Suzume: when not to stick to the formula

Suzume: when not to stick to the formula

I’ve started to think of the three most recent entries to Makoto Shinkai’s filmography as the “Natural Disasters” trilogy. your name and Weathering with You both tell very personal stories with the involvement of some sort of cosmic or environmental intervention, which is quite a departure from his early features that were either SF tales of human-made problems or realistic dramas. Examining the after-effects of the 2011 Touhoku disaster on wider society through cinema is nothing new of course – take Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla, or Sion Sono’s Himizu for example – but Suzume is apparently the first time that Shinkai has done so.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how your name became his breakthrough hit, although the body-swap premise, and the romantic/comedic hijinks that ensued, must have helped. The “big reveal” though was the point where the stakes were raised and I really felt a sense of peril and urgency: the sheer scale of the event that threatened to separate the two leads felt both spectacular and seemingly insurmountable. Weathering with You carried a similar sense of two young humans trying to be together while overwhelming forces of nature are trying to keep them apart*.

Suzume instead deals with the theme of earthquakes, and places the protagonist right in the tragic events of 2011. Aside from this, there is one element (apart from the mandatory appearance of a cat) that is common not just to his most recent films but a thread that runs right back to the beginning of his career: the teenage romantic couple separated by time and space.

I’ve had concerns in the past about whether Shinkai’s storytelling vocabulary is rather limited, but this aspect is integral to all of his movies and I can’t imagine them being as resonant and compelling without it. Even so, I was worried that he doesn’t know how to write anything apart from this. What if his movies eventually become predictable?

Some interviews about Suzume’s writing and production suggest that Shinkai had originally intended to try something different, but eventually found himself circling back to doing another boy-meets-girl story. Whether this was one individual’s veto or a collective decision among the rest of the production team I don’t know; what I can be sure of is that his original intention was to focus on the relationships between the female characters rather than a romantic pairing with the male lead, and I can still see parts of this concept shine through in the finished product.

For instance: the relationship between Suzume and Tamaki is really vividly depicted, and one tense scene highlights how the loss of Suzume’s mother has affected them both. I’m fortunate enough to have not lost a parent at an early age, but this moment felt incredibly real and raw. The narrative arc is Suzume’s emotional journey to unpack and come to terms with her grief, but it also shows the perspective of the person who took over the role of the parent who was lost. There are a couple of jokes made at Tamaki’s expense, which are light-hearted but show Suzume acknowledging the sacrifices Tamaki made in adopting her; while Suzume is understandably traumatised by the loss of her mother, I was also keenly aware that Tamaki was dealing with the responsibility of raising her niece while mourning the loss of her own sister.

Similarly, Chika is a great example of the kindness that ordinary people show to strangers, and I was also particularly fascinated by the life that Rumi leads. Like Suzume’s mother (and Tamaki, by adoption), Rumi is a single parent who works hard and bears great hardships. The film’s title clearly indicates who this story is about, but it seems to make a deliberate effort to portray the dynamics between the protagonist and the other (mostly female) characters that she encounters. Chika and Rumi also feel to me like they have lives outside of what we see on screen, rather than existing solely to send the heroine on the next stage of her journey and be forgotten about afterwards. The film succeeds there, but I still wanted it to spend more time with them.

Which is all a roundabout way of me saying that yes, Suzume is a very good Shinkai movie, and there’s a hell of a lot to like about it: it’s funny, emotional and looks stunning. It’s just, this is the first time that I’ve felt that a teen romance is not essential to the plot. Given the strength and variety of the other relationships between the protagonist and the rest of the cast, it may have worked even better on those alone.

To his credit, Shinkai does manage to add the romantic dimension to Souta’s role in the story without it getting in the way, and the magical-chair-transformation adds some feelgood slapstick comedy. Forced rewrites to appease producers and studio execs can often have a detrimental effect on a production, so I suppose that Suzume is fortunate that it still ended up as coherent and satisfying as it did.

The frustrating part is, this happened to an award-winning director with a proven track record of critical and financial success who initially made his name through independent films. If someone like Shinkai can’t be trusted to successfully tell the stories that he wants to tell without external interference, what does this mean for other directors, now and in the future?

There are so many admirable and thoughtfully-written female characters here, which suggests to me that Shinkai is interested in depicting more than just young straight romantic couples pining for one another. I hope that his next movie will finally provide the opportunity to explore new territory, because I have faith in his abilities even when some industry execs apparently don’t.

Suzume is currently available on Netflix.

*Controversial opinion: SPOILER I quite liked Weathering with You’s ending, in that it forced the hero to return home and face his personal issues and didn’t depict a neat resolution where the world went back to how it was before. It seemed to acknowledge not just our changing climate, but suggested that we need to work on personal growth and adapt to the world around us rather than trying to run away from reality and interfere/bend the elements to our will. This was quite brave and refreshing, and it felt very aware of contemporary concerns as well.

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