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You don’t need to be a mystic to predict success for Suzume, Japanese director Shinkai Makoto’s latest busy, beautiful, bonkers anime. It has already been a massive hit in Japan, and while many of its themes resonate deeply with its home crowd (like 2016’s tokusatsu Shin Godzilla, it references the devastation wrought by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake), there is so much silliness and spectacle on offer here, beneath Shinkai’s now-trademark vaulting, sun-flared skies, it’s hard to imagine anime fans worldwide will not be similarly enraptured. Indeed, after watching Suzume, it may be hard to imagine anything at all – the film is such a retina-blasting feat of giddy, maximalist quirk that it does rather threaten to frazzle the synapses.
By way of summarising a lunatic plot: Suzume is a 17-year-old schoolgirl who lives on one of Japan’s southerly islands with her doting but distracted young aunt Takami, having lost her mother in the 2011 earthquake – the opening scene of Suzume wandering as a small child through desolate ruins wailing for her mum is either a dream or a memory. Cycling to school one day along the sparkling azure coastline (the prettiness of Shinkai’s skies is rivalled only by his seas), Suzume passes Souta, an emo dreamboat with the flowing raven locks and chiselled cheekbones of a boyband’s designated bad boy. He asks her for directions to a nearby ruin. Immediately smitten, Suzume ditches school and beats him to his destination: a lonesome door standing in its frame in the middle of a massive, flooded ballroom.
Suzume opens the door to discover a darkly familiar netherworld beyond, but in so doing unwittingly transforms the idol guarding the portal from its stone form into a cat, who scampers away, and unleashes an oddly phallic worm-shaped whirlwind monster of black smoke and fire into her own dimension. Unchecked, and for some fateful reason invisible to everyone except her and Souta, the worm will wreak havoc that the townspeople will chalk up to another temblor. Souta, who is a ‘closer’ and holds a key that can lock such doors again, arrives just in time for them to wrest the monster back through the portal and seal it.
But the extremely cute, wickedly mischievous cat-god-idol soon shows up again, and reluctant to be re-petrified, uses some of its arcane magic to put Souta out of action – by bonding him to the little three-legged wooden seat he’s sitting on. Just Suzume’s luck! One moment she’s learning about interdimensional portals and her mystical destiny while tending to her crush’s wounds in her bedroom, the next, like Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention, she’s talking to a chair. With Souta incapacitated (but nonetheless able to run and leap), Suzume is determined to continue his work of closing these doors, which are dotted throughout the country, while also chasing down the cat-god who can return her suitor Souta to his human hottie form.
The messy, many-moving-parts premise allows Shinkai to follow Suzume, with her skittering wooden companion, up and down the country, through Japan’s many different landscapes and terrains, onto boats, through villages and eventually into Tokyo. It’s never less than splendid to witness, especially the gorgeous ruined locations that Shinkai fills with such fascinating, tactile detail – derelict vending machines, crumbling brick, tattered paper lanterns – but the story is essentially a series of mini-quests that don’t always contribute to any grander architecture. Even though it’s filled with jokes and sight gags and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it incident, there is a lack of overall momentum, with the unifying emotional themes, such as Suzume’s grief for her mother, her love for Souta and even her coming-of-age angst, remaining underdeveloped until an unsatisfyingly hasty wrap-up.
It’s a pity, because, as in Shinkai’s masterpiece Your Name (2016), it’s in the everyday, real-world application of the grander mythic elements that the most touching moments occur. It’s reflected in the animation, which dazzles more when it’s simply showing Suzume tying her hair back or preparing her lunch than when it’s shooting CGI plumes of phantasmagoria into the air. At one point when initiating a portal-closing ritual, Souta counsels Suzume to think about the ordinary lives they are protecting, which come to her in a cheerful cacophony of voices chattering their way through their daily routines. And it feels like this is what Suzume, for all its tentacled monsters, feline trickster gods, enchanted chairs, mystical portals and voyages of destiny, really wants to remind us: there’s no place like home.
► Suzume is in UK cinemas from Friday April 14.
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