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 highly anticipated 2022 anime, ‘Suzume no Tojimari’, which follows 17-year-old Suzume (Nanoka Hara) on her quest to save Japan from calamity after she meets a mysterious wanderer.
The unfortunate elephant in the room is that the meet-cute in Suzume’s story involves a man who is ostensibly too old to be a high school student, which creates an air of nervousness among the audience. Not to worry though, because the dashing nomad gets transformed into a small chair early on in the film (more on that later).
Suzume, who lost her mother when she was a small child, now lives with her aunt in a small rural town in Kyushu. While cycling to school one morning, Suzume crosses paths with the aforementioned stranger who asks Suzume for directions to an abandoned town and explains that he is searching for a particular door. Puzzled yet smitten by the stranger, Suzume points him in the direction of an abandoned hot spring town in the nearby mountains and continues on her commute to school.
By lunchtime, Suzume is still unable to shake the feeling that she’s encountered the wanderer before in her dreams. She impulsively decides to ditch her class to try and cycle to the mountains in the hopes of catching up to the young man in the abandoned town (oh dear). Things go from bad to worse when Suzume reaches the abandoned site and discovers a mystical door that leads to another realm and 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 the man of Suzume’s literal dreams shows up in time for the magic door to suddenly burst open as a terrifying dark force that barges its way into Suzume’s realm. All this takes place before we’ve hit the 30-minute mark of this two-hour saga, mind you.
After his unsuccessful attempt to close the portal of doom and shut away the sinister force, the stranger introduces himself to Suzume as Sota (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura) and explains that he’s on a mission to locate more doors like the one they just encountered and lock them all up.
Before Sota can set out to continue on his quest, however, the spirit stone-turned-kitten from earlier reappears at Suzume’s bedroom window and turns Sota into a child-sized chair. Knowing that Sota would struggle to survive his mission as a small chair, Suzume resolves to accompany him on his journey and help him return to his human form. What follows is a wild-goose chase across Japan, where Suzume and Chair Sota bounce from Miyazaki to Shikoku to Shin-Kobe, locking up magical doors as they go.
From the get-go, it was clear that ‘Suzume no Tojimari’ would essentially be a retelling of Shinkai’s last two films. The symbolic red string of fate, which Shinkai slipped into ‘Your Name’ as the female protagonist's hair accessory, makes a discernible reappearance here as part of Suzume’s school uniform. Even the strange in-film product advertisement for McDonald’s makes an off-putting reprise. We let it slide in ‘Weathering With You’ on the grounds that it represented a part of everyday life in Tokyo, but this unsubtle rebound was inexcusably distracting (just how much money did it cost to be featured in the year’s biggest anime release, anyway?).
The story behind these magic portals and the places that they lead to is never fully explained to us, either. The doors primarily serve as a plot device to move the story along, occasionally inducing flashbacks to Suzume’s past where we’re given some insight to the loss of her mother without learning much about who Suzume was before she set out on her destiny-changing adventure.
Still, Shinkai demonstratively puts far too much work into his visually breathtaking scenes to dismiss ‘Suzume’ 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 on November 11, became Shinkai's most successful box office opening yet with ¥1.88 billion in tickets sold in three days. 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.
‘Suzume no Tojimari’ is screening now in cinemas across Japan. It is set to be released in international cinemas in early 2023.
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