About a third of the way through pop-sensation anime auteur Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume (a third, at least, by my rough estimation––time is a flat circle in this shapeless, repetitive film) the breakneck progression of plot incidents slows down for a moment so two teen girls can have a conversation about love and dating. Shinkai doesn’t feel compelled to show us the actual content of this conversation: he simply cuts to the characters’ stereotypical reactions. OMG! Boys are terrible!! Wink wink, tee hee! The film treats this as an emotionally substantive bonding moment. (Why else would it be there?) One of these girls is the titular protagonist; the other is an incidental character never to be heard from again.
This disinterested shorthand is roughly the extent of Shinkai’s interest in crafting a plausible emotional or social milieu for a film superficially about the emotional, social, and spiritual aftereffects. Not only of Japan’s recent natural disasters, but of its last century of rapid industrialization and cyclical rebuilding. Really though, the film is barely about anything discernible––least of all the character it’s named after, who comes across less as a resonant portrait of humanity than a plot device around whom narrative chaos swirls. Suzume is a spunky teenaged orphan with a heart of gold and few other discernible personality traits, who one day encounters a mysterious stranger with J-idol looks in her sleepy rural town and soon finds herself drawn into a magical shadow world in which vengefully forgotten gods, rather than tectonic shifts, are responsible for Japan’s history of catastrophic earthquakes. In pursuit of a mischievous quake-causing god-cat she unknowingly released from a million billion years of imprisonment, she and her dashing new companion must embark on a cross-country trek to battle giant worm-shaped clouds and stop earthquakes from happening forever, or something. Naturally, the path to accomplishing this involves neatly resolving family trauma and bagging a hot guy. It also runs through a series of characters rendered in broad stereotypical strokes––an extroverted country gal, a jovial single mother who moonlights as a hard-drinking bar hostess, a college guy with a convertible who’s too cool to admit he cares about his friends, and a whole lot of lovingly illustrated meals––and a baffling dime-a-dozen anime mythos of gods, shrines, temporal doorways, and demon-sealing bloodlines.
While his prestige and budget have only ballooned over the course of a 25-year career––particularly since the release of 2016’s Your Name, which skyrocketed into the top five highest-grossing Japanese films of all time––Shinkai’s storytelling sensibilities remain oddly anchored in production-line network TV, his scripts jumping eclectically back and forth from sitcom to soap opera to YA urban fantasy with little apparent curiosity about poking under the hood and examining what makes those longform genres tick. (Hint: usually it’s the characters.) As his cast bumbles from incident to incident he seems largely incapable of imagining their inner lives––especially young girls, his fondest subject––without resorting to TV-friendly cliches about love, trauma, adolescence and so on. By far the most creative idea in Suzume, and perhaps its only memorable one, is forcing its bishonen love interest to spend most of his screen time transmogrified into a walking, talking CG chair. “My Boyfriend the Chair” has the surrealist whiff of rom-com greatness, but like the psychosexually loaded body-swapping premise that Your Name abandons halfway through its running time, here it’s doomed to narrative subservience in favor of far less interesting melodrama involving impending catastrophes, dramatically deceased loved ones and so on. Oh, and don’t worry: that chair will turn out to be deeply symbolic, and its significance will be explained to us in painstaking detail (whether it really makes any sense or not).
To be clear, the presence of cliché is not an automatic mark against any fiction. While great writers may challenge or disregard underlying assumptions of the overly familiar, a better writer at least––any skilled writer of youthful fantasy––could leverage familiar ingredients as a sturdy structural backbone for genuine observations about the emotional lives and social dilemmas of their adolescent protagonists. Shinkai, despite being ostensibly more interested in the raw sensations of adolescent emotion than the philosophical implications of time travel or occult para-histories, remains determined to chaotically over-plot his cacophonous films in lieu of actually dwelling on moments or characters on any level deeper than that of pure incident; his pop-trendy prosaic myopia clearly distinguishes his work from the meditative qualities of his inspirations (and box-office rivals) at Studio Ghibli.
Shinkai could use a better writer. His vocabulary for exploring character psychology revolves fully around soap-operatic contrivances, crude emotional shorthand, and fantastical scenarios. Suzume and Sota (the chair) have no spontaneity or tangible inner life that doesn’t directly serve the purposes of the plot. They lumber from one convoluted scenario to the next in search of a mischievous god-cat who’s always visible yet miraculously never apprehensible, frequently sidetracked from the film’s spotty mythological plot to schmooze with a glut of thinly defined side characters, our emotional investment in whom Shinkai tends to presuppose without properly establishing it. Critical scenes late in the film ignite tension between Suzume and her guardian, a middle-aged aunt whose lack of a husband the film repeatedly draws attention to as a source of deep shame and personal failure. None of it works: their relationship is barely established up to that point beyond its status as a running gag––we were too busy learning critical lore and spending time with random strangers who have completely disappeared from the film, apparently––their conflict is one-sided (Suzume is an angel), and the scenes rest on hacky melodrama’s classic crutches of poor communication skills, contrived misunderstandings, and literal supernatural interference. Fortunately it doesn’t matter! Like the rest of Suzume‘s episodes, this one is tidily resolved after a handful of scenes before being tossed in a box and subsequently forgotten about.
Is it fair to pick apart an animated film for its writing? Plenty of classics, including a few from the revered Miyazaki, aren’t exactly models of airtight scripting. I’d say the criticism is warranted in this case––not only because Shinkai’s film is two hours long, but because, aesthetically, he’s no Miyazaki. A full studio budget has given the once-indie animator’s images new layers of detail, but stylistically he tends more and more towards the generic, favoring an anodyne quasi-realism over expression with a cast of doll-eyed fashion model teens and photographic backgrounds digitally painted over in pastel shades and glittery pseudo-lens flare. Nowhere to be found are the more exciting expressionistic tendencies of anime’s true greats. Miyazaki or Mamoru Oshii or Hideaki Anno can convey small oceans of emotion and subtext with a choice of angle, a well-timed soundtrack cue, a pinpoint deployment of motion or stillness, a deliberate break in aesthetic, a recursion of colors or shapes or geometric arrangements in a frame; Shinkai’s approach, again recalling the standards of production-ready TV direction (which ironically, unlike those other directors, he never worked in) are far more utilitarian, placing that much more burden on the textual narrative to deliver. In Suzume, they deliver a general lack of focus or full realization of any one of dozens of well-intentioned ideas.
Some points of interest, beacons for a leaner and meaner Shinkai film in future (although I’m not holding my breath): throughout the plot’s many contrivances, the director stands among a minority of contemporary filmmakers who always remember his characters have smartphones and let those phones organically drive the action––text logs, Twitter, GPS, digital payments, and so on all map the course of the characters’ journey without becoming the center attraction, realistically representing these technologies’ total integration into the characters’ lives without making the tech the outright star of the show. (Contrast with Mamoru Hosoda’s hopelessly naive conceptions of technology in Belle, based on distant secondhand understanding of influencer culture and idealistic fantasies of cyberspace long past their expiration date.) Additionally, Shinkai’s obsession with time loops, sitting somewhere between Chris Nolan gimmickry and La Jetée fatalism, tends to be a more fully realized and carefully seeded aspect of his scripts than any of the teen melodrama––which makes you wonder what might happen if he gave it a front-row seat and really dug into the implications. Oh well.
Suzume had its North American premiere at the New York International Children’s Film Festival and will open on April 14.