One of the benefits of animation as a medium is that the director is only limited by their imagination. Any idea or concept can find its way onto the page. How one communicates the visual language of the idea and makes it tangible is another story entirely. Director Makoto Shinkai proved himself one of the most skilled visual storytellers alive some years ago. His breakthrough feature, Your Name, became a global sensation. His latest film, Suzume (or すずめの戸締まり, Suzume no Tojimari), arrives with similar fanfare. Shinkai once again proves his incredible eye for visual storytelling, although elements of Suzume cannot land with the same gusto as his previous work.
Suzume follows the titular young protagonist after she explores an abandoned onsen. While there, she finds a small totem and a doorway that seemingly leads to another world. However, she cannot walk into the world she observes. Later that day, she sees a giant red cloud of smoke and discovers its origin is the onsen.
When she returns, smoke billows from the open door. She sees a young man named Sōta trying to close the doorway and eventually helps him. The two begin an adventure across Japan to close more doors while also chasing a creature named Daijin with magical powers. Suzume’s Aunt Tamaki follows her throughout Japan, trying to keep her niece safe.
Early in the story, Shinkai pushes us into his full-blown fantasy. The elements get stranger and stranger as Suzume unfolds, but it does so gracefully. Even as the absurdity begins to push boundaries, Shinkai maintains the gorgeous landscapes between each door. The titular Suzume believes herself alone in the world. As Suzume grows isolated from her aunt because of childhood memories, Shinkai portrays this feeling visually.
While the first half of Suzume ramps up to a fever pitch, the second half hopes to survive on the emotional stakes. However, there are so many ideas coursing through Suzume it rarely explores them fully. At nearly two hours, Suzume stays in the story a little too long. While the grandiosity of the world is never in doubt, the story feels relatively slight compared to Your Name or Weathering With You. Ironically, questions regarding a loss of control over Suzume’s life because of natural disasters do not feel fully explored. Considering the power this theme held over his past two features, Shinkai missing these aspects is surprising.
Suzume builds a rather fantastical world around these flaws. The world-building and rules are incredibly intricate. The creatures Shinkai brings into the story are easy to identify yet wonderful in this story. Even the character design breathes extraordinary life into the story. Shinkai remains at the very peak of his craft.
While not quite as impressive as his last two features, Shinkai makes Suzume a unique experience. With some of the most beautiful landscapes in modern animation, Suzume will wow audiences. Fantasy and beauty collide to make Suzume one of the most creative works of 2023.