January 8, 2024 – This romantic fantasy film has the elements that I find most appealing in Japanese animation. While “The Boy and the Heron,” the great Hayao Miyazaki's last film, will probably win the most awards, Suzume is my pick for the best animated film of 2023, and I have seen most of them.
This is a pure fantasy about magic doors and giant worm-like clouds that cause earthquakes in Japan. On the surface, it makes no sense, but its internal logic is consistent, and it serves a greater purpose. It provides a framework for a story of love and emotional healing.
Suzume is a 17-year-old high school student with a troubled past. Her mother and hometown were destroyed in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and she has been living with her aunt Tamaki since then. Suzume has emotional wounds from her tragic childhood that have never healed.
One day, a chance encounter with a stranger, a college student, Souta Munakata (a man she had dreamed about before she ever met him) leads Suzume to a strange door in an abandoned development which she opens to find another world. There, she finds a keystone, a magical object which guards the gate into a magic realm. Unwittingly, she allows the keystone to escape when it turns into a cat named Daijin, who has the power of speech. Daijin runs away, and Suzume is unaware, at first, of the chaos she has unleashed upon Japan.
Daijin, is a mischievous creature who goes around opening dangerous magical doors, allowing giant worm-like clouds to escape. If the clouds (which only she and Souta can see) touch the ground, they cause earthquakes. She learns that Souta is a “closer” of these doors, and he is descended from a long line of closers, who close the doors to prevent the worms from causing earthquakes.
Souta and Suzume work together to close the door she left open before the worm can cause much damage, but the real problem is the escape of Daijin, the keystone. If Daijin is not returned to his keystone duties, millions of people in Japan will die. Daijin is a very elusive creature with magical powers. Daijin uses magic to turn Souta into a three-legged chair, making his job of closer a lot more difficult.
This leads to some very strange scenes, like a three-legged chair chasing a cat down the street. If Souta, the chair, can change Daijin back into a keystone, it will enable him to get his human body back. Since Suzume feels responsible for Daijin's escape, she is determined to capture Daijin and help Souta regain his body.
This leads to a series of chases all over Japan. Suzume, carrying the chair, chasing the magical cat and closing doors to stop earthquakes before they can start. It is more than that, though, as Suzume has fallen in love with Souta. Also, her journey leads her back to her childhood home. There is something in her childhood past which has a direct bearing on the magical doors she is pursuing.
Things get worse before they get better in the story, and there are lots of complications, including a time limit. It is a road trip kind of story in which Suzume meets several people that she helps, and who help her. In one scene, she is baby sitting two playful children, who are a real handful, until Souta, the magical chair, intercedes, distracting and amusing the children.
The story, by writer-director Makoto Shinkai (“Your Name”) is complicated, but compelling. The main characters are well developed. For my money, this is the best animated film of 2023 (2022 in Japan). It rates an A.
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