Saturday, April 15, 2023

Always be closing


2022 Japan/2023 USA
Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai

Spoilers: moderate

Because I am a creature of compulsive negativity, I suppose it is well to begin by pointing out that Suzume (or Suzume no Tojimari, if you want to be fancy, Suzume's Locking Up) represents a very clear case of diminishing returns for the Makoto Shinkai International Superstar Formula that's powered the last three films which that selfsame international superstar has written and directed; and I hope limiting it to just the last three indicates that when I say "formula," I don't mean Shinkai's more generalized and more career-long auteurist pursuits, like "high-pitched emotionalism" or "loving lighting effects and the paradoxes of hyperrealistic pictorialism" or "a focus upon teenagers, which is 99.9% of all anime anyway," but rather I mean, "the same plot, the same structure, and even the same metaphors as his 2016 industry-redefining hit Your Name, slightly-reimagined again."  This was of course already evident four years ago with Weathering With You, albeit at a nearly-invisible rate of clonal fading, so that it only meant that instead of being my third-favorite movie of the 2010s, like Your Name, Weathering With You only got to be, you know, my fourteenth or fifteenth.  Yet this trend has accelerated somewhat here, and I've seen indications of worry that Shinkai is blatantly starting to repeat himself, including wishful references to the whole affair always having been a "trilogy," something I'm almost entirely certain Shinkai himself has never once mentioned, though he should hop on that immediately, considering that like the term "auteur," "trilogy" is a pretty good cover for doing the same thing over and over, at least until you do it a fourth time.  (Though for you real dweebs out there, I regret to inform you that if Suzume ties itself into the Your Name/Weathering With You/Garden of Words-for-some-reason cinematic universe, the cameos eluded me.)

The bright side is, on a purely mechanical level, this is probably the best fantasy adventure script Shinkai has ever written, avoiding most of the plot holes and logistical snarls that have characterized his work anytime he's ever done anything more narratively complex than "sad people yearning in a rainy city park or on a train" (well, he avoids them right up until he doesn't, and the plot holes and logistical snarls sneak their way back in anywayit won't make any sense to you yet, but while it's barely possible I missed something myself, I think he really loses track of what precisely the deal is with the cats beyond their plot function).  Anyway, until that pointeven including that point, if I'm being customarily charitable toward Shinkaiit's classically simple in ways that Your Name and Weathering With You really kind of weren't, and despite being Shinkai's longest film ever, to some extent it does this by practically foregoing having a first act.  So meet Suzume Iwato (Nanoko Hara), a high school junior, orphaned twelve years ago during an event that left, for instance, the ground very wet and boats thrown on top of buildings, so you can presumably guess before it's made explicit what this event is; since then, she's lived with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) in rural Kyushu.  It's been more than decade, so maybe the tsunami no longer fully defines her, but she's still haunted by dreams of the disaster that claimed her mother's life, and while she doesn't exactly cling to it, it is clearly out of sentimental attachment that Suzume keeps the cute chair with a "face" that her mom made for her with her DIY carpentry skills, since she's about three times too big for it to be a useful piece of furniture for her anymore and it only has three legs now anyway.  I mention the chair because it's a surprisingly active presence in this story.

On her way to school, she meets a young man, Sato Munakata (Hokuto Matsumura), who appears to be a wandering hippie, insofar as he doesn't own an automobile and asks her if there are any nearby "ruins."  She points him toward an abandoned sector of town and goes on her way, but before making it to school, Suzume's curiosity and, it's implied, attractionthat hippie was pretty hotget the better of her, and she decides to go scope those ruins for herself to see what the big deal was.  She doesn't find Sato but she does find a door still standing in the middle of a roofless bathhouseit's hard to imagine the architecture that produced this, but it is a startlingly stark imageand she investigates, arriving upon a dawning sense of wonder and terror when she realizes she can see a mystical realm of magenta galaxies and rolling fields through the doorway.  At this juncture, by some inexplicable magic she turns a statue of a cat into an actual cat, though one that talks and seems to wish to destroy Japan.  This makes more sense in the movie, but the upshot is that Suzume has screwed things up, and let something out of that doorsomething Sato will describe as a "worm," a blood-red tube of force that only she and Sato can see, and which exists only to thrash about until it falls, causing earthquakes.  They shut this door just in the nick of time, but there's still the matter of that cat, Daijin (Ann Yamane), and things take a turn for the truly weird when the cat comes back and traps Sota's soul inside that chair of Suzume's.  This isn't as awkward as it could bethe chair can still talk and see and hear and move (amusingly, it moves remarkably well)but it does mean that he's obliged to let Suzume come along as his assistant on his mission to chase that evil cat and deny the worm its entry into our realm, by closing all the other cursed doors that dot the Japanese islands, though as the curse settles into any given portal when a place has been abandoned and left lonely, it actually comes out to rather fewer cursed doors than you might expect given that this is contemporary Japan, a nation replete with forgotten doors in lonesome locales.  But while at first this amounts to nothing but a zany road-trip with a girl and her chair, so that the biggest complication might just be that Suzume has effectively run away from home and upset her aunt, things are inevitably going to get bleak before they get better.

