There is perhaps no working director today who can explore humanity’s enduring connection to the past as well as Makoto Shinkai. Throughout his over twenty-year career, time and reflections on the past have been prominent themes of his work. Even from his debut feature, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, his keen interest in history, both created and real, is clear for all to see. Now with his latest film Suzume, he’s proven he’s one of the greatest auteurs ever to tackle the massive weight the past has on the world and ourselves.
The film follows the titular Suzume (Nanoka Hara), a high-school girl who lost her mother as a child and grew up in the care of her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) on Kyushu Island, Japan. She lives an everyday life, but the world as she knows it is changed when she meets a wandering man on her way to school who tells her he’s looking for a door. The man is Souta (Hokuto Matsumura), and he’s a Closer, a kind of guardian of Japan who travels around the country closing mysterious doors that bring disaster when they open.
It’s a very Shinkai plot, but this time there’s a fundamental change in its composition; Suzume is a road movie set across Japan. Once Suzume realises she has inadvertently activated doors across the country, she becomes fully involved in a thrilling journey that sees her and Souta race to save Japan while, unbeknownst to her, Suzume is getting drawn into confronting her tragic past.
See, the doors only activate in places where natural disasters have occurred. One character Suzume meets along her journey calls them “lonely places,” which underlines the whole film. Shinkai said he was inspired to make the film over a decade ago when the great East Japan earthquake hit in 2011. That natural disaster caused indescribable destruction, and places like that are what Suzume explores; she explores and saves the memories of the lonely places.
One such location is an abandoned school once caught in a landslide, and as Suzume and Souta close the door that’s opened there, they see the school’s memories and pray for them to be returned to peace. This happens with every door they close, and it’s a beautiful reminder that despite humanity’s powerful ability to move on, we should never forget the lonely and scarred places we leave behind.
And this is what Shinkai has always been about, how our connections to the past impact us in the present. From slowly slipping away from your first love in 5 Centimetres Per Second, to an inexplicable connection through time joining two people to one tragedy in Your Name, Shinkai has always insisted we remember the past and use it to push forward. He’s a visionary, and Suzume is the perfect culmination of his career up to this point. It’s at once exciting and entertaining as it is moving and poignant, and it is most certainly one of his best.
Visually Suzume is just as brilliant as all of Shinkai’s recent works. The fantastical elements inspire awe just as the reality-inspired destruction garners empathy. There’s such kindness too. Through all the beautiful places Suzume goes, someone meets her and helps her in their own ways. This prompted me to note that Shinkai doesn’t create villains; he lets reality play that part, whether that be earthquakes, floods, or the inescapable ticking of time, he forces his characters to confront and overcome something very real that is only shrouded in fantasy. So when Suzume finds this out for herself and the film ends, one can’t help but feel that Shinkai has completed this phase of his work, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next.
Suzume sees Makoto Shinkai continuing to produce work of the highest calibre, further proving that he is one of the best working directors today.
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