Sunday, April 16, 2023

Suzume, and Makoto Shinkai becoming the one of biggest names in anime

I mentioned in the "Next Week" post that it's kind of crazy to me that Makoto Shinkai is such a big deal now. I saw The Place Promised in Our Early Years at the first Fantasia festival I attended, and "Voices of a Distant Star" soon afterward (in my head, it's in the other order, but nope), and really liked them, although I didn't imagine that Shinkai would blow up like he has. It was much more a feeling of finding the guy who is totally on your wavelength when such things seem rare than getting in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

(As an aside, I recently found out that another movie I saw at that first trip to Montreal, Please Teach Me English, is having a 20-year-anniversary Blu=ray release in South Korea, making me wonder if I'd really been doing this for so long. I haven't - it had a November 2003 release in its native land and then bounced around the festival circuit for some time after that, until it played Fantasia in mid-2005. Things worked differently, then, in that local distributors might watch how things played at festivals and then make deals even at that late date, because the lack of social media with automated translation meant territories could be siloed from all but the most rabid enthusiasts abroad, and there weren't big global companies grabbing worldwide rights to things pre-release. In a lot of ways today is better, because there is so much access, but it's probably not as stable.)

You could see the enthusiasm building for Shinkai, though - after being gobsmacked by just how he edited 5 Centimeters per Second, I remember putting Children Who Chase Lost Voices on the top of my list of things to see at Fantasia a few years later, while some friends thought it looked interesting and came out slack-jawed, like they'd seen the heir to Hayao Miyazaki. After that, "The Garden of Words" was a smaller project, but attracted a ton of interest, and then Your Name hit and his career entered a new phase.

If you look at the posters for Your Name, Weathering with You, and Suzume, you can see that the marketing departments have hit upon a look that is probably meant to signal "from the director of Your Name" at just a glance, but it goes deeper than that. "The Garden of Words" is the first time I recall the really fanatical real-world detail that became a hallmark of Shinkai's style, but it's with Your Name that he found the formula that's kind of been repeating, of young people falling in love in a world that increasingly seems to be teetering on the brink of destruction. It's probably the first film he initiated work on after the Fukushima disaster, and like a lot of other Japanese genre pictures, it reflects that event even if it doesn't mention it. Young people around the world are looking at potential climate disasters and other things that could bring the world to a tipping point, but the Japanese have recently lived through one, and movies like Shinkai's that both assure them that there's something they can do and say that it's still worth caring about everything else are likely very welcome.

Even as Suzume is Shinkai's most Miyazaki-like film since Lost Voices, it's still very much his, grounded in the modern and looking toward the present and future than some imagined or mythical past when mankind and nature were in harmony, and I must admit, I'm starting to wonder if these three movies will start to blur together a bit over time. It might be a good moment for Shinkai to shake things up a bit with his next film.

On the other hand, I'm curious about how long it will be until theaters start doing Shinkai series the way they do Ghibli ones now. He's only got five features (and two that aren't quite feature length but could be paired), but they skew slightly older, and maybe they'd be good for the Ghibli off-season - fall/winter compared to Miyazaki's spring/summer.

Suzume no tojimari (Suzume)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2023 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run; subtitled Imax Xenon)

So, just literally saying your movies are in Miyazaki-town now, huh, Shinkai? Is that how it is?

"Miyazaki" is, in fact, the name of the town where Suzume opens, and where the title character (voice of Nanoka Hara) lives with her aunt Tamaki (voice of Eri Fukatsu). One morning on the way to school, she meets a young man, Souta (voice of Hukoto Matsumura) who is looking for a ruin, pointing him to an abandoned district. Curious, she cuts class to see what that's all about, only to find a mysterious door in the middle of a one-time bathhouse, and something unearthly on the other side. Her actions lead to a giant "worm" which only she and Souta can see emerging, as well as the appearance of a mysterious talking cat (voice of Ann Yamane). That's when things get really weird, as "Daijin" makes Souta disappear but an old three-legged chair built by her late mom becomes animated with his spirit, and the pair chase the cat (photogenic enough that it becomes a social-media hashtag they can follow) across Japan, with other doors opening it its wake.

There are, of course, worse places to be and modes to operate in than those that recall Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator that even those with no taste for genre material tend to recognize as a master, especially since this is very much Makoto Shinkai's take on this sort of fantasy: Yes, it's a coming of age story with a determined heroine encountering creatures that are cute and powerful without it being cloying, a recognizable house style and strong fundamentals, but Shinkai's films are different than Miyazaki's: This is modern, sharply rendered, and looking back just enough to get one's bearings to eventually move forward. If Shinkai switches things up with his next film, this will form a fine trilogy with Your Name and Weathering with You as three tales of young love flourishing despite the twenty-first century feeling like unusually apocalyptic times.

And as one might expect, he's got some of the work of this down to a science. Suzume is a girl with a practical ponytail and a tendency to hurdle over obstacles right from the start, simple animation choices that define who she is rather than what's happened to her quickly, even though she could easily feel like her whole personality is defined by her traumatic past. The filmmakers get a huge amount of personality from a sentient three-legged chair without a lot of outright cartooning; chair-Souta moves frantically and if his "face" is unmoving, the character always comes across as one that would narrate his frustration or overestimate his capacity (while underestimating Suzume's) even in his cursed state. A cat's tail resembles a hand just enough to let her emote a little more, and Radwimps contributes another score that feels earnest and poppy but ramps up to epic nicely.

I do think Shinkai falls into a trap of giving the audience the ending it wants rather than going where the story was leading here, like he was nervous about leading up to "you can handle what life throws at you because of what you bring" as opposed to having someone else by her side, almost to the point of self-awareness, as a character gruffly tells Suzume not to disrespect someone's sacrifice even as the script eventually works very hard to back out. And while this may simply be me, as an American, not understanding the resonances certain things may hold for a Japanese audience, the mythological elements tend to become big things fighting as opposed to mythology that represents something by the finale. The end is satisfying in one way but not as much in another, not quite getting under one's skin the way Weathering does, for example.

It's still a thrilling, entertaining adventure, and I wouldn't be surprised if the self-awareness that more than creeps in around the edges, from knowing that something sort of has to have a face to one of the film's rotating supporting character commenting on fitting road-trip needle-drops to the situation, means that Shinkai is aware that he's gone to this well enough for it to become a pattern. I won't complain if he continues to do so - he is really quite good at this sort of thing - but it might be time to stretch again.

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