Sarusuberi is not a film I believe anyone can enjoy, but I have no reservations about calling it a work of art. Not only is it a beautiful film overall, the experience it provides in both its characters and its setting is poignant and thought-provoking despite its straight-forwardness, something that is regrettably rare in major feature-length anime releases.
Sarusuberi has neither a main conflict nor a linear narrative, instead made up of a handful of shorter stories that are loosely held together by O-Ei, the film's central character. It is difficult to asses the story's effectiveness, because there isn't really a particular "goal" that it tries to achieve, thus no tangible criteria to judge it against. I did think, however, that each section of the movie had something of interest in it, was well-paced, and never felt pointless.
The format also leads to the overall tone of the completed film being very subdued, with virtually none of the melodrama one would expect out of an anime. Where the movie gets its flair from are, in my opinion, the art, as well as the masterfully done sequences of magical realism woven throughout. There aren't many, but when they do appear these sequences are breathtaking, effectively adding some variation in what could have easily become a monotonous film.
Due to the lack of a real plot, it's also difficult to asses the film's characters. While there is little development for most of them (though O-Ei does receive some, subtly but powerfully so,) it can also be said that they aren't really meant to undergo much development in the first place. All I can say is that I believe the film is meant to be experienced with the characters rather than following them as they try to get from Point A to Point B, and for this purpose most of the characters are interesting and unique (though not always likeable, which in my opinion is a good thing), even though some appear only briefly.
The animation, art, and sound in this film are all exceptional. Perhaps due to the presence of O-Nao, O-Ei's blind sister, this film is truly a sensory experience. So much attention is paid to the details in the scenes where she appears - everything from footsteps, the crackling of woven grass, the creaking of a great wooden bridge - that it adds a touch of realism to the animation. A number of scenes delightfully weave some of Hokusai's actual art into the visuals, creating some of the most potent scenes of the film. Edo period Japan is crafted so immersively that it would be a joy to watch the film even for just that purpose.
The only thing about this movie I'm not sure that I loved was the music. The film makes use of a more traditional orchestral soundtrack, with sections using traditional Japanese music, and, strangely, in a couple of scenes, electric guitar riffs. While I understand what the film could have been going for - perhaps showing O-Ei's character at odds with the norms of her time, I found it rather jarring to hear.
Not all will have the patience for or the interest in this kind of film, but I would recommend Sarusuberi to fans of historical anime, animation, and subdued slice-of-life shows of the non-moe variety. It is a beautiful, subtle, intelligent film that doesn't try too hard to be any of those three, which is what, I believe, makes it so excellent.