situation that cost her her life, it was all a matter of fate and luck, and she was more than willing to give her life up for Souta.
Through of her experience with Souta she realized how much she wanted to live. What she said to Souta’s grandfather that she was afraid of a world without Souta, and what she said when saving Souta were.. a little awkward, to be honest, during my first watch. They were strange to say even in a romantic context, you’d expect something more direct, more about the importance of the person, not about being scared. But on reflection, the scene isn’t as much about her love as about her finally finding something to grab on to, to fear losing, especially since it followed grandfather’s question on is she not afraid of going to the afterlife.
On her romance with Souta, it’s definitely a little quick and can be unconvincing. On first watch it did feel forced to me, especially the aforementioned scene about being afraid. On later viewing I had time to notice the subtleties and with the knowledge of what is to come, her infatuation with Souta actually feels really sweet, even more than Taki and Mitsuha. The problem is it really takes the full context fo Suzume’s past and that won’t be revealed till the end. I don’t know if there’s a better way to portray it, either beating over the head with foreshadowing or giving up the reveals early and lose the impact.
It’s an innocent first crush rather than a full blown romance. Souta being turned into the chair was an interesting take, on surface it seems to make some audience hard to understand the infatuation, but in a way shouldn’t love be about what’s within and not outside?
I find the chair being a brilliant way to bring Suzume closer to Souta. The meaning of the chair (being the last memento of her mother) would have transferred in part to Souta, and with Souta being a chair, Suzume can be more daring in expressing her feelings. There’s no way she would try kissing, sitting or hugging Souta if he were in his human form.
Souta comes to her aid multiple times and never blames her for releasing the keystone that ultimately led to him being cursed. Even as a chair his gentle and thoughtful nature shines through, and after the ferris wheel incident Suzume visibly becomes much closer to him.
He incited the events that led to her running away from home and embarking on this amazing journey across so many different sights. To her, he came into her world and change everything.
On subsequent viewings a lot of the initial issues was lessened. For Your Name, the plot twist was so great the first viewing was incredibly entertaining even without knowing the subtle things. I think that’s the problem Suzume has. A lot of issues aren’t issues in full context, but they feel weird on first viewing and the other things aren’t interesting enough to keep them in the back of the mind.
It’s a film with more issues and less entertaining than Your Name, but Suzume is one that I love a lot more and look forward to seeing again and again more.
I long to see Suzume being swamped by the two little devils and Souta stepping out to her rescue, to see Suzume falling asleep while hugging Souta on the shinkansen and later complaining about missing the chance to see Mt Fuji. To see Suzume leap after Souta onto the mimizu. To watch Suzume cry out in despair in the sky over Tokyo. To see her broken and fall through the air. To see her wash and dress herself with somber and fierce determination. To hear her cry out for Souta again and again. To see her blackened diary, and her little self search for her mother. To see her launched into the air, invert and tumble against the backdrop of a burning world, and prepare to drive back the mimizu.
With Suzume, Shinkai has branched into even more cinematic tracking shots and almost action like sequences, something rarely seen in his works. I think it’s a good balance between the new and the familiar, and with Suzume almost a closure on his message regarding disasters, the next film looks to be a new chapter in Shinkai’s life.