Over the last week I’ve seen a few people shaking heads or simply being overly skeptic of the hype surrounding Shinkai Makoto’s latest feature-length film. I’m usually put off by hype as well, and where I’m currently staying at it was impossible to avoid. Tokyo’s trains and buildings have been plastered with advertisements for it, big and small, Akihabara’s stores had the trailer playing on repeat, and after the Japanese premiere a few days ago many have decided to crown Shinkai as the next Miyazaki Hayao. However, after mustering up the will to buy the damn ticket for tonight’s show, I can confirm that Your Name justifies a lot of what is being voiced about the film. It was that good.
Kimi no Na wa is a story about a boy and a girl, Taki and Mitsuha. The former lives in the megalopolis of Tokyo, the latter in a beautiful rural town near Hida city. Mitsuha in particular is tired of her seemingly boring life and can’t wait to get out of the boonies. Her wish comes true when heavenly circumstances make possible for the boy and the girl to switch places, namely through body swapping. How does the pair deal with this sudden and unexpected change? And what should they do with their new set of extremities? Can they touch them or not?
The plot is laid out to us in the first three minutes of the movie, suggesting there will be no room for pretense. Basically, the viewer is let in on exactly what he’s going to get. Later on the major twist complicates things quite a bit, making the story into a bigger postmodern fantasy than it seems at the offset, but the general direction of where it’s supposed to be going doesn’t change. The first third of the movie is loads of fun. Watching the two getting used to their new bodies and unfamiliar lives produced many a chuckle. I was surprised that they went for boob jokes right from the get-go, still they were all made in good taste. I overheard a conversation among women in the audience who thought Mitsuha’s sister Yotsuha was a cutie, which is something I can wholeheartedly agree with. Her no-funny-business antics especially make her a real treat. Taki’s character is at its best when Mitsuha is occupying his body, otherwise he’s not that much different from your regular Japanese high school boy archetype. I do agree that him occupying Mitsuha’s body is crucial to her charm, and to her development later on. Though I don’t want to make this into a He versus She thing, I felt like her core character design was simply more interesting. I mean, a priestess whose sacred duty is to produce sake by chewing rice with her mouth? I’m in love again.
The following is a spoiler that I cannot avoid if I want to be more constructive, but the biggest gripe I see people having will be the rules and mechanics of communication between overlapping worlds. The main characters are happily switching places with one another, but after a while the need to meet up in person begins pressing on them. Sounds trivial enough, but here’s the problem: the memories of the time they spend in the other person’s body quickly fade away. The feeling, as they describe it, is similar to waking up from an elaborate dream that you can’t fully remember. This limitation makes it hard for them to write down essentials such as their home addresses, or even their names.
Of course there’s a reason for the way things are, but the real problem I see are the mechanics they used to bypass them. By the end they are both grasping for straws to solve the big problem, to the point they could be seen as dabbling in the occult if Shintoistic aesthetics weren’t part of the movie. The solutions they need to reach are all symbolic and sort of just dangling right in front of them. The Miyamizu lineage of female priestesses, their mouth-chewed sake ceremony, the grandmother’s perception of knotting as flow of time, the twilight effect, and the ever-so-potent power of love. The movie leaves Taki no choice but to tunnel-vision on some of these without any real guesswork, which is really the only problem I have with the story’s progression.
Let’s turn to animation. Some cuts, like the animated time lapses of Tokyo’s skylines, were so beautiful you couldn’t help but tear up. Tokyo Station and Yoyogi Park were out on full display, not to mention the gorgeous rural scenery from Mitsuha’s town. Character animation was what you’d expect it to be from a production of this caliber, still the backgrounds and effects work is where I’d say the money is at. I remember getting a bit distracted by the animation switching from hand-drawn to rendered in a few places, however with the amount of detail put into every frame you can write off this complaint as ultimately nitpicky.
The music was okay. It wasn’t bad or anything, but nothing