Celebrated director Makoto Shinkai, with his latest film Suzume, is once again blowing up the box office and causing a massive stir in Japan amongst the filmgoing public. This past quarter I taught a movie class, and when Suzume and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever came out on the same weekend, I asked my class which one they would rather see. Only one or two out of twenty students picked Black Panther, and when I later asked my students if there were any films they wanted to see before the end of the year, once again Suzume was on the lips of nearly every student in my class. The movie has already made an insufferably enormous amount of money, netting the director’s best opening weekend yet (1). With wide-ranging promotional materials and tie-ins with a variety of companies, a best-selling novelization (I even have a copy), and general enthusiasm nationwide, it’s hard not to get caught up in some Shinkai excitement. The film follows many familiar Shinkai tropes, from its unconventional romance to its magical trappings to its exploration of disaster themes, and on a technical level the movie might be his most gorgeous to date… but the familiarities arguably weigh the film down with a sense of been-there, and an uneven script occasionally throws up unfortunate speedbumps that hinder the film from fulfilling its highest ambitions.

Note that I want to discuss some of the major plot points in some detail below, but I will try to avoid major spoilers in the review proper and restrict the big ones to a footnote or two.

The story follows teen Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara, Samurai Sentai Shinkenger) who meets a handsome stranger Sota (Hokuto Matsumura, 2018’s Kids on the Slope) on her way to school. Enchanted by his good looks, she ends up attempting to track down the man in a nearby abandoned building, and instead discovers a door that seemingly leads into another world, and then manages to accidentally release a magical cat named Daijin (Ann Yamane) trapped there. This encounter with the supernatural snowballs into disaster soon after when something monstrous emerges from the door. Suzume, in attempting to help Sota deal with the threat, inadvertently leads him into an encounter that leaves him trapped inside her childhood chair. On impulse she insists on accompanying chair Sota on his mission to avert a powerful threat that is springing up across Japan while hunting down the mischievous cat and attempting to return the animated chair to his human form—never suspecting how the dangers she is now facing might have deeper ties to herself, and could wipe out the lives of millions.


I was attempting to dance around the particulars of the story above, but the short and vague version is that Suzume and the chair set out together across Japan on a heroic and dangerous mission filled with thrills, laughter, and romance, meeting quirky and lovable characters on the way. While the movie dips into sometimes dark and troubling themes, it keeps a light touch most of the time with doses of comic encounters and buddy-cop-style banter. Not all of the jokes hit, of course, and sometimes I personally thought the set of slightly eccentric side characters were not as compelling as Shinkai obviously hopes. For all her vim and stride, Suzume, too, can (as with many go-getter protagonists) come across as willfully selfish and reckless—and I never really found myself particularly liking her, and the side-characters too mix dross with treasure.

Before touching on my world-building issues, let me at least flicker through a few comments on the cast. Nanoka Hara brings a lively and humanistic core to Suzume, though I didn’t find myself drawn to her as an outstanding figure. She is yet another schoolgirl caught in a supernatural pickle—young, beautiful, resourceful, and ultimately predictable. Like Mitsuha from Your Name, she is another well-meaning, hard-working small-town girl pulled into a magical relationship. When the darker surprise in her character’s story emerges late in the tale, she must face some difficult and haunting truths, but the drama of the moment felt mostly hollow to me. Hokuto Matsumura from boy band SIXtones as romantic lead Sota is equally inoffensive in his role—Sota is dedicated to his arcane craft, dashing and handsome, playful and ridiculous as the chair. Matsumura’s performance is the kind of big-energy shout-and-laugh style we often get from fantasy-style anime. But he doesn’t feel like a rounded character with realized hopes and dreams—he is a target for Suzume to crush on, and a comedic foil. His later dramatic turns, too, feel somewhat unearned insofar as convenient magic tends to snap things together. Other characters—the crotchety and mystic grandfather played by kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro IX, the boisterous hostess and single-mother played by Eri Fukatsu (I know her from the Parasyte films), and Sota’s friend and colleague—can come across as partially formed conveniences for the plot. My favorite side character was probably Tsubame Iwato played by the mind-blowingly ubiquitous Kana Hanazawa due to her bubbly and teasing portrayal and thick local accent.

Moving on to the world-building, though, it truly left me wanting. Probably my frustration stems from a Western mindset, of wanting to make sense of things, of wanting more structure to the magical realm, a sense of cohesion to how the alternate reality of Suzume functions—maybe along the lines of the “hard magic” in a Brandon Sanderson novel. In Suzume, the magic felt so easy, so boring, and shallow—something along the lines of how Asagi could just wish hard and resurrect Gamera in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), or kids could save the day in Godzilla: Monsters & Protectors by expressing their hope for the future. That kind of gloopy saccharine simplicity always grates for me. The movie also commits one of those common but sometimes irritating fantasy tropes where a knowledgeable character who should know very well about a particular thorny situation explains that a specific feat is absolutely impossible and dangerous—and practically in the next scene the newbie finds a way to do it anyway, with no repercussions. These sorts of issues, however, are practically expected in films like this, and the theme of overcoming the impossible with determination or moxy is keyed to be inspiring and cathartic. I just find for myself, it’s unsatisfying.

