It’s generally hackneyed for Western critics to compare any (or, in some egregious cases, all) modern anime directors to the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki, but it’s especially hackneyed to invoke that name when praising Makoto Shinkai, who’s been slapped with the ill-fitting label “The Next Miyazaki” at least since he made 5 Centimeters per Second two decades ago. I am a little guilty of this hack behavior myself, having compared the way Shinkai lovingly illustrates the beauty of urban settings with the way Miyazaki illustrates the majesty of Nature – twice, when reviewing both his breakout hit Your Name. and its lesser loved follow-up Weathering with You. And even though his latest film, Suzume, is partially set in the Japanese city of Miyazaki and features a direct shout-out to the Miyazaki-penned Whisper of the Heart, I really need to break the habit of typing that name every time a new Shinkai picture rolls through American cinemas. We all do.
At this point, Shinkai’s closest comparison point might be someone who only occasionally dabbles in animation: Wes Anderson. The 50-year-old industry long-timer has tripled down on his schtick so hard since Your Name. broke out in 2017 that his stubborn resistance to explore new visual or thematic territory has become endearingly stubborn in a distinctly Andersonian way. I know exactly what I’m going to get from a Makoto Shinkai picture long before I buy a ticket and accompanying popcorn bucket: a supernatural romance between youngsters distanced by Japan’s urban/rural divide – their lives eventually united though fast-moving trains, widespread disaster, and the transformative power of love. Shinkai’s non-existent lenses will “flair” across his CG-smoothed train rides and exquisitely detailed hand-drawn backdrops in the exact same way every single picture, and the only question, really, is what supernatural device he will use to keep his lovelorn teens apart. He’s been so consistent in his recent output that he’s inspired his own crop of shameless imitators (as evidenced by other, lesser teen romances like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas) the same way that Wes Anderson’s retro, symmetrical wit inspired aggressively unwitty flicks like Garden State & Napoleon Dynamite. The thing with both directors is that no matter how familiar & insular their respective filmmaking styles have become, they’re both still delivering vividly entertaining work every project. I don’t know that Shinkai will ever match the soaring teen emotions of Your Name., but the artistry of his two triple-down follow-ups still coasts miles above most modern animation. Like with Anderson, his work remains impressively gorgeous & earnest in the moment even if it’s no longer surprising or novel in the larger context of his career.
In this particular game of Makoto Shinkai Mad Libs, a rural teenager stumbles across a magical doorway guarded by a stone cat figurine that her touch brings to life. When the impish cat-god scampers away, the unguarded door opens to unleash gigantic flaming tendrils from The Other Side that slam down on her unsuspecting hometown, threatening to destroy everything & everyone she knows in devastating earthquakes. A college-age hunk she immediately crushes on teaches her how to close & lock this dangerous door, then joins forces with her to return the cat-god to its rightful station. Only, the little feline prankster turns the hunk into a talking chair, which makes the heroic pair’s already awkward romance even more uneasy. From there, Suzume and her wooden-chair beau chase the kitten around Japan, closing all the doorways to the afterlife that open without its protection along the way. The wide-scale tragedy of the resulting earthquakes is treated seriously and is eventually tied to the 3/11 tsunami disaster that devastated Japan in 2011. That historical context piles a lot of emotional heft onto the youngsters’ flirtatious relationship, but it’s also lightened by the physical awkwardness of their predicament. In some ways turning the older boy into a talking chair makes him a less threatening object of desire for his teen-girl counterpart, but the movie still has cheeky fun in moments when he is visibly flustered that Suzume sits in his “lap.” When she asks, vacantly, “Um, why are you a chair?” in perfect teenage aloofness, Shinkai is winking a signal that it’s okay to giggle at the outlandish premise. Even so, the physical object the boy inhabits is eventually afforded its own emotional heft in Suzume’s backstory, so that his transformation is rooted in a tsukumogami Japanese folklore tradition instead of a LOL, So Random flippancy. By the time Suzume crosses the gates of Hell to rescue her chair from the afterlife and defeat the flaming earthquake tendrils for good, there’s no question how seriously we’re supposed to take their relationship.
As easy as it is to become jaded about Shinkai’s tendency to repeat himself, there’s also no denying that he’s good at what he does. By the film’s fiery emotional crescendo where Suzume is struggling to dislodge her new chair friend from his Arthurian stone prison while the world ends around them, it’s incredible how breezy the journey to get there felt in retrospect. It’s as if you were so distracted by the frustrations of retrieving an escaped kitten that you didn’t even notice you opened the forbidden Hell door from Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland during the frantic search (a formative film that I beg you not to scan its production credits, to spare me further self-inflicted accusations of hackiness). Shinkai has a way of building to immense wonder & awe even if you start out assuming you’ve seen it all before, and I’m starting to hope he never changes course. I want him to follow the Wes Anderson career path where every subsequent Makoto Shinkai movie will be the most Makoto Shinkaingest movie the world has ever seen. May we all survive the disasters of climate change long enough to see his anime equivalent of The French Dispatch in 2032.