Wednesday 26 April 2023

The girl who leapt through time: "Suzume"

The anime nuts' persistence has paid off, judging by last weekend's box-office figures, giving the Japanese writer-director Makoto Shinkai the biggest UK opening of his career with his latest film
Suzume. We're still playing catch-up, of course, and part of that process has been trying to establish whose footsteps Shinkai might be following in. Despite multiple nods and references dotted throughout the new film, it may not be Hayao Miyazaki, the industry legend to whom Shinkai was initially positioned as a worthy spiritual successor. Instead, he increasingly strikes me as one of those directors who makes their name and fortune by working subtle-to-negligible variations on a similar set of ideas and themes - a felt-tip equivalent of Hirokazu Kore-eda, maybe, or Hong Sang-soo, at a stretch. (I bring in Hong, because Shinkai's work to date has seemed a comparably niche concern, where Miyazaki's was always too imaginative not to cross over.) To those who caught the recent revivals of 2016's Your Name and 2019's Weathering with You, much of Suzume will seem familiar. Again, we have a snub-nosed teenage protagonist; again, they're caught up in a dire environmental crisis tethered to the realities of 21st century Japan, in this case a series of earthquakes caused by a rip in the space-time continuum. Again, the efforts to halt disaster are scored by late-period emo kids Radwimps, practically Shinkai's house band at this point. But the canvas has expanded: rather than a small town or city centre, our heroine Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) and her companion, a time traveller magicked into the form of a three-legged children's chair, have to traverse the whole of Japan, pursuing a talking kitten who may also be the key to closing this loophole.

That mini-synopsis hopefully gives you a sense of how much AFS (Arbitrary Fantasy Shit) Suzume requires the non-adolescent viewer to swallow: its mechanics recall the Gozer-and-Zuul business of 1984's Ghostbusters, but here they're centralised and approached dead straight - or as straight as one can, given that two key components are an ambulant chair and a talking puddycat. (Sidebar: it seems apt that only Suzume can see the bristling red vapour trail that denotes the tear in the universe, or the evil it looses, or whatever it is; it corresponds to a new, green generation who are vastly more aware of the threat now facing the planet than their jaded elders, but also the way anime fans have traditionally seen more at stake and of interest in these films than the general viewer. Another difference between Shinkai and the essentially universal Miyazaki: the former knows exactly the demographic he's targeting.) You will certainly require a tolerance for an identifiably Japanese strain of cutesiness: the cat becomes a social media phenomenon, making it easier for Suzume to track its whereabouts, while the chair briefly becomes the plaything of two wide-eyed, helium-voiced toddlers. An early dream sequence establishes our heroine has abandonment issues that need working through - though these yield the most Miyazakian (and most moving) material in the film, when it becomes clear there is an adult at the helm, looking back fondly and not a little wistfully upon the vulnerability of youth. Viewed askance, as I seem fated forever to do when confronted by Shinkai's wispily inchoate, sixth-formish plots, it's also clear he gets his pacing absolutely right this time: Suzume romps along by train, car, pushbike and foot, each bounding leap forward both a nod to the anime form's serial roots and a gift to characters and viewer alike, reassuring us that the closure we seek will arrive sooner rather than later. I still think Miyazaki would frown at Shinkai's beautifully detailed studies of McDonald's hamburgers and Uber Eats couriers; this is an animator from another, more brazenly commercial universe. (Artistic purity may be a privilege nowadays; those pastels don't pay for themselves, you know.) Still, for the most part here, Shinkai does exactly what the eco-activists would have us do: tread lightly while moving urgently in the right direction.

Suzume is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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