Film Review: “Suzume” – Chair Bud
By Nicole Veneto
Were the entire film a road tripping adventure between a high school girl and a silly little chair she has to either carry in her arms or lug around in an oversized knapsack then I’d be able to recommend the film with full enthusiasm.
Suzume, directed by Makoto Shinkai. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
To be completely honest, I haven’t really clicked with any of Makoto Shinkai’s works despite their enormous popularity with American anime fans. Being the Arts Fuse’s self-elected anime expert, this might come as a surprise considering the international critical acclaim films such as 5 Centimeters per Second, Your Name, and Weathering with You have garnered. I’ve actually only seen Shinkai’s breakthrough Your Name and found it underwhelming given how successful it was upon release. Shinkai’s films are certainly beautiful, but beautiful in the way a nicely rendered Windows desktop background is: gorgeous to look at, yet lacking the emotional complexity and thematic edge something like Evangelion or Akira allows me to chew on for days, months, and even years on end. Shinkai’s latest, Suzume, is a romantic road-trip disaster film that fits a similar mold to his previous efforts — as far as visually pretty but “safe” anime features go. That said, Suzume makes a singular creative decision with its otherwise conventional YA romance that suggests there’s much more to Shinkai’s artistry than the rest of his filmography lets on.
Twelve years after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, 17 year-old Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara in Japanese vocal track and Nichole Sakura in Crunchyroll’s English dub) is still grieving her mother’s disappearance and presumed death. (The Coolidge Corner Theatre is screening a subtitled version.) Having been taken in by her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu/Jennifer Sun Bell) in the aftermath, Suzume now lives a relatively quiet life in Kyushu where she hopes to become a nurse like her late mother. On the way to school one morning, she encounters a handsome young man named Sōta (Hokuto Matsumura/Josh Keaton), who’s searching for the ruins of an onsen (hot springs) resort in town. Unbeknownst to Suzume, Sōta is a “closer,” a mystical traveler whose job is to close a series of magical doors across Japan that lead to the “Ever After.” They pop up in abandoned places before they unleash deadly natural disasters. Suzume accidentally releases the cat-like trickster god Daijin (Ann Yamane/Lena Josephine Marano) guarding the onsen’s door, so our heroine must complete Sōta’s cross-country mission after Daijin transforms the “closer” into a three-legged toddler’s chair made by Suzume’s mother just before she died. Yes, you read that correctly: the romantic male lead of this film is a broken chair. Even by the frequently bizarre standards of Japanese anime this is something unprecedented for a mainstream cinematic title.
I really cannot stress enough that there is absolutely no reason that Sōta is turned into a chair, beyond its sentimental value to Suzume. In a more conventional telling of this story, the transformative item could have been a child’s doll, a toy, or a piece of jewelry. But a chair? The closest Shinkai comes to offering an explanation for this choice is in a recent interview with Looper, where he reveals that he originally conceived Suzume as a “sisterhood type romance movie” between two girls (i.e., lesbians), but that the studio pushed him toward making another heterosexual romance due to audience expectations following the overwhelming success of Your Name: “At first, I wanted to turn this story into a movie about Suzume and another girl journeying. Why I even wanted to go in that direction in the first place is because I personally felt a little bit tired of telling the very traditional romance story,” Shinkai told Looper’s Reuben Baron, “[So] in order to not make it too much of a romance, I decided to make [Suzume’s] primary interest a chair.”
Despite the popularity of yaoi (“boys love”) and to a lesser extent yuri (“girls love”) with a significant subset of domestic and international anime and manga fans, Japanese media still wavers when it comes to accepting positive LGBTQ representation. In terms of censorship, homosexual romance between two men have fared somewhat better — Yuri on Ice, No. 6, the climactic same-sex kiss in Promare, etc. — than lesbian romances, although the latter have also proven lucrative via such titles as the legendary Revolutionary Girl Utena and the recent Gundam: The Witch From Mercury. There’s little doubt that Suzume could (and would) have been something greater than it currently is had Shinkai had his way. It’s encouraging to learn that he wanted to break from expectations with a lesbian-coded romance.
Still, this forced creative decision lends Suzume a level of absurdism that makes it stand out from the rest of Shinkai’s filmography. The most memorable part of Suzume isn’t its gorgeously rendered backdrops, gratuitous scenes of people eating delicious looking food, or the saccharin emotional beats you can find in every other animated feature of this caliber. Rather, it is the comedic whimsy that comes from watching a little CGI chair doing parkour across the screen. Were the entire film a road tripping adventure between a high school girl and a silly little chair she has to either carry in her arms or lug around in an oversized knapsack then I’d be able to recommend the film with full enthusiasm. But about halfway through, a premature mini-climax in Tokyo occurs and Sōta the chair disappears until the last 15 minutes of the movie. Pacing is among Suzume‘s biggest problems: the back half of the film drags like a super-long after-credits sequence. Of course, this isn’t to say Suzume completely loses steam without its little Ikea chair leading the way. There’s some compelling familial drama between Suzume and Tamaki (who’s forced to chase her adopted daughter across Japan when her worried text messages go unanswered) and a very funny extended bit with a convertible’s faulty hood that got plenty of laughs from the audience.
Though Shinkai’s oeuvre has been internationally praised by critics and mass audiences alike (with some even hailing him as the “new Mizayaki”), detractors often criticize his films for being “safe” and emotionally shallow, foregrounding pretty imagery and landscapes over thematic complexity and edge. And I pretty much agree with this criticism. However, the international success Shinkai’s films have received from both audiences and critics isn’t unwarranted. Shinkai has clearly tapped into something in his films that deeply resonates with people around the world. Suzume’s certain to touch the hearts of many who watch it.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.