"This world is not for the ordinary!" says an elderly character in Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime. And ‘ordinary’ is the last word you would apply to a rich and spectacular fantasy that combines the Your Name director’s trademark photorealism with the sort of whimsical shape-shifting and elaborate alternate-world building that Hayao Miyazaki – the legendary auteur and Studio Ghibli co-founder to whom Shinkai is often compared – so memorably made his own.
As imaginative as they were, 2016’s Your Name and its 2019 follow-up Weathering with You featured dramatic devices (body-swapping, weather manipulation) that would work just as well in a physical sphere. (A live-action version of the former is indeed inching towards production, with Carlos López Estrada down to direct under J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot banner.)
In Suzume, though, Shinkai goes full Ghibli, peppering his story of a teenage girl (voiced by Nanoka Hara) on a mission with oddball elements that would feel off-puttingly bizarre were they not incorporated so seamlessly within its epic grand design.
To contextualize, this will undoubtedly be the only film you’ll ever see in which a man who has been turned into a three-legged chair chases a talking cat down a hill to a jazz riff redolent of La La Land. That the feline in question, nicknamed Daijin, should spawn a social-media following that lets it be tracked from southerly Japan to bustling Tokyo may seem equally nonsensical. In Shinkai’s universe, however – one in which ephemeral entities from another dimension happily coexist with modern technology – it all makes perfect sense.
With a pair of mischievous twins, their karaoke bar-managing mother and a convertible-driving hipster thrown into the mix, there is lots of fun to be had on the extended road trip that Suzume and her wobbly companion embark upon. At its heart, though, is something far more traumatic: Suzume’s quest to stop that darn cat opening a succession of portals from which huge, tremor-causing worms emerge has a seismic link to a (real-life) 2011 earthquake that devastated her country and killed her mother.
That the doors should be found in decaying resorts, vacated schools and abandoned amusement parks allows Shinkai to present a poetic commentary on his homeland’s rural depopulation. His regular collaborators Radwimps, meanwhile, ensure their score has plenty of musical earworms to go alongside all those troublesome otherworldly ones.
Suzume is in theaters now. For more upcoming movies, check out our guide to 2023 movie release dates.