Makoto Shinkai is the next anime superstar, that much is clear by now. Whenever he releases a new film the world takes notice and box office records are in danger of being shattered. Suzume [Suzume no Tojimari] sees Shinkai continuing his winning streak, though with each new film, it's hard not to wonder how long he can keep this up. With so many trying to copy his style and with each new film trying to reach an even bigger audience, there's a very real chance his work will start to feel derivative. Suzume manages to avoid this trap, but only barely.
Shinkai has always been great at combining (light) melodrama with fantasy elements, and Suzume happily continues that trend. There is a clear shift in focus toward the fantasy elements, which are more present and elaborate than in his previous films, but the cocktail is still pretty much the same. While it puts the film slightly closer to Miyazaki's work (Princess Mononoke in particular), it's a shift I welcomed, as Shinkai's has a tendency to get a bit too mushy, especially now that he's making films for broader audiences. The fantasy/adventure elements help counter that.
Anime is in a bit of a slump nowadays, especially its feature film selection. TV output has never been more popular, but that has shifted the focus to more generic franchises with broader appeal. Very few original works are being made (most films are TV derivatives) and the ones that do find funding are post-Ghibli fantasy films. While directors like Shinkai and Hosoda thrive in this particular niche, it would be nice to see a bit more variation in styles and themes, and it's clear we won't be getting that from them. While Suzume has different focal points, it's still very much a Shinkai film.
On her daily trip to school, Suzume runs into a charismatic stranger who asks her if she knows about any nearby ruins. She points the way, and after a little internal back and forth, she decides to join him. When she reaches the ruins she finds a strange door that shows her a hidden world. When stepping through the door, nothing happens, so Suzume decides to turn back. She inadvertently removes the key to the door, and when she arrives back at school, an earthquake hits. She looks outside and notices a huge worm towering above the ruins, but none of her classmates are able to see the creature. Eager to find out what's going on, she runs back to investigate.
One thing you can be certain of is that Shinkai will try to improve the visuals with each new film he makes. It's why people noticed his work in the first place (working as a single animator on his first few projects), and he still has a knack for elaborately detailed landscapes and impressive weather effects. The characters are quite abstract in comparison, but as a result, their movements are more refined. The perfect example is the little chair that turns into a full-blown secondary character. While there isn't much there to work with, Shinkai manages to add a lot of character to this otherwise inanimate object. Not an easy feat. Suzume is no doubt one of Shinkai's most visually accomplished films, though it does lack the element of surprise that made his earlier work stand out.
The soundtrack is solid, with some interesting choices along the way, but it lacks coherence and feels more like a collection of various influences than a stand-alone piece. There are traces of Ghost in the Shell/Kenji Kawai in there to underline the mystery of the fantastical elements, while the jazzy score underneath the action scenes reminded me more of the Lupin III films. The music itself works well and gives identity to the scenes, but the fact that it is too reminiscent of other films hinders Suzume from finding its own unique identity. The dub on the other hand is great, adding personality to the characters, as long as you stick to the Japanese version. I sampled the US dub in the trailer and unless you're truly horrid at reading subs, there's no reason to subject yourself to this horror.
Suzume knows a surprisingly short build-up. Shinkai jumps into the action right away, which isn't too surprising if you see the amount of plot he needs to wade through. There's a bit of a false ending around the 90-minute mark and I feel he could've just ended the film there, but it never felt like things dragged, or that the film outstayed its welcome. The final half hour adds in a little extra background story and ties together some loose ends, which is nice if you're a bit more traditional, but it might've been better if Shinkai had just redistributed that budget over the other 90 minutes to truly raise the bar.
Despite some minor shifts in focus, Suzume is a vintage Shinkai flick, that is certain to please fans of the director, while possibly introducing some new people to his work. The animation is sublime, the art style alluring, the fantasy elements are elaborate and well-executed and even though there's a lot of plot to cover, the pacing is slick. I do wish Shinkai would try to reinvent himself a bit more, as the formula is starting to wear a little thin, but for now, his films are still a veritable treat. There's limited competition in the way of anime feature films nowadays, but when that turnaround finally comes, he might be caught by surprise.