When I choose to see a particular film, it’s usually because something about it appeals to me, so that I expect to enjoy the experience. But sometimes, a film comes along that touches a nerve with the public at large and, often quite unexpectedly, becomes a phenomenon. That is intriguing enough in itself to get me to the theatre.
It’s the reason I went to see “Your Name”, a Japanese animated film from writer-director Makoto Shinkai, whom I had never heard of. It was the highest grossing film in Japan last year, and has been breaking records in many Asian markets and Australia. One problem with going to a film for this reason, though, is that, if you like it, you’re not quite sure if it’s good by your own standards, or because it gave you an insight into some “universal” quality that tapped into the zeitgeist at just the right moment. The temptation is to say it really is good, but that may be just to convince yourself that you’re above the kind of comfort that comes from being part of the larger film “community”.
With that caveat, I’ll add to the confusion by admitting that I did like the film – on a deep emotional level – but that I’m still not sure if its popularity didn’t influence me. Would I have felt that way if I knew nothing about its popularity at all?
The rest of this review attempts to justify my genuine admiration for it as based on my own critical standards.
We first meet Taki, about 15, who lives in Tokyo. On this morning, however, he wakes up and finds himself in a strange place. What’s more, his body is different. He has a girl’s breasts and – to his shock – he sees in the mirror that he is an entirely different person. He is a Japanese girl named Mitsuha, in a far off place, with a younger sister and a grandmother, who is raising both of them.
At the same time, Mitsuha wakes up in Taki’s bed, in Tokyo, and inside Taki’s body.The two have never heard of each other, and the sudden transposition of their bodies is a total mystery. The first part of the film, which is sprightly and playful, describes how each adjusts to this life-altering experience. The transpositions occur at intervals, and are temporary until they revert back, also without warning. They communicate by writing messages to each other in their school notebooks, and on their hands, which they see when they return to their own bodies.
But the mystery deepens when we learn that Mitsuha is actually living in a time three years earlier than Taki. It is the time just before a comet, that had split apart in space, crashes into her village and destroys it, killing hundreds of people, including Mitsuha. Mitsuha only learns of this when she is inside Taki’s body, at a time three years later. Taki – who has still never met Mitsuha – also learns of what happened to her village. The latter part of the film, which is faster paced and quite suspenseful, shows their frantic efforts to warn the villagers to evacuate before the comet hits. The story shifts back and forth in time because they can only coordinate their efforts through messages that they leave on their cell phones.
A shorter middle section of the film takes on a contemplative tone. Mitsuha’s grandmother, unaware of the body transpositions, takes both grandchildren to a shrine inside the village. She tells Taki – thinking it is Mitsuha – that it contains offerings that will preserve the spiritual identities of the people who visit the shrine.
Once Shinkai focuses on the impending disaster again, he deftly advances several different themes that are ultimately resolved in a conclusion that is optimistic, spiritually uplifting and even romantic. I’m sure that his ability to integrate these themes, and resolve them in a way that is both exciting and plausible, even if a little more complex than the average animated film, accounts for its remarkable success.
The animation, however, does not break any new ground. Shinkai did not want it to distract from the story, especially one that demands such close attention. In fact, some surveys indicate that many people have gone to see the film again because they thought parts of it were confusing. I must admit that some of the action is still not clear to me, after a single viewing, but the film has a cumulative impact nonetheless.
What I especially admired was Shinkai’s resistance to the idea of dumbing the story down, as I’m sure he must have been pressured to do by his producers. Obviously, he had to be very assured of his strengths as a storyteller to do that. Just one example: a late scene shows Taki and Mitsuha standing at opposite ends of the enormous crater that was made by the comet’s impact. They have never met, and are still in each other’s bodies. They run to each other, then stop, face-to-face. At that very moment, they transpose back into their own bodies while staring into each other’s eyes. But in a dramatic climax of such power, Shinkai refrains from any visual effect. He had confidence that his audience would understand what has happened without the need for overused, pop-level clues that would only vulgarize the story.
But ultimately, the single most important reason why audiences have responded is the appeal and utter credibility of these kids. The anxiety and confusion of Taki and Mitsuha are made to seem so natural that you forget you’ve ever seen stories about teenagers before. The unfamiliar Japanese cultural references never distract. And while it’s much easier to dub animated characters than live actors, the work here is exceptional. More importantly, there are at least six other teenagers in the story, with each given an identifying visual style and manner of speech. These supporting characters provide most of the humor, especially in the beginning, when they are unaware of the body-switching and are confused as to why their friend is acting so peculiar.
I can’t say that “Your Name” is a great film, but it is clearly a special one. Expect to see something a little different, often a little confusing, but rewarding on a very human level. It may not make sense, but it is a fantasy; it doesn’t need to. But if you go in expecting something on the level of “…if you build it, they will come”, you’ll be frustrated. Shinkai is demanding, but he knows what he’s doing, right down to the last two words spoken in the film, which is its title.