Like the last two films by Japanese director Makoto Shinkai (“Kimi No Na Wa;” Eng. Title: “Your Name,” 2017), “Suzume no Tojimari” (Eng. Title: “Suzume”) is a modern love story layered with high fantasy via cultural mythos. Its titular protagonist (voiced by Nanoka Hara) bumps into a mysterious young man looking for an abandoned town around her vicinity. Her curiosity leads her to follow him to said ruins, where she finds a seemingly innocuous door attached to no room. She’s about to unwittingly realize that the door is a sort of Pandora’s Box and the man—whom she’ll later know by Souta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura)—has the key to lock whatever lies in there.
Shinkai’s narrative design for the film feels like a sincere homage to Yoshifumi Kondō’s “Mimi o Sumaseba” (Eng. Title: “Whisper of the Heart,” 1995) and its spinoff film “Neko no Ongaeshi” (Eng. Title: “The Cat Returns,” 2002)—there’s an Easter egg in the film that makes a specific nod to Kondō’s film in particular. However, his love letter to the Ghibli films feels more subtle, and the overall visual and narrative trademarks are unmistakably his own.
Themes of love, loss, grief, empathy, and sacrifice form the basis of many of Shinkai’s movies, and “Suzume” is no different. The director makes this very clear in the opening scene, which shows a lost kid wandering through an abandoned town looking for her mother. As it reaches its crescendo-like peak, we’re abruptly pulled back to reality; this is a dream Suzume wakes up from. As a young adult, she is in a phase of ennui within her routine—until she meets Souta. This is when the film becomes a road-trip drama reminiscent of the trademark whimsy and wonder you’ve already seen in the director’s last “Tenki no Ko” (Eng. Title: “Weathering With You,” 2020).
While the overall vibe does feel like a retread of his last two films, that doesn’t take away from the evocative emotional weight of its narrative. Suzume’s relationships with both Souta and her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu; “Kishibe no Tabi;” Eng. Title: “Journey to the Shore,” 2015) feel personal. The latter, in particular, might not be present throughout the film’s runtime, but an incredibly written and directed confrontation between her and the eponymous character in the second half of the film cements enough gravitas for viewers to take her presence seriously. Fukatsu’s excellent work as a voice actor helps immensely here, and despite her shorter role, she’s a dynamic talent and makes her mark with her fantastic emotional range.
Teaming up with Shinkai for the third time, Japanese rock band RADWIMPS reprises his role as a composer—albeit joined this time by Kazuma Jinnouchi. The soundtrack is rich and evocative, marrying indie rock with ambient soundscapes and dreamy melancholia. The recurring motif of the film is catchy enough to be stuck in your head. It’s not the fast-paced endorphin injection you’d expect from RADWIMPS. However, the title song has the spatial and emotional power to take you entirely by surprise, and Toaka’s vocals have a staying power you’ll want to revisit.
The only problem I’d see “Suzume” having is the impact it will leave on viewers who might find the basic narrative structure wildly similar to Shinkai’s last two films—two protagonists in a fantastical conundrum fall in love and try to find out how to be together despite the universe (almost literally) conspiring against them. Does that discredit the artistic excellence of the film’s gorgeous animation and emotionally compelling drama? No. Shinkai’s still in his element here and—if anything—shows us that the oldest story will generate an earnest reaction if you tell it well. “Suzume” is a well-told movie for all the paths it revisits, and it’s all that matters.