Your Name. (2017) by Makoto Shinkai
Review by Andrew Swafford
The unthinkable is happening right now: a Japanese anime film by a little-known animator is playing in multiplexes across America--with subtitles, no less. Thanks to ticket sales in Japan, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. (punctuation intended) has become the highest grossing anime film of all time, dethroning Hayao Miyazaki’s modern masterpiece Spirited Away, so American distributors are hoping to make a little bit of that cash stateside. Outside of some of the other Ghibli films, the last anime to get a US release this wide was Pokemon: The First Movie in 1998, and that was just to sell merchandise (a common quality among the films listed on the anime box office charts). Your Name., on the other hand, has no toys to sell and no brand loyalty or studio prestige to cash in on. Even Studio Ghibli had plenty of that stuff to coast on; Makoto Shinkai, on the other hand, is far from a household name, even in Japan. Your Name. is, again, doing the unthinkable: finding extraordinary success solely due to its quality as a good story, expertly told by a visionary filmmaker. Am I dreaming? Is this how the movie world works now?
In the States, anime in general has a weird commercialized cult status that can be more than a little alienating to those outside of its outsider circle. So as I’m pitching this anime feature to the world, I’m acutely aware that you, dear reader, probably fall into one of three categories:
1. people who never watch anime (and probably think its weird)
2. people who tend to watch Ghibli films and other critical darlings, but not much else (I readily admit to falling into this camp)
3. people who are anime obsessives (who may or may not be familiar with Shinkai)
But no matter what your level of familiarity with the form is, I posit that THIS IS A MOVIE FOR YOU. This is a movie for people. And if you are a person, you are denying yourself a lot of satisfaction every minute you live having not seen a Makoto Shinkai film. Your Name. is a perfect introduction to his work.
The concept of Your Name. is an accessible one; it’s a body-swap story! After an awkward teenage boy living in Tokyo and an unfulfilled teenage girl living in rural Japan find that they are regularly switching places while dreaming, but never being able to remember the other’s name upon awakening in their own lives. Shinkai’s story, which he’s also published in novel and manga formats, might be looked at as just another twist on the narrative told and retold (and retold) by the likes of Freaky Friday, 18 Again!, The Hot Chick, The Change-Up, etc. Jason Bateman, star of the last film listed, described his film as having “a tired--some would say ‘pleasantly familiar--premise” before praising his picture’s R-rated qualities. And the farcical, juvenile humor that pervades a lot of these films is noticeably minimized in Your Name.
Sure, Shinkai gets consistent laughs throughout due to the male protagonist’s fascination with his new female body parts, but the movie makes the narrative fresh again not by upping the sleaze factor but by heightening the more empathetic, emotional side of literally living someone else’s life. I’m tempted to say that their relationship gives new meaning to the Shakespearean phrase “star-crossed-lovers,” but even that fails to capture the indescribable connection (both romantic and platonic) that exists between these characters who know each other’s lives and bodies intimately but have never touched, had a conversation, or even stood in the same room together.
The Shakespearean term makes a lot of sense, though, as there is quite a lot of stargazing in Your Name. In the film’s first half, the bored girl from the country does the cliché thing of looking out into the night sky, wishing she had a different life, but it takes on a monumental importance in the film’s second half, when a meteor shower makes the distance between the two characters even more painfully felt. Both here and in his previous work, Shinkai uses the vastness of space and the natural world to communicate how far away his characters feel from each other. In his masterpiece, 5 Centimeters Per Second (which even has the tagline: “a chain of short stories about their distance”), one character has an epiphany about love while watching a rocket blast off; in Voices of a Distant Star, a character yearns for a lover who is fighting in a deep space Gundam-style war, reframing anime’s “mecha” sci-fi subgenre entirely. Your Name. is the most crowd-pleasing of these films, as its obsession with space provides plot-level payoff with enormous stakes, in addition to offering plenty of metaphorical substance to interpret.
Shinkai’s films move in such an ethereal, cosmic style as well, often elevating conventional stories of puppy love to levels of beautifully abstract tone poetry (comparable to art house staple Terrence Malick, especially his film The Tree of Life). It’s touching on such a fundamental level that might be easily dismissed as overly sentimental melodrama if Shinkai’s craft didn’t demand to be felt. While his characters are swept away by their emotions, you will be swept away by gorgeous art style of the world Shinkai creates, which rides a fine line between photorealism and singularly-anime artifice. His backgrounds are breathtaking, and he often cuts between them at a rate usually reserved for music videos. Fittingly, there are many music-video-style montages throughout Your Name. (a Shinkai trademark) that show Shinkai melding his culturally specific medium with the universal language of melody and rhythm. Just like a great pop song, Your Name. has a bubbling, effervescent energy to it that is undeniable, making a pleasurable experience out of emotions that are often melancholy and wistful.
The only other storyteller who comes this close to capturing the feeling of distant longing is Wong Kar-wai, who fans of world cinema will know for films like In the Mood For Love, Chungking Express, and Happy Together, all of which explore the feeling of being trapped in one’s own body/psyche in crowded urban environments. Shinkai also sets his stories in and around cities--especially Tokyo’s sardine-packed subway cars--which may be where this type of alienation is most intensely felt. He tends to have his characters communicate with some sort of technology. Here, the characters of Your Name. give each other life-updates via an iPhone diary app, and the familiarity of the operating system firmly plants the narrative in the present moment, perhaps highlighting the way in which contemporary tech affects human connection, both eliminating figurative distance between people and emphasizing literal distance between people at the same time.
Shinkai has been called “the new Miyazaki” in more places than I care to find references for, and I think it’s a reductive label. Not because Miyazaki’s not great (he is so great!), but because the two have so little in common. Both work in the same medium and tend to tell the stories of adolescents, yes, but Shinkai brings such a virtuosic style to the table that he really deserves to be taken seriously on his own terms. The filmmakers that he does remind me of most (the previously mentioned Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-wai) work pretty far outside the realm of mainstream, commercially viable cinema. The fact that Shinkai is embracing the art-house aesthetic, sacrificing none of his own personal and cultural uniqueness, and finding record-breaking success--all while making films that are as supremely enjoyable and interesting as Your Name.--is a cause for celebration.
Please watch this in an American theater while you still can!