In 2023, westerners who enjoy Shinkai can squarely divide into two camps: those who think 5 Centimeters is his best work, and everyone else. At the showing for Suzume at the always-wonderful New York International Children’s Festival 2023, the emcee threw the question out to the audience (or more like a command?) to poll which of his movies are the audience’s favorite. Based on the responses in the crowd, it seemed that way to me in this anecdote. However, it does not explain why time after time, I still come back to his new works and revisit his old ones, as someone in the 5 Centimeters camp.
Really, it’s that even 5 Centimeters, too, is just one brick in a house of Shinkai ideas that are interconnected. Spoilers ahead–for all his works.
Suzume is a film about Trauma. Well, that’s a vague idea when it comes to Japanese media. To be precise, Suzume is mostly about 3/11, the great Kanto earthquake and tsunami over 12 years ago, and the people (and maybe more specifically children of certain ages) impacted by it. It was oddly a missed opportunity for the NYCIFF to screen it the week before (and on Saturday, 2023-03-11, instead show some other anime films, but anyways). But having watched Suzume now a second time, I can pull my head out of the self-finding journey of our JK protagonist (she literally went to find a piece of her self that she had forgot, even if it wasn’t her initial motivation) and enjoy the ride.
In many ways, the film literally is a ride. The awkward road trip from Ochanomizu to somewhere in Miyagi prefecture is Shinkai’s first “bro” road trip. It’s technically his second in this movie if we count when the snack bar mama giving Suzume a ride up from Ehime, but the two kids dominated that experience.
I just want to highlight that Shinkai, across his films, dials in the various modes of traveling–people in motion, while sitting, standing, surfing, walking, running, on a bike chase, parkouring, on the run from the authorities, catching trains, freezing their butts off while in a snow delay, missing Mt. Fuji while sleeping on the Tokaido Shinkansen, flying in a futuristic airplane, space travel, climbing into the abyss of the underworld, and what/whichever new modes of movement Shinkai will come up next. In Suzume, we finally get a good taste of the Road Trip as envisioned by Shinkai. In Tenki no Ko, it was the Overnight Liner (and bikes). In 5cm, it was trains (and others–let’s not forget the longing views of an orbital rocket). In Place Promised, it was flight. I guess Your Name is “time travel.” Does this make Hoshi no Koe the best of them all: a giant mecha?
The focus on people in motion certainly seems more interesting to me than the existential crises he has employed for some time: global warming, a meteor, war, aliens, and now moving tectonic plates. Something is to be said about, again, people who put 5 Centimeters ahead of his other works, as it’s devoid of this kludge of sorts. (Also a shoutout to the Garden of Words, I guess–that’s a walk in the park, right? I mean, a film literally about shoes says a lot about the filmmaker.)
That road trip, though, was a lot of fun. It was chock full of classic songs (the very ones which inspired the choice of theme songs we heard from his earlier works). Suzume’s aunt throwing a fit. The college-age dude who just doesn’t give enough care, but yet cared enough to make it work. Suzume, as a piece of pop culture, leans heavily on the materials that inspired it. I am not sure how well it works for an international audience, but you can definitely enjoy it without knowing the innards of how it works or its inspirations.
I think Wah makes a good point about authenticity–I think regardless, Shinkai’s work scored enough points at being natural (and maybe I’m not so sensitive, at least not enough to tell) that it isn’t in my thoughts, at least not until we start to string things together. How much can we sympathize with the emotions (and the distances between) of the woman who was once a lost child, trying to find her deceased mother after a natural disaster? I think this material writes itself. What needs the master’s touch is the stuff all around it.
I think it’s safe to say that the abandoned thoughts and abandoned towns as referred to in Suzume film refers to the things we probably shouldn’t forget in the process of healing and moving on. The location highlighted by Suzume all suffered from some natural disaster (in broad strokes, none so specific that it’s really worth pointing out, but it’s a good excuse to do so in remembrance; the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 gets an in-film shoutout), but it’s still really a film about 3/11, as literally, the heroine embodies it.
It’s kind of weird when the gap between the work and in the physical is so thin. Many things about Suzume are literal, real-life things: Her journey, the hospitality (omotenashi, eh), the experience. The people she met felt genuine, if cartoony. Some other things are laid on thicker, like the god-cat, the romantic interest, the interesting way in which the old guy in the hospital, knows, and that Suzume ends up being her own savior in this time-loop allegory. I am just saying that we don’t have to play any tricks like one might have to do with Weathering with You and global warming. Kids really do be pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, I see you see them, Mr. Shinkai.
And it’s precisely that–seeing it, and it just works on its own. It’s like defining the miso soup. The rage and turmoil of emotions of suffering sings its own tune. Shinkai put it together, gave it his spin, and animated it with a presence that as if we were stopping rolling mikans by the country road of Ehime or stumbling out of a bar after last train in Dontonbori. Ochanomizu is really that clean? As a country, Japan grieved, but so much more suffering continues beyond what we see, or we even realize. It’s not the kind of warmth that I go out of my way to seek, just like how it’s always with some bitterness that I put on Wake Up, Girls while driving.
We may, as a society, look away from this suffering. And that’s really the point behind why Suzume works–we look away only because we know it deep down, all too well. As an aside, it’s also why I’m writing about Suzume (coming to US theaters nation-wide on April 14th if not earlier) the day Luca gets announced for Shiny Colors proper. It’s going to take some time for me to process all that from Shiny Colors 5th and the anime announcement. Just give me some time.