[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Suzume distills Makoto Shinkai’s recurring themes into a single poignant image. Early on in the narrative, our young protagonist encounters a strange door in the middle of an abandoned, derelict bathhouse. The sight is immediately uncanny: the surrounding architecture has long since crumbled and decayed; only this lonely threshold remains, standing in the center of a shallow pool of water. Moving sluggishly, as though in a trance, the girl turns the knob and pushes it open—revealing a portal to a fantastical world. She recognizes the sprawling landscape, the vast expanse of alien stars and celestial bodies, having glimpsed them in a dream—or, perhaps, in a repressed childhood memory. Trembling, she steps forward…
…and emerges on the other side of a perfectly ordinary doorframe. The gateway to the alternate dimension still lingers—beckoning her, taunting her—but no matter how many times she tries, she cannot enter it. Whatever she subconsciously desires is always just beyond her reach.
Also, in what has to be an irreverent deconstruction of the writer/director’s own obsession with unfulfilled longing, the heroine’s love interest is magically turned into a walking, talking three-legged chair—an unapologetically absurd premise that lends lends itself to slapstick comedy (whenever the character in question is unceremoniously used for his new shape’s intended purpose) and earnest melodrama (when the transformation victim realizes that he is becoming increasingly inanimate, and will soon lose his humanity permanently) in roughly equal measure.
Despite its tonal versatility, Suzume conspicuously lacks the underlying bitterness and melancholy that pervade many of the animator’s previous efforts. Whereas Children Who Chase Lost Voices and 5 Centimeters per Second, for example, are all about accepting the inevitability of loss, this film adamantly rejects such concepts as fatalism, futility, and resignation, instead preferring to cherish life. “Nothing lasts forever and everything fades,” Shinkai argues, “but we must not abandon hope and succumb to despair; happiness is worth the struggle, even if it cannot endure.”
I wouldn’t call this shift towards optimism an “evolution,” necessarily, but it certainly represents an interesting (and not entirely unwelcome) change of pace for one of Japan’s most consistently compelling auteurs.