You should've stopped me if you've heard this one before, but there we have it: a teenager is introduced to occult magical lore that bears a mystical connection to natural disasters in Japan, then halfway through they're separated from their romantic lead by what essentially amounts to their romantic lead's death (extra points if it's basically a human sacrifice, as it was in Weathering With You; extra extra points if it also involves swapping one's body for something else like in Your Name), and thus they undertake an orphic (or izanagic) quest towell, I shan't spoil it, but it climaxes with soaring declarations of emotionbut before the big action, Shinkai uses his magic adventure scaffolding as an opportunity to arrange a whole heap of high-tech postcard imagery of his country as well as to stage cutesy, occasionally-dramatic, and frequently-allegoric travelogue vignettes, using likeable side characters who still don't especially matter to illustrate a trip from Tokyo out to the quaintly-designed sticks, or, alternatively, a trip from the sticks into a magnificently-drawn Tokyo megalopolis.  (Why, this one has both.)  I don't mind that he's repeating himself as long as he isn't using that as an excuse to get lazy, except in Suzume he is using it as an excuse to get lazy.

Those inordinately long and dense paragraphs summarizing the plot?  Other than the last two or maybe three sentences, those 600+ words represent perhaps not even the first twenty minutes of this 122 minute movie.  That sounds like the opposite of lazy (if the opposite of lazy is manic), but it points us in the direction of laziness and how this two hour cartoon can feel abbreviated: consider that at no point did I actually describe in what way Suzume and Sato are "romantic leads," because while it's not not theredoes this Shinkai movie use a magical conceit to obliquely slide into some weird, even kinky sexuality? it does! (surely it must be the very first movie to be awarded an American PG where, nonetheless, its heroine sits on its hero's face)it's also a movie that is very sure you've already seen Your Name and Weathering With You and asks you to agree that those yearning, burning feelings need only be assumed rather than stoked.  And it's arguably worse than that: Shinkai's even said that he wanted to get away from teen romance, but he must've blinkedhe knows what side his half-billion dollar box office grosses are buttered onand the compromise he reached is one of those irritating scenarios we're getting more and more of these days, where a movie says "you think they're lovers, you think they're friends, and you're both right, now go forth and write your fan fiction."  It's even a pretty well-done version of thatfence-sitting or not, I'm not sure that Shinkai is truly capable of actually banishing keenly-experienced romantic feelings from his movies, and they do evince a wonderfully strong rapport as far as female/furniture relationships gobut it's a little nettlesome that she never kisses the guy as a guy.  There is also the unintended side effect of this, of slightly getting the Shinkai Formula wrong, in that the magical action climax and the emotional climax are not actually the same scene, something that basically could not happen with Your Name or Weathering With You, but can happen when Suzume's splitting its protagonist's arc between desperate separated romantic love and unresolved grief over the Tohoku disaster.  As for that disaster, maybe this is lazy and maybe it's not, but I'm not sure I like that when Your Name and Weathering With You invented magical metaphors for the Tohoku disaster, Suzume just... makes the Tohoku disaster magical.  That's a choice.  I expect opinions to differ on that choice.

I think that might be all of my genuine complaints; this is the kind of review where I bitch and moan forever and then say, "well, I wanted a masterpiece, because that's what I got the last three times, and this is only mostly a masterpiece, so now I'm disappointed," like that's fair.  It's still Shinkai, so it is absolutely gorgeous.  I could really commit to being an ungrateful asshole, and complain about how, while it's gorgeous, if you've seen Your Name and Weathering With You it's only gorgeous in largely the same ways as those movies already were and without the same unifying ethos of either (in Your Name, an aesthetic dedicated to detailing an urban/rural divide, favoring rural nostalgia; in Weathering With You, another treatise on rain and light pouring through clouds, but more of it because Garden of Words could only give you forty-five minutes of rain, and didn't have a magical conceit to let light pour through clouds in the same manner).  There are novelties, but they're little things here and there, like this time the 360 degree pan is really fast and spins around several times, or perhaps I could catalogue some particular uses of focus or lighting or composited 2-D/3-D images.  (I'll just do one: I like the chair chasing the cat across a busy highway, all at chair- and cat-eye angles, quite a bit.)  But even when it's being inventive with its more action-oriented adventuring, it remains heavily indebted to the imagery already developed in Weathering With You (I guess actually showing the girl getting snatched up into the skyto any non-magical onlooker, as if by wendigois "new," because in Weathering he didn't show that part, but it's not so different from the "skydiving" setpiece in Weathering that you could fail to notice some similarities).  But all of this is, honest, more like an observation than an actual complaintmy salient complaints are still more like observations than complaintsand, hell, just punching the throttle on the fantasy adventure right from the outset, even giving this one an antagonist in the form of a wicked cat (wicked in very cat-like ways, in fact), does give Suzume something of a distinct personality.

