“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.” –Kim Collins
Suzume Iwato is a high school girl who lives in a small town in Kyūshū. After a harrowing dream one morning, she sets off for school, only to encounter a young man along the way. He explains that he’s looking for ruins, and Suzume points him towards an abandoned hot springs town located over the next valley. Intrigued by the man’s presence, Suzume decides to cut class and explore the ruins. Here, she finds a mysterious door that seemingly leads to a vast field under a star-filled sky. After opening it and becoming frustrated by her inability to pass through, Suzume encounters a stone cat that unexpectedly comes to life, and decides that this is enough adventure for one day. She returns to class just in time for lunch, but after a minor earthquake hits, Suzume is shocked to see what appears to be smoke from a fire. Perturbed that none of her classmates seem to be able to see the smoke, she decides to head back to the ruins. Here, she finds the man attempting to close the door: a malevolent energy is pouring through it, resisting his attempts to shut it. Suzume lends the man her strength, and this gives him enough time to summon a key that locks the door. This is about the gist of what happens in the first twelve minutes of Makoto Shinkai’s latest movie, which follows Suzume and the traveller, Sōta Munakata, as they travel across Japan to seal off the doors that appear across the nation, setting off a string of disasters. Along the way, Suzume’s experiences drive her own growth, giving her the strength for her to be herself. Suzume no Tojimari‘s themes appear to lie in managing the aftermath of calamity and how a human connection is instrumental in this process, similarly to how Your Name and Weathering With You had both incorporated a natural disaster piece into its story. However, standing in stark contrast with its predecessors, which were set in Tokyo, Suzume no Tojimari‘s setting is in southern Japan.
The change in location represents a shift in atmosphere, and in conjunction with the character design and a more visceral portrayal of the supernatural, Suzume no Tojimari appears to lean more towards the aesthetic that Children Who Chase Lost Voices took; Shinkai’s 2011 film had portrayed Asuna’s journey to Agartha, where she had learnt more about accepting death in a fantastical world that, while majestic, was also quite empty and devoid of life. In this way, Children Who Chase Lost Voices spoke to the price that defying the natural order commanded in a ambitious and visually stunning tale. Subsequently, Shinkai returned his stories into the real world, and while supernatural elements are present to subtly move the needle, his films following Children Who Chase Lost Voices have been decidedly more grounded in reality, establishing this by using a familiar environment in Tokyo to convey that the characters’ experiences came first and foremost. While this was especially effective in The Garden of Words and Your Name, by Weathering With You, the approach felt comparatively derivative. The choice to set Suzume no Tojimari in a rural setting thus creates the exciting possibility that Shinkai is once again testing new waters in his latest film; Suzume no Tojimari is stated to portray a journey around Japan, and in this way, this allows the art team to really showcase a variety of places and utilise them to convey emotions and thoughts in ways that Tokyo alone cannot. Consequently, there is much excitement in Suzume no Tojimari: incorporating learnings and successful approaches (i.e. a fantastical setting) from Children Who Chase Lost Voices into a story that has aspects from Your Name (older characters with more agency and a wider range of settings, with a moving story of separation and reunion) could produce a film that stands out from its predecessors.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Suzume no Tojimari began production in early 2020, and while production remained relatively in impacted by the global health crisis, the pandemic’s effect on society was integrated into the movie, which begins with Suzume experiencing a very visceral nightmare. From what the opening shows, Suzume lost her mother and is living with her aunt. The sharp contrast between the dream world and Suzume’s everyday life is pronounced, bringing to mind the opening scenes of Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness. With Multiverse of Madness as precedence, it becomes clear that the post-apocalyptic world Suzume dreams about will feature prominently.
- For the time being, this preview portrays the normalcy in Suzume’s world: it is remarkably difficult to gauge a character from just a few minutes on screen, but she feels like a more confident version of Mitsuha whose life is unremarkable. On this morning, she rides her bike down to school with a smile on her face, and the road leading down this path offers a stunning view of the ocean. Her usual routine is interrupted when she spots a fellow on the road, and when she stops to speak to him, he explains that he’s looking for some ruins. The preview never names him, but he’s Sōta Munakata and bears a resemblance to Children Who Chase Lost Voices‘ Shun.
- I’ve always felt that, of Shinkai’s movies, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is one of his most underappreciated films. While this movie represents a major departure from his usual style, it was able to convey its messages in an effective manner. Two common misconceptions surrounding Shinkai’s movies are that they’re at their best when endings are ambiguous and open, and that his films all suggest that loneliness is an inevitable part of life, and one can, at most, only hope to cope with it. These misconceptions stems from Anime News Network declaring that Five Centimetres per Second was about unrequited love and loneliness being “realistically” portrayed, since it had coincidentally lined up with their own writers’ belief that no amount of effort led to happiness.
- Misconceptions like these are why I continue to say that people shouldn’t place so much stock in Anime News Network’s opinions of things; Shinkai’s stories, while scaled up to be more fantastical and dramatic, ultimately speak to lessons applicable in everyday life, and for better or worse, Anime News Network’s writers don’t exactly have the best track record of picking up on these elements. Thus, when Anime News Network publishes their Suzume no Tojimari review in the next few days, it goes without saying that it should most definitely be not taken at face value because the reviewer is unlikely to be actively looking out for Shinkai’s intentions.
