For all the extraordinary measures that humanity takes to sustain life, we remain entranced by what comes after.
We’ll likely never know what follows death. All we can do is let our imaginations paint pictures of how we envision the afterlife. Is it a fluffy, light-drenched oasis for some and a fire-and-brimstone damnation for others? Or is it an empty slate of nothingness for all?
Suzume, the latest animated film by Japanese filmmaker Makoto Shinkai, is less interested in what lies beyond the grave and more so in how it connects with the material world.
The film follows 17-year-old Suzume on her journey on the edges of the afterlife. One morning on her way to school, she encounters Shouta, a mysterious young man searching the Japanese countryside for “ruins.” Suzume follows Shouta to an abandoned resort village and accidentally unlocks a doorway to another dimension. A giant worm-like being breaks through, and she and Souta close the portal, preventing the being from destroying the town. Suzume learns that Shouta is a “closer,” someone responsible for protecting their world from threats from the other side. Before they can part ways, a mysterious white cat traps Shouta in Suzume’s childhood three-legged chair and runs away. Suzume and Shouta pursue the cat across Japan to get Shouta’s body back. Along the way, they work to close the portals that keep the worm from returning and destroying the country.
Suzume may be Shinkai’s most ambitious effort to date. While playing in the same magical sandbox as his record-breaking, resplendent film Your Name, this film broadens his scope and dials every element to the highest level. Just describing it – an out-of-body action-adventure romantic fantasy disaster epic – can be overwhelming. Shinkai mostly tempers that feeling by grounding the film in its engaging characters, especially Suzume and Shouta. If you told me that an animated teenager and a living wooden chair would have more chemistry than nearly every human rom-com this year…I’d believe you. Still, their charming rapport is easy to love and cools down the chaos.
It helps that said chaos is gorgeous. As is the standard of Shinkai’s works, Suzume is beautifully animated. Every frame pops with soft but vibrant colors, and Shinkai thoughtfully moves through the stunning settings he creates. We never lose our sense of space, whether Suzume and Shouta are barrelling through city streets or soaring through the skies. Shinkai also puts exceptional care into his use of 2D and 3D animation, enhancing the film’s depth rather than serving as a distraction. The movie always feels immersive, in the human world and the afterlife.
Suzume’s approach to the afterlife may be its most compelling and enduring feature. Suzume and Shouta find portals to the “Ever-After” in abandoned, ruinous areas. The locations – a resort, a school, and the home where Suzume grew up – were all damaged by natural disasters. (The film references real-life events, like the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.) Rather than rebuild, the survivors leave those spaces behind. Shinkai suggests that the severed spiritual link between humanity and these ruins allows the creature from the afterlife to cross over, destroy another community, and perpetuate this cycle of ruination and abandonment. Only when the link is restored – a key into a lock, shutting the door and triggering a downpour of mystical rain – can peace and rebirth emerge.
The inability to reconcile the past similarly burdens Suzume. Simmering beneath the surface of Suzume’s journey with Shouta is her mother’s death when she was a child. Her dreams of her mother end up being much more, a connection to the Ever-After that allows her to peek, but not enter, into it. Her tentative but powerful relationship with her past and the afterlife drives the film’s emotional third act. It is a staggering spectacle, filled with gigantic creatures fighting against sparkling, deep purple horizons. It’s also slightly unfocused, as a few narrative threads take center stage in startlingly abrupt ways. Amidst the wonder and light confusion, the film sticks its landing with a gut punch of a climax that may make your eyes mist.
Suzume takes big swings, wrapping a romantic road fantasy around a profound meditation on our relationships with nature, the past, and death. While narratively looser than his past films, Makoto Shinkai delivers another visual, emotional, and spiritual stunner. It’s a film that warrants, if not demands, a look beyond the sumptuous animation to consider the metaphysical pillars that hold it up. What you find will likely stick with you long after the credits roll, affording Suzume an afterlife in its own right.