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Your Name (2016)

If the race is on among anime’s Young Samurai to be the next Hayao Miyazaki – legendary director of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle – then on the strength of Your Name, Makoto Shinkai looks to be in pole position.

Japanese audiences gave the movie a warm welcome: it took 930m Yen on its first weekend and is already in the Top 20 highest grossing anime of all time, and the movie is at the London Film Festival in London from 14-16 October before its general release here in the UK on 24 November.

Your Name is essentially a unique kind of love story, by turns touching, funny, poignant and charming, and one which gives us an insight into many aspects of Japanese life, borrowing a few recognisable movie tropes (notably from Sliding Doors and The Lake House (itself a remake of a Korean movie, Il Mare)) to help it along its at-times inscrutable way.

Mitsuha is a teenage girl living in Itomori, a town encrusted around the edge of a lake in what appears to be a volcanic caldera in a mountainous province of Japan, a rural burg so backward that a roadside bench and canned-coffee vending machine serve as the local café. Taki is a teenage boy, living with his father in a cramped apartment in the bustling heart of Tokyo.

By day, Mitsuha and Taki lead their different lives. Then suddenly, for no immediately apparent reason, they begin to swap bodies. Several times a week Mitsuha wakes in Taki’s body, and he in hers, an experience they both initially characterise as a dream. However, after a few days of hearing friends recount how weird they were just the day before, they both – remarkably quickly – figure out what is going on.  

Taki and Mitsuha, ships passing in the night
The swap has some hilarious consequences – Taki cannot seem to leave ‘his’ boobs alone when he is Mitsuha, to the consternation of his/her little sister, while Mitsuha is dutifully embarrassed to see ‘she’ has “something” between the legs – but mostly the two’s experiences moving through their different landscapes serve to illustrate the incredible contrasts between traditional and modern Japan rather than the differences between boys and girls.

As things progress, they start leaving little messages for one another, and, with the unwitting help of a dull-but-worthy rural suitor and a flighty Tokyo sophisticate as romantic foils, Taki and Mitsuha both soon realise they are developing feelings for their mysterious alter-ego.

Each has something of a longing for what the other’s life can provide. Mitsuha is desperate to leave staid, incestuous Itomori, especially when she hears that her friend Katsuhiko (‘Tessie’) plans to stay there forever and lead a “normal” life. Taki, meanwhile, seems ground-down by the commotion of Tokyo, uncertain job prospects and his ill-starred social life, encapsulating some of the anxieties of urban Japanese youth during the country’s recent decades of economic stagnation.

As is so often the way with anime, the Japanese preoccupation with catastrophe comes crashing in on the two, and the event itself predictably consumes the entire narrative. Anime fans will be familiar with the kind of convoluted plotting and spectacular visuals that accompany such epic turns in anime narratives, no need for spoilers here.

Your Name is, ultimately, a game of two halves (no pun intended).

This is one of those movies you’re going to have to watch repeatedly to get the best out of, because the beauty of the animation is surprisingly good, not only rendered in glorious detail, but with a consistent directorial invention which even Miyazaki’s best pictures struggle to match.

Shinkai’s passion for his art sings out from every crowded cityscape and mountain sky, with a delicious focus on the details of daily life in both locations and a lightness of touch and control of pace that will have you sighing contentedly.

From close-up shots of the contrasting food of urban and rural Japan, to a walk through an autumn forest, to some of the most beautiful renderings of Tokyo ever to grace the screen, Your Name continually doubles-down on visual spectacle woven with metaphor.

For instance, towards the end, as Taki settles back into Tokyo life, we move from a spectacular scene of raindrops splashing into puddles to days of gentle snowfall, as the emotional turmoil of the previous act cools and fades from view – truly magical.

Shinkai's beautiful cityscapes

But there are a few niggles. Without spoiling the plot, the device Shinkai uses to draw the two characters towards the denouement quickly becomes confusing, and Mitsuha’s seemingly endless running along mountain highways and forest paths – it’s remote, we get it – does nothing to increase tension, simply slowing the pace to a crawl. Still, as with everything else in this movie, when you lose the thread of the plot or start to tire, it is lovely to just watch the scenery go by.

If you’re expecting something edgy around gender identity – a fairly standard reaction when one hears ‘male-female body-swap’ these days – Shinkai will disappoint you, preferring to revisit his directorial preoccupation with kindred spirits separated-yet-yearning-for-one-another. Instead, our two heroes blithely switch bodies several times a week, with nothing in the way of serious transgressions to clear up once they’re back in their own shell.  

In fact, aside from some minor changes in dating patterns – Mitsuha drives Taki into a romantic, but unconsummated, relationship with  Ms Okudera, the glamorous female owner of the restaurant where he works in the evenings, while Taki ensures Mitsuha’s relationship with ‘Tessie’ takes on a bluff, lads-together tone – our director leaves the vexed area of teenage sexuality and hormones well alone (no periods, wet dreams or experimental masturbation here, thank you very much!).

Your Name probably won’t propel Shinkai into mainstream moviegoer consciousness in the West in the way Spirited Away did for Miyazaki: the themes are too adult for kids, the plot too complex and confusing for those used to Hollywood-linear, and it’s devoid of the whimsy which saw Disney pick up the Studio Ghibli films for English language markets.

But any anime devotee who isn’t already following Makoto Shinkai definitely should be from this point on. He proves himself to be a passionate and creative director with a superlative sense of anime visuals. Having has teased us with the possibility of adult character themes in a mainstream anime vehicle and having found great commercial success at home, let’s hope that Shinkai feels confident enough to push a few boundaries in his next feature.

YOUR NAME will screen at BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL and SCOTLAND LOVES ANIME before a UK cinema release from ANIME LIMITED on NOVEMBER 24th. It will also be released theatrically in North America via FUNIMATION (Date TBC)