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A beautifully crafted animated film that will captivate and move you, it’s hard to describe “Suzume” as anything less than a masterstroke.

Suzume is the latest animated film from the visionary Japanese filmmaker and animator Makoto Shinkai, the award-winning creator, writer, and director of Your Name (2016) and Weathering With You (2019).

Widely considered one of, if not the leading animation auteur, Shinkai has received international acclaim for his work, making Suzume a highly anticipated release worldwide.

Shinkai began his career as a video game animator before transitioning to filmmaking. He’s also an accomplished author and manga artist. His early films were critically acclaimed, and his later films, Your Name and Weathering With You, became significant critical and commercial successes.

The weighty and emotional Your Name became the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time in Japan upon its release, later becoming the highest-grossing anime film worldwide of all time, overtaking Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. And the beautifully animated and engaging Weathering With You (released in the United States in 2020) became one of the most celebrated Japanese animated films of all time.

If you haven’t seen either of these films, I implore you to drop everything and seek them out immediately.

If you have seen them, you’re likely already a fan of Shinkai’s work and anxious to see if his seventh film, Suzume (released in Japan in November 2022), further cements his status as a master of mesmerizing animated dramas.

Spoiler alert: it does.

Suzume follows the story of a young girl as she travels through various ruins across Japan while closing doors that cause disaster.

We begin in a quiet Japanese mountain town where a teenage girl, Suzume (Hara Nanoka), lives with her aunt after losing her mother as a young girl. Suzume is on her way to school when she runs into a handsome, slightly older boy named Souta (Hokuto Matsumura). He asks if she happens to know the way to the nearest ruins.

Suzume is struck by his beauty, but that’s not all that draws her to him and compels her to follow him to the ruins, a now-abandoned resort. Somehow, she’s convinced the two are linked in some strange, inexplicable way.

When she arrives, she discovers a mysterious door in the middle of the ruins that isn’t attached to any structure or framework. Looking through the door, she’s provided a glimpse into another time and place — a place of gods, where everything that has ever been and everything that will ever be are entwined.

It’s a place of breathtaking beauty, allowing Shinkai to showcase his immense talent for visual artistry.

But there is danger lurking in the midst of this celestial splendor. An evil force known as the Worm, composed of swirling red coils and resembling a phallic-like plume of fiery smoke and ash, resides in this dimension. The Worm constantly seeks a door to the earthly human realm, allowing it to break through and wreak considerable havoc.

Creating earthquakes as it snakes along the skyline in search of an open door; it’s a harbinger of doom, a destroyer of worlds, and a bringer of chaos.

Souta is one of a chosen few destined to protect the world by finding these open doors, known as gates, and sealing them shut before the Worm can break through. Only people like him can see the Worm, except Suzume, who seems to be the rare exception to that rule.

Full of both heartfelt gravitas and whimsey, Suzume is reminiscent in many ways of Ghibli’s finest exports.

For example, Suzume becomes entangled with Souta when an adorable white kitten named Daijin (Ann Yamane) banishes Souta’s spirit inside a treasured three-legged chair once crafted by Suzume’s mother.

It’s then up to Suzume to help Souta chase down the elusive cat — a deity once devoted to keeping the Worm contained and accidentally freed by Suzume — and return Souta to his human form while helping protect the other doors in Japan from the rampaging Worm.

The mischievous Daijin leads the pain on an epic journey across the country while becoming a social media sensation.

It sounds a little ridiculous, but it works surprisingly well while giving the film some much-needed humor to balance the hefty themes.

It’s a testament to Shinkai’s genius that he can make you care deeply about a relationship between a girl and a chair, feel emotionally connected to a faceless piece of furniture, and become positively gutted by a rascally little big-eyed cat.

For much of its runtime, Suzume plays like a road trip movie as our protagonists travel from one door to another, forming new friendships with memorable and often hilarious characters along the way.

Though this is definitely Suzume’s story, the supporting cast of characters is charming. They add both levity and emotional depth to the journey, emphasizing the importance of human connections — regardless of how ephemeral.

If you’re familiar with Shinkai’s work, it will come as no surprise to know that Suzume is a visual masterwork.

As he takes you on a tour of Japan, off the beaten path and bypassing the usual landmarks, he uses majestic visuals and richly textured landscapes to reflect the beauty of the countryside — from lush greenery to pastoral streams.

A vibrant color palette, meticulous line work, and exquisite attention to detail combine to enthrall and transport the viewer.

