Suzume (2022) by Makoto Shinkai

High-schooler Suzume (Nanoka Hara and Akari Miura as young Suzume) has lived with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) since her mother passed away 12 years prior. On her way to school one day, she passes a mysterious older boy Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) who asks her if there are any ruins nearby. It seems that their quiet coastal town contains a door that offers a view through to a parallel world and one that contains within it a violent force in the shape of a large worm. Souta has arrived in town to prevent the worm breaking loose and causing a devastating earthquake. Suzume unwittingly removes the Keystone that takes the form of a white cat named Daijin (Ann Yamane) and transforms Souta into a three-legged chair. Feeling responsible for the impending disaster, Suzume sets out to chase the cat across Japan, carrying Souta with her as the two attempt to prevent the worms from emerging through the doors.

Makoto Shinkai is a director who seems to have found the magic formula for creating intriguing, engaging and moving stories. Following the success of “Your Name” and “Weathering with You”, this film brings together many of the familiar elements from those works, combining it with an original story that outdoes both in terms of it’s epic scope and emotional impact. From the first moments, the animation is exceptional, with swaying grasses, glittering water, sparkling constellations, ruins brimming with incredible detail, and every conceivable weather lovingly rendered. RADWIMPS return again to provide the soundtrack to the film along with Kazuma Jinnouchi. There are also a number of pop hits played during a road-trip sequence that are sure to have you tapping along. At this point Shinkai’s sublime animation, the sound design that wraps you in a believable world of wind, rain, chirping cicadas, and bustling background noise, is perhaps taken for granted. The story this time around relies less on the romantic boy-meets-girl plot of previous works, instead functioning as a coming-of-age story for Suzume and containing a much deeper theme relating to the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Rather than referring back to his own works, Shinkai pays homage to Hayao Miyazaki, in the adventurous female protagonist tackling not only a magical world, but also deep seated personal trauma. The Ghibli connection is made explicit in a couple of nods to “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. The road trip approach to the story, taking us from Kyushu, through Shikoku, to Kobe, Tokyo, and on to Miyagi, gives the film a forward momentum, enlivened by the epic confrontations of gods and demons from a parallel underworld, light humorous touches, and the colourful characters Suzume encounters (voiced by a number of great actors including Sairi Ito, Shota Sometani, and Ryunosuke Kamiki.

“Suzume” discusses the trauma of death, both general and specific, in a way that is accessible enough for a young audience without shying away from the harsh reality. By personifying the earthquakes, the film captures the sense of indiscriminate danger caused by them. We learn later in the film that Suzume was displaced from her home, taken to Kyushu to live with her aunt, following the earthquake of 2011, an event that still casts a shadow over many lives. The film treats its subject respectfully and earns the emotional pay off in Suzume’s story, which in less skilled hands could have seemed trite and exploitative. The film also returns to some of the ambiguity and complexity of Shinkai’s earlier works, with a moment of raw drama between Suzume and Tamaki that captures their fraught yet loving relationship. Even for those unfamiliar or not directly touched by the disaster, this story of a girl struggling to come to terms with the sudden, untimely death of her mother, is heart-wrenchingly believable.

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) by Makoto Shinkai

Two teens face a difficult separation in this melancholic exploration of young love. Takaki Tono (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Akari Shinohara (Yoshimi Kondo) become friends after both transferring to the same high school in Tokyo. After Akari moves north to Tochigi they remain in correspondence. Takaki decides to take a train to meet her, knowing it will perhaps be the last time as he is soon due to move with his family as well. As the snowy weather worsens and the train is delayed, his agony at reuiniting with Akari is heightened. Following Takaki’s move another girl, Kanae Sumida (Satomi Hanamura), becomes romantically interested in Takaki, but realises that she is unable to close the distance between them due to his longing for Akari.

Makoto Shinkai’s “5 Centimeters Per Second” returns to a theme from his earlier short film “Voices of a Distant Star”, that of a separated couple struggling with loneliness and yearning for human connection. It is unconventional as films go in that there is very little plot or dialogue, with most of the story told through the internal monologues of Takaki and Kanae. Instead it explores its themes in a more expressionistic way, creating a tangible world through small details. Water droplets on a train window; the light from a vending machine at a remote station; cherry blossoms blowing by a railway crossing; all of these picturesque images evoke feelings that are relatable but impossible to describe. The film is around sixty minutes and comrpised of three segments. The first shows Takaki travelling to meet Akari, the second Kanae procrastinating in confessing her love to Takaki, and the third some time later as both Takaki and Akari regret their loss. This atypical structure and lack of any conclusion or closure for the characters may be offputting to some, with its melancholic ending. It is best to approach the film more as an experience, one that you can explore and enjoy without worrying about following a narrative or hoping for plot points to be tied together. What the film does offer is a unique take on the romantic drama, with animation that realises the beauty of the everyday, the commonplace given significance by the characters. The world of “5 Centimeters Per Second” is searingly real in its ordinariness, with delayed trains, and circumstances outwith the characters control, but manages to find magic in these familiar environments.