- I concede that any work of fiction is open to interpretation, but at least for me, it’s always important to understand the author’s intentions behind their work. When a reviewer decides their interpretation of a work supersedes even that of the author’s, and they’re writing to a publication that’s considered as reputable, this can have the potential to negatively impact a work for a long time after its screening. Returning to the example with Five Centimetres per Second, Anime News Network’s interpretations were copy-pasted to Wikipedia, claiming the film was about how people are powerless to shape their circumstances and must endure loneliness and separation as a result. Since Wikipedia is widely read, this became the de facto interpretation people accept of the film.
- The companion novel and side stories both clarify that the problem Takaki faced was because he felt like everything was always outside his control, from him being forced to separate with Akari, to how his first job had punishing deadlines and occasionally, how management made his tasks more difficult. After he quits his first software job and goes freelance, he’s at peace: he’s most certainly not pining for Akari, but rather, was frustrated by a lack of agency. So, when he does the walk and thinks he encounters Akari again, he’s happy because he was able to fulfil his old promise and he knows it’s his call to now turn around and keep moving on in his life.
- Because Shinkai clarifies his position through the companion novel and side stories, one can easily work out that Five Centimetres per Second does have a happy ending; it’s not a “happily ever after”, but for viewers, knowing that Takaki has found the agency in his life to take charge is an encouraging thought. Shinkai’s later movies follow a similar pattern; his characters might experience loneliness, but the idea that Shinkai wants to say that loneliness is all-consuming and final is untrue. Indeed, Your Name and Weathering With You both have happy endings, and assuming this trend holds true, Suzume no Tojimari will likely end on a similarly positive note.
- Intrigued by the young man she’s met, Suzume ends up heading back up the hill for an abandoned onsen village. She runs into one of the buildings, and ends up calling out for the young man, only to wonder what on earth she’s doing. I don’t think Mitsuha ever wore such an expression on her face in Your Name; when Taki was inhabiting her body, Mitsuha became more expressive and bold, but as herself, Mitsuha was a bit more reserved. Strong, confident characters are a recent element in Shinkai’s movies, and I’ve found his works to be all the more enjoyable for it; his earliest works rendered female characters as sublime, abstract beings.
- Until recently, the mysterious door in a derelict building was the only bit of imagery viewers had surrounding Suzume no Tojimari. Doors have been used extensively in literature to represent a transition, or a passage from one world to the next. More optimistic works have doors symbolising choice, while in a more restrictive scenario, doors also denote exclusion or boundaries. It’s still a little early to do an in-depth look at things, but the supernatural nature of these doors, coupled with the fact that they’re gateways to other worlds, and the fact that a malevolent energy originates from these worlds, I would hazard a guess that Shinkai is using doors to visually denote boundaries.
- Owing to how they’re presented in Suzume no Tojimari, doors probably would suggest that Shinkai sees disaster as something that seems like it “only happens to someone else”, but once the boundaries are broken, and one finds themselves on the doorstep of calamity (pun intended), it can become remarkably difficult to prevent a bad situation from worsening. The first twelve minutes of Suzume no Tojimari speak to this process. When Suzume opens the door for the first time, she’s curious about the world the doorway seemingly leads to, for it is the same place she’d dreamt of earlier that day.
- However, the door doesn’t allow her to pass through it, regardless of her efforts. When people read about disasters, it is similarly difficult to appreciate just how devastating and far-reaching the consequences are. Because these impacts can seem quite far removed from one’s everyday life, it’s easy to forget about them and go on with one’s life. Suzume ends up leaving the door open when she leaves the spot, confused both by the unusual phenomenon and a stone cat that unexpectedly appears and transmogrifies into a living form when Suzume picks it up.
- As an experienced writer and producer, Shinkai doesn’t introduce elements unless they’re going to serve a purpose later down the line. After Suzume notices the stone statue at her feet and picks it up, she finds that it’s extremely cold to the touch, but it thaws in her hands shortly after and even comes to life. Cats and beings similar to cats are a common aspect of Shinkai’s works. Shinkai uses cats to act as guardians of sorts: She and Her Cat‘s Chobi falls in love with his owner and does his utmost to look after her, while in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Mimi guides Asuna through Agartha until his life expires.
- It therefore stands to reason that the cat-like being Suzume finds here in Suzume no Tojimari will serve a similar role, although on their first meeting, Suzume is completely shocked and chucks it away in terror. As Shinkai’s films evolved, I’ve found that his female leads have become much more expressive and multi-dimensional. Mitsuha wore a far greater range of facial expressions and had more emotions than Five Centimetres per Second‘s Akari, and these characters become much more human as a result, making it easier to connect to their experiences.
