By now, Makoto Shinkai fans have come to expect a certain formula from the master animator's films: a fated girl-meets-boy scenario and a natural disaster that threatens to wipe out a significant portion of Japan, with a spellbinding backdrop of rural towns and cityscapes. True to form, Shinkai covers all these bases in his latest anime, which follows 17-year-old Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) on her quest to save Japan from calamity.
The story kicks off with Suzume discovering a mystical doorway in some bathhouse ruins near her home. However, before she can uncover the secrets of the portal, she accidentally uproots a kaname-ishi (spirit rock) that turns into a kitten in Suzume’s hands before bolting away. It’s at this moment that a handsome stranger shows up just in time for the magic door to suddenly burst open as a terrifying dark force storms into Suzume’s realm.
After his unsuccessful attempt to close the portal of doom, the stranger introduces himself to Suzume as Sota (Hokuto Matsumura) and explains that he's on a mission to locate more doors like the one they just encountered and lock them up.
The unfortunate elephant in the room is that this meet-cute involves a man who is ostensibly too old to be a high-school student. Not to worry, though, because the dashing nomad is soon turned into a child-sized chair by the aforementioned spirit-rock-kitten. Knowing that Sota would struggle to survive his mission as a chair, Suzume resolves to accompany him on his journey and help him return to his human form.
Like an artist who paints the same composition repeatedly, Shinkai appears to be on a quest for perfection
The story behind these magic portals and the places they lead to is never fully explained, with the doors primarily serving as a plot device to move the story along. A more off-putting distraction, however, is the strange in-film ad for McDonald’s that makes an unjustified reprise here despite already being featured in Weathering With You (just how much does it cost to be written into the biggest anime of the year, anyway?)
Still, Shinkai demonstratively puts far too much work into his visually breathtaking scenes for Suzume to be dismissed as a half-hearted cash grab. Like an artist who paints the same composition repeatedly, Shinkai appears to be on a tireless quest for perfection, tweaking earlier versions of his works to reflect his evolving philosophy, trying to make them better by leaving stronger impressions on his audiences.
It’s evident that fans are along for the journey. The film, which was released in Japan in November 2022, became Shinkai's most successful box office opening yet. It just reinforces the fact that every scene in Shinkai's stunning animations is a worthwhile one – even if it’s one of a Big Mac.