That said, the central themes of the film plays with imagery and ideas that will likely appeal to Toho monster fans very much. I want to keep those spoilers down in a separate footnote, but if you are a fan of Shin Godzilla (2016) especially, this might be the movie for you. (2)

Movie Review: Suzume

The major themes of the movie are centered around things like respecting and saying goodbye to buildings and abandoned spaces, as well as dealing with disasters and handling trauma. The disaster theme has become familiar in Shinkai’s work, particularly from Your Name (2016), which I think handled the issue with more emotional heft and impact than Suzume—perhaps because of a similarity in structure and execution of ideas. Some of these themes were also touched on in Netflix’s recent Drifting Home film, which further used a lot of very similar imagery as what appears here. Both films deal with imagery of destruction, of natural disaster, of traveling to another world, and interacting with supernatural creatures that represent abandoned spaces. Drifting Home came out just a few months ago, and so the convergence of these themes feels something like how in the USA we had near simultaneous releases of movies like Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997 or Armageddon and Deep Impact in 1998. Anyway, this overlap dampens Suzume’s impact rather than building it into something more powerful in my opinion.

There is also a romance theme in the movie that veers into the uncomfortable—something I think is also a bit of a staple for Shinkai. He seems to enjoy creating adult-romance-with-a-minor relationships; he did it in The Garden of Words (2013), and arguably teased at it in Your Name (2016) as well. In Suzume, the romance is between a teenager and a college-age man. The fact that the man is changed into a chair adds a level of funny to perhaps gloss over what is happening, but I couldn’t help but feel a little icky with the ensuing relationship, which mostly stays tame but with arguably plentiful suggestive imagery. I say this not to be a prude, and I realize that age-gap or forbidden relationships are common fodder in Japanese films and even appear on the regular in the West with celebrated movies like Licorice Pizza (2021) and Call Me by Your Name (2017), but I just wanted to register that films that normalize adult relationships with minors and even celebrate them are at any rate not winning any favors with me.

Now much of the enjoyment of Shinkai’s films comes from the sheer glory of the animation, as his movies are something like the anime equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaide painting. The use of speckled, shimmering, streaming light and how he combines that lighting with majestic depictions of Japanese architecture and natural spaces continues to impress in this film, especially as the movie travels across beautiful Japan. I wish there had been a bit more time spent in Miyazaki (where the story starts)—and more specifically in the real Miyazaki. Suzume comes from a fictionalized small town in Miyazaki prefecture, but the real Miyazaki has some of the most beautiful spaces in Japan, such as the gorgeous Devil’s Washboard and the dreamlike Udo Jingu Shrine built into a cliffside next to the ocean. These spaces would have made amazing fantasy settings for the movie, but instead we find ourselves being dragged back to Tokyo again! Still, the movie is undeniably a triumph of glistening, fantastic animation, with only a few scenes stumbling a bit with unconvincing or incongruous CGI vehicles or somewhat under detailed figures.

The music once again comes from Radwimps, a band I have followed since 2005 when one of my favorite students back in the day lent me some of their early CDs. Radwimps has been creating melodic and delightful earworms for Shinkai’s movies since Your Name (2016), and while this soundtrack doesn’t have as many of their vocal tracks, I think they provide excellent instrumental themes with twinkling, evanescent melodies of wonder. I also really like the “loo loo loo loo” theme over the credits, which is heart-achingly pretty. My main complaint came from a yakkety snazz jazz song played over an early chase sequence, which I felt hurt the feel of the film. Later the movie also incorporates many old pop-rock songs from Japan’s past during a drive, most of which I recognized, and I enjoyed how they were incorporated—similar to how much I loved hearing a Japanese “Country Road” cover in Whisper of the Heart (1995), or “Sukiyaki” in From Up on Poppy Hill (2011).

Movie Review: Suzume

I know Suzume is already garnering widespread overall praise, and I wish I could full-heartedly join the joy-train. But like with Shin Ultraman (2022), I find myself more reserved in my praises. The music and animation complement each other with brilliance and craft, but the story sometimes stumbles with thin characters, unsatisfying magic world building, and sketchy themes. Nevertheless, kaiju fans have something to really enjoy here, and absolutely it is funny watching a three-legged kid’s chair dash down streets and argue with a mostly grown young woman about how to save the world. If you love Shinkai, most probably you will love this. If previous Shinkai epics have left you wanting, maybe think twice before walking through this door—it’s a familiar kind of beautiful art that I wish would have satisfied more on the story and character level.

3 and a Half Stars

(1) Shinkai’s previous best was Your Name (2016), which famously defeated Shin Godzilla (2016) for the crown of top grossing film of the year. Suzume made 13.5 million dollars in its opening weekend according to this article from Variety.

(2) MASSIVE SPOILERS. In the movie, a big theme deals with the 3/11 tsunami/earthquake that devastated Fukushima back in 2011—a theme deliberately touched on in Shinkai’s two previous films, but made explicit in Suzume (see his two-part interview on sekainootomodachi.com). Here, the earthquakes are caused by enormous transdimensional worms, which are depicted in smokey, ropy red and black. They basically look a lot like Shin Godzilla’s tail—and of course, that movie, too, was commenting on 3/11. One of the major characters in the movie is also named Serizawa. While Shinkai said in the previously mentioned interview that the worms were inspired by a Haruki Murakami short story, I couldn’t help but wonder if Godzilla may have had an influence as well. Note that I liked when a particular scene took place in Kobe, as the meaning of the word “Kobe” is “god door,” which is perfect for this movie.