Suzume is the rich, imaginative new anime from director Makoto Shinkai. Like his previous works, Your Name and Weathering with You, it combines magical story elements with a deep emotional core. That mix is particularly effective this time, as the ingenious premise hooks you immediately and the appealing characters bring out the inherent meaning within it. This is my favorite of Shinkai’s films so far.

The heroine is teenage orphan Suzume Iwato (Nanoka Hara). She’s walking to school one day when she encounters a strange young man named Souta (Hokuto Munakata) who claims to be looking for a door. A door to what, she does not know. Suzume ventures into a decimated, abandoned section of Kyushu, Japan, that he appears to be headed toward. To her shock, a single door stands among the ruins. What happens next makes for great fantasy. She learns that similar doors are hidden all over the country. They keep out giant worms that enter from another dimension and, if they grow large enough, slam into the ground, causing catastrophic earthquakes.

Souta is among the few able to see those worms, so his job is to go around ensuring all the doors are tightly closed. A curious Suzume inadvertently picks up a nearby “keystone” that transforms into a cat and runs away. Worse, the cat uses a magic spell to put Souta’s soul into a 3-legged chair. He attempts to continue on with his mission despite this hurdle. Suzume, recognizing that a chair won’t be able to do much, lies to the aunt she lives with and joins her new friend in attempting to keep the doors sealed and hopefully figuring out how to make him human again.

As expected, the animation in Suzume is breathtaking. Shinkai’s process of mixing the traditional anime style with CGI is sophisticated enough to give the action sequences great suspense. One of the doors is attached to a cart on a rickety old Ferris wheel, and multiple dangers present themselves as Suzume tries to close it. The combination of tension, an ingenious idea, and bold visuals is enthralling. Moments like that arrive throughout the movie, ensuring that the adventure the girl and the “closer” go on together is continually exciting. A sense of humor lets off the stream periodically. Watching Souta run around as a chair with a missing leg is especially hilarious.

Underneath that is a poignant human story. Suzume wants to prevent tragedies because she’s lived through her own. A prologue infers what she has endured. (Without spoilers, the movie pays that off emotionally at the end.) Because she understands pain, loss, and sorrow, there’s an innate desire to help prevent others from experiencing them to the same degree. Like Souta’s comical transformation, this helps add urgency to the tale. A door is literally the only thing standing between large sections of the population and calamity, and our two heroes are the only people who can prevent it.

Suzume is accessible to anyone, regardless of familiarity with anime. The film deals with complex themes in an intelligent way, generates empathy for its characters, and provides continual thrills. This is a first-rate animated feature.

out of four

Suzume is rated PG for action-peril, language, thematic elements, and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.