“5 Centimeters Per Second” refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall to the ground. The film, with its twin focus on both the industrial, trains and rockets, and natural worlds, fields and oceans, relates to the central theme that life moves on in spite of humans. Takaki and Akari’s sundered love is hearbtreaking precisely because nothing changes around them. They are left yearning for something that will never come to pass while the world moves on. At its heart the film questions what that love is when it cannot be expressed; it shows us a vision of a beautiful yet uncaring world, the joy and hope of being in love tempered by human anxieties and feelings of helplessness. A stunning experimental animation that eschews traditional narrative to create something more poetic and at times transcendent.

Weathering With You (2019) by Makoto Shinkai

16 year old Hodaka has run away from his home and caught a ferry to Tokyo. Arriving in the rain-drenched city streets he finds it difficult to get a job or a place to live. He decides to contact Kei, a man who saved his life after the ferry was caught in a storm. Kei runs a small magazine with his partner Natsumi, publishing bizarre stories on urban legends. Hodaka agrees to help out and is soon writing articles for them. After researching a piece on Sun Girls and Rain Girls (who have the ability to control the weather), Hodaka runs into a real life Sun Girl, Hina, who is able to make even the rainiest day turn to clear skies by wishing it. Realising the potential for this ability in a city where the rain never stops, the two turn her powers into a business opportunity, renting out their services for people needing a sunny day, either for a flea market or a wedding. However, Hodaka soon realises that this gift comes at a price and that her connection to the weather will lead Hina to making a terrible choice.

Makoto Shinkai’s success with his last feature “Your Name” has garnered the director a huge amount of publicity and placed on his shoulders the burden of expectation. In following up that incredible film, he has created a work that again showcases his considerable artistic and storytelling talents. The characters are all likeable, especially our protagonist Hodaka, whose family troubles are never fully explained, but whose status as a runaway throws him into the world of the story as something of a blank slate and surrogate for the audience. All of the supporting cast are enjoyable, though often written more as comic relief, such as Hina’s younger brother and Natsumi. The relationship between Hodaka and Hina works well, with both being isolated and finding purpose through each other.

The film blends magic with a real world drama and it is easy to suspend disbelief for the more fantastical elements. The film drifts close to darker themes at times too, such as Hina’s near-miss with a group of unsavoury club owners and Hodaka’s family situation. It is partly this mix of genuinely emotional and difficult themes with the fantastical elements that make the film so compelling. The art and animation team have so perfectly rendered the streets of Tokyo, with every detail covered, that any sense of artifice is stripped away and you are fully immersed in this world. The animators recreated real world locations and the attention to detail in every aspect is truly amazing. Weather effects have always played a large part in Shinkai’s work and here the team seem to have perfected the techniques of visualising every element of the climate. The use of computer-aided animation also means there is more scope for camera movement, with sweeping or spiralling shots creating a great sense of space and fluidity to the action, and perfectly complimenting the traditional hand-drawn animation.

There is definitely a move towards a more action-oriented story than Shinkai’s earlier films. This includes the introduction of guns, an explosion and high-speed chase. There is also an expressive cat to tug at the heartstrings and later played for laughs, that seems to suggest an awareness of a broader audience for his work than films such as “Voices of a Distant Star” or “5 Centimetres Per Second”. That is not to say that this doesn’t work, far from it, but what the film gains in pace and humour it perhaps loses in those contemplative moments of character development that typified earlier films. The music, again by RADWIMPS, lacks the memorable tunes of “Your Name”, but the score as a whole is beautiful and in keeping with the stunning animation work.

“Weathering With You” touches on many themes familiar to fans of Makoto Shinkai’s filmography. At the heart of the drama is the romance between Hodaka and Hina and their love blossoming slowly as the story unfolds. Weather has always featured heavily in Shinkai films, and here it is elevated to a central importance in the plot. We see how weather impacts everyone’s lives, determining what they can and cannot do and even how they think. The relationship between cloudy skies and gloomy outlooks is evident in the relief of characters when the skies clear and sunshine reappears. One of the main messages of the film seems to be that of getting through rough times rather than simply wishing them away. We are reminded in the film that Hina’s powers only offer temporary reprieve and lead to the weather returning stronger and more dangerous after such a delay. There is a suggestion here that it is better to let things run their course naturally than attempting to avoid something perceived as bad, or perhaps running away from your problems (as both Hodaka and Hina do). Surprisingly, the film seems to have little to say about the current climate crisis, although this clearly provides an inspiration and backdrop for the setting. The film is an excellent example of Makoto Shinkai’s work despite minor imperfections. The animation is spectacular, there is plenty of humour and action for the casual viewer, and lots to enjoy for long-time fans.