Creating a spellbinding tapestry of breathtaking night skies and sublime sunsets, every scene is lovingly and painstakingly rendered to create a sumptuous world seamlessly blending the real with the surreal.

Additionally, the soundtrack by Japanese rock band Radwimps, collaborating with composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, is soulful, cinematic, and hauntingly beautiful. It sweeps you up and carries you along a hypnotic and affecting journey.

Honestly, Suzume would be a revelation on technical merits alone.

However, where it truly shines in its profoundly emotional story.

Suzume is a moving tribute to Japan’s devastating history and to the overwhelming pain of loss and grief. 

The country is situated at a kind of seismic epicenter, resulting in roughly 1,500 earthquakes annually.

The Tōhoku region, explored in Suzume, was the real-life site of 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. It claimed over 20,000 lives.

It is during this deadly tremor that a very young Suzume lost her mother, a horror that still haunts her twelve years later.

The film is Shinkai’s way of coming to terms with the grief and guilt he felt in the wake of the tragedy and his love letter to the resilient spirit of a people who must honor the past while finding a way to move forward.

Though the film is aimed at an audience that has finally started to forget a disaster, the recent tragedy of the Turkey-Syria earthquake in February 2023 opened old wounds. The largest earthquake in Turkey since 1939 and the second-strongest recorded in the history of the country, it caused widespread damage and tens of thousands of fatalities. An estimated 14 million people were affected, and about 1.5 million were left homeless.

As the people of Japan watched on in horror, devastated by the mountains of rubble and death on an imaginable scale, they were reminded of a natural disaster so powerful that it could fundamentally alter and upend the foundation of a society.

Over a decade later, the rest of the world has moved on as new horrors take center stage. But the sheer enormity of the collective psychological trauma leaves a permanent imprint on the land and its inhabitants.

The film explores powerful themes of hurt and healing — the delicate balance between life and death, fear and hope, and remembrance and relinquishment.  

Suzume is an archetype for survival in the face of lingering trauma. The film is ultimately about her journey to close the door on painful memories while opening herself back up to love, hope, and joy.

The gates Suzume must close open in ruins — places of devastation and markers of great tragedies. Where once thousands of people used to live, love, learn, and play, only a shadow of life remains. In order to complete her task, Suzume has to allow herself to fully feel all the weight of the past, remembering all the people who once shared joy and laughter in neighborhoods, schools, and amusement parks.

It’s only by honoring those lives and those precious memories that she can prevent impending doom.

But as heavy as it is, Suzume remains inspiring and uplifting.

Shinkai is the master of romance, and there is a love story in Suzume. But it’s not the central focus, and this isn’t really about romantic relationships. What really matters here is the love we have for our time spent on this big blue ball.

It’s a poignant film that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt lost, haunted by the past, and unable to find joy in the present or hope for the future. It’s for anyone who has ever searched for meaning in life or wondered what their purpose was.

Some scenes took my breath away and filled me with overwhelming emotion, leaving me teetering between heartbreak and hope.

I don’t want to give any of the magic away, but there is one extraordinary scene late in the film where we’re reminded how close we all come to the brink of disaster each day without even realizing it; how vulnerable we all are to the indiscriminate cruelty of an invisible force.

And though that thought can be terrifying, even paralyzing, it’s also tremendously beautiful and stirring.

Because although tragedy can strike at any moment, that frightening thought forces us to make the most of every moment of existence we have, never losing sight of the beauty and wonder in the mundane and in just being a part of the world.

When faced with loss and the agonizing reminder that life and love are fleeting, it’s tempting to want to close off our hearts and wallow in despair and regret.

But Suzume reminds us that the impermanence of the things we value is what gives them value; it encourages us to keep living and loving in spite of our fear.

It all culminates in a spectacular, heartwarming, emotionally potent finale that will leave you awestruck.

Because I was fortunate enough to be sent a digital screener from Crunchyroll for review purposes, I had but one regret after watching this remarkable film. That regret was simply that I did not see this in the theater.

Visually impressive, it’s definitely the kind of cinematic eye candy that belongs on the biggest screen possible, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in this impeccably crafted tour de force.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5

Suzume is already a massive hit in Japan, where it has earned more than $100 million since opening last November — Shinkai’s third film to pass that milestone. It lands in theaters on April 14th in the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the UK (April 13th in Australia and New Zealand).

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