- When the scene pulls back to a wider shot of the door, the real-time lighting effects can be seen, and I find myself wondering if Shinkai’s team is using real-time ray-tracing in their animation to pull off some tricks, or if everything is done either by hand, or older rendering techniques; using ray-tracing would help in cutting down some work for 3D scenes, since things like shadows and light interactions with different surfaces would be handled by the computer in real time. For viewers, since everything ends up being a video, it is fortunate that all one needs is a decent video decoder to play back the result: I can only imagine the sort of discontent in the anime community if the requirements for watching a home release copy of Suzume no Tojimari was an RTX 3060 or 6600XT.
- After an eventful morning, Suzume finally shows up at school. Seeing her interact with her friends shows that, like Taki and Mitsuha, Suzume has people in her corner, standing in contrast with Hodaka, who was a runaway and arrived in Tokyo alone. However, when Suzume spots something unusual outside, and her friends fail to see anything out of the ordinary, her friends begin to wonder if she’s alright. I imagine that interacting with the phenomenon may have made her aware of the impending disaster, and with the phenomenon becoming more prominent by the minute, Suzume runs off.
- Suzume no Tojimari‘s soundtrack is jointly composed by RADWIMPS and Kazuma Jinnouchi: the latter had previously worked on the music in Ghost in the Shell, RWBY and Star Wars: Visions. RADWIMPS’ compositions resemble the music they’d previously provided for Your Name and Weathering With You, whereas Jinnouchi’s pieces sound like they’d belong in a historical drama and at times, have aural elements that evoke memories of Yūki Yūna is a Hero. The contrast between the two styles creates a much richer collection of incidental music, capturing a wide range of emotions and feelings accompanying each scene.
- The effects here in Suzume no Tojimari remind me a great deal of Agame from Misaki no Mayoiga; in that film there’d been a mythological component that was built out into the story, but it always did feel like a tangential piece until near the film’s climax. Here in Suzume no Tojimari, the idea of a supernatural force triggering calamities is introduced right out of the gates to emphasise that it has a much larger role here. However, without a bit more context, I would prefer to see how Suzume no Tojimari unfolds, rather than speculate on things made on assumptions drawn from this preview.
- Upon returning to the abandoned structure at the heart of the old onsen village, Suzume finds Sōta there, doing his utmost to close the door that had opened. The moment is a perilous one and speaks to the stakes within this film; Your Name and Weathering With You had progressed more slowly, but Children Who Chase Lost Voices had Asuna experience danger early on in the film after she meets Shin and ends up coming face to face with a paramilitary force tasked with finding the entrance to Agartha. Because of how things have unfolded in Suzume no Tojimari‘s first twelve minutes, I am going to guess that Suzume no Tojimari will resemble Children Who Chase Lost Voices in some way.
- Because I only have twelve minutes of insight, it’s hard to say whether or not Suzume no Tojimari will make extensive use of Japanese mythology. I’ve long felt that such aspects should only be present to enhance the viewer’s experience, and for folks who don’t have familiarity with these areas, a given work shouldn’t punish them. Not everyone agrees with this: AnimeSuki’s Verso Sciolto, for instance, believed that a deep knowledge of Japanese mythology, folklore and culture were needed to enjoy Shinkai’s movies, but ended up being wrong on all counts.
- Owing to Shinkai’s past successes, I would imagine that publishers will want to keep Suzume no Tojimari in theatres for as long as possible. Both Your Name and Weathering With You saw their respective home releases come out a full eleven months after their theatrical première, so the next time I write about this film will be in October of next year. The twelve minute preview represents about ten percent of Suzume no Tojimari‘s full runtime, and while it, fortuitously, does not spoil any events late into the movie, acts as a fantastic way to give prospective viewers a glimpse of what’s upcoming and establish what’s about to go down. Readers have my word that I will, to the best of my ability, return to right about this movie once the home release becomes available.
While the strength of Suzume no Tojimari‘s thematic elements and character growth remains to be seen (a twelve minute trailer isn’t enough to gain a measure of how well-written and cohesive the narrative is), the preview also shows that Shinkai’s craft remains impressive. Water remains a central motif in Shinkai’s films, and right out of the gates, is used to create a sense of surrealism, as well as showcase the improvements in real-time reflections. Ruins and abandonments provide a chance to illustrate overgrowth and decay of human constructs in vivid detail, in addition to demonstrating illumination effects like volumetric lighting and dynamic shadows. Shinkai’s films have developed a reputation for being visual spectacles that stand among some of the finest in the industry, and as the technology improves with his studio’s craft, Shinkai will be able to do more. The visual fidelity in his films is one of the main reasons why I’m so keen on Shinkai exploring a greater range of settings: having already established that Tokyo looks amazing with The Garden of Words, Your Name and Weathering With You, I’ve long been curious to see how other regions of Japan (and potentially, the world) would look if given the Makoto Shinkai treatment. The ceiling remains limitless, and on this note, it would be fantastic for Shinkai to return to the science fiction and thriller genres in a future work, as well. In the meantime, with Suzume no Tojimari‘s theatrical première in Japan, I expect that the film will see an international release in the new year. I do not anticipate watching it in local theatres owing to the fact that nine out of ten times, the screenings will be scheduled in way that’s inconvenient for myself, but once the home releases become available, I will definitely make an effort to watch the film and share my thoughts on it. This is estimated to be eleven months away, so in the meantime, I will be turning my attention to another anime film that recently released.