Garden of Words (2013)

Takao Akizuki skips school each morning to go to Shinjuku Park. Here he meets a Yukari Yukino, an woman who is also shirking her job to sit alone drinking beer and eating chocolate. Takao dreams of becoming a shoemaker while Yukari has her own problems. As rainy season begins the two sit together in a park shelter, discussing their lives and learning more about one another, forming an intimate friendship.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has an instantly recognizable style, with incredibly well-rendered locales and emphasis on the minute details that many would ignore, but which are of paramount importance in creating a sense of place and time. “Garden of Words” is no different in this regard and his depiction of Shinjuku and the park in the middle of the sprawling city is a joy to behold. It is a space that you could spend an eternity in, picking out each droplet of rain and marvelling at the reflections. The art, animation, sound design, and direction all work to build a tangible, living environment. The film is short but this works in its favour considering the story. Where many films would stretch the run time with unnecessary subplots, each scene in “Garden of Words” is poignant and essential in understanding the characters. There is a poetry in the script that compliments the beauty of the imagery.

Given the premise of the film, it would be understandable to expect a romantic drama. However, the film is far more subtle, painting a believable and touching vignette of these two characters who simply share time together, influencing each other in a quiet yet important way. In a world grown increasingly cold and isolating, this simple act of sharing a quiet moment becomes almost transcendent. The sublime visuals, and the mesmeric piano score by Daisuke Kashiwa that drifts effortlessly between melancholic and uplifting, create a space in which to contemplate your own thoughts along with the characters. “Garden of Words” is beyond film, it is a truly special piece of art, confident in its message and delicate in its delivery.

Your Name (2016)

Mitsuha is a highschool girl living in a remote rural community. A conscientious girl, she takes part in the villages cultural event as a shrine-maiden along with her younger sister and grandmother. But Mitsuha dreams of moving to Tokyo away from the monotony of rural life. Taki is a highschool boy living in Tokyo, the very life that Mitsuha dreams of and the two find themselves inexplicably living each other’s lives. At first they believe that this second life is simply a dream that they struggle to remember on waking, but as the pair’s friends explain to them their bizarre behaviour they begin to understand that what is happening is real. Without knowing each other they have somehow become bound together. As the film progresses there are several twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions as a disaster threatens Mitsuha’s hometown.

Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second) has once again directed a stunningly beautiful animation. The world of the film, both rural and urban, is recreated with exceptional skill and an eye for incidental details that help bring it to life. Many of the scenes are works of art, the lakes and mountains of Mitsuha’s home are exquisitely depicted. Shinkai certainly has developed a recognizable style of his own and that is present here, in particular the use of light, with dazzling sunbeams, starlight, dawn and dusk captured brilliantly, though occasionally it becomes excessive and a more restrained approach may have worked better. You can feel the mountain air and the bustle of the city and it is a world that you could happily step right into. RADWIMPS provide several songs for the film and this seems to indicate a step to a more commercial direction for Shinkai. The piano score more reminiscent of earlier works is still here, but there are a number of up-tempo montage sequences, a focus on comedy, and more traditional relationships developed in the subplots that make this a more easily accessible work. The story does a good job of keeping you guessing. Unlike other body-swap movies where the plot is explained in the beginning, the film keeps its secrets until it is ready to reveal them. In the end everything is wrapped up more neatly than some might like, but the way it builds to that moment is so full of emotion that it is forgivable. Both Mitsuha and Taki have entertaining subplots in their own stories and characters that are enjoyable to watch.

As with Shinkai’s earlier works (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), “Your Name” deals with a theme of love and a couple sundered by an impossible distance. The characters are always reaching for something that is just out of grasp. In particular when their attempts to call one another fail to connect. The film also contemplates the nature of fate and the inter-connectedness of humanity. Doors opening and closing throughout the film offer a perfect visual metaphor for the choices that guide our lives. The film largely shies away from discussing the transgender themes implied in its premise. These are largely played for laughs with the characters becoming used to each other’s bodies or acting out of character. Nevertheless, that aspect of the film is somewhat unavoidable given the story. There is so much to enjoy about the film, from the incredible animation, deep themes, humour, and a thrilling story that it is definitely worthy of the praise it has garnered.