I am also gratified, and my worries relieved, by the character design, which pulls back a surprising amount on the "generic anime character models thrown into bleeding-edge effects and background animation" mentality of Your Name and Weathering, something I earnestly thought Shinkai was going to treble-down on given Sato's extravagantly boilerplate bishonen design.  Suzume herself is a pleasingly real-ish figureher face looks like it's on a human skull, even a specific human skulland further afield we discover significant individuality in the side characters, who actually do look like caricatures of particular people you might find in Japan, and not "anime characters" as such.  And of course Sato spends the bulk of the movie as a chair, so there's thatbut it is one wonderfully animated animate chair, capable of breathtaking movement but what's interesting is the contrast between the lightweight toddler chair's stunning agility and the requisite stillness of a chair that spends most of its time pretending to not be haunted by some dude's ghost, yet still managing to somehow convey Sato's personality, no mean feat (or maybe this actually made it easier, I can't say) considering we spend only a few minutes with Sato-as-Sato.

And it occurs to me I have somehow gotten this far without saying aloud this movie is funny, probably the funniest Shinkai moviea lot of this is chair-related, obviously, and it also occurs to me what a fucked up thing it is to describe a movie about something as madness-inducingly whimsical as a man being turned into a Goddamn chair as "not especially original," which I guess says more about Shinkai's top-of-his-profession standards than Suzume as a movie in itself.  If it does not hit the dizzying heights that, at least, Your Name didthat movie turned a freaking boob joke into something you cried at while you were chortlingit's trying and succeeding at being funny more often.  It's not even all chair: a lot of it arises out of the various temporary allies Suzume makes along her way, notably Sato's college buddy Serizawa (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a vector for the most off-kilter piece of efficiently-established idiosyncrasy the movie gets up to, with a noticeable amount of the soundtrack devoted to Serizawa's obsessive desire to share his undying love for Japanese pop from the 1960s with people he's just met.  (The actual score is of course Shinkai's regulars, Radwimps, and it's good, mostly in the expected waysthe "Suzume" character theme is very characteristicbut sometimes not, like when they button another of those chase sequences with a 60s spy movie riff, which, no lie, is just shockingly appropriate to the moment.)  Serizawa is also the occasion for one of the most perfectly set-up and executed physical gags in any movie I've seen in agesit's almost unbearably corny and in retrospect very predictable, but I'm not sure any phrase sums up Shinkai's touch better than "it's almost unbearably corny and in retrospect very predictable," except I'd add "done with heart-melting sincerity and flawless storytelling skill," something as good for comedy as romance or disaster drama, and for the record, as far as being a punishingly feelings-heavy wallop, obviously it does its job splendidly.  But I am also very fond of the running joke of the evil cat becoming an Internet celebrity, and I'm not sure that there's anyone on this planet better at unobtrusively integrating current technology into a narrative than Shinkai.

As for that actual fantastic adventure, it's something that becomes a little too domesticated before the end (I like the end, but, in conformity with Shinkai tradition, everything that happens here happens mainly for the benefit of one or two people, rather than for its own sake), but the first half does tap into a weird fiction sort of zone, exploring the uncanniness of the empty spaces that have been left to rot.  They're not creepy, exactlythere is horror to them, literalized by that wormbut they're more simply sad.  You don't need me or any of the other five hundred critics who've dutifully seized upon the "insight" to tell you "it's about Tohoku," because this time Shinkai tells you that himself, but that doesn't quite capture what Suzume's actually getting up to, reallyand it was probably inevitable that Japan's preeminent fabulist on the subjects of loneliness, romance, and rural unraveling would eventually get around to just more-or-less expressly making a movie about Japan's demographic collapse.  That's something brought home by the way we're invited to notice that Suzume is the only child of fully two separate maternal figures, the current one explicitly consigned by Japanese society to spinsterhood on her niece's behalf, albeit with nearly-equally explicit indications that this is neither right nor, given the one or two guys that seem to have a crush on her (and I cannot begin to explain why the other guy is even in the movie except to underline this idea), is it even the correct perception.  One thing is really clear, however: Shinkai loves his country, he loves showing it off with the most beautiful animation his country's industry is capable of, and he wants his audience to miss and memorialize the parts of it that will someday pretty soon be lost to time.  He wants them to do that together, even if ultimately all that's to be done is to shut the door behind them, so to speak, and enter the always-uncertain future.  Yeah, it's the same movie as the last two, but I really do love the hell out of that movie.

Score: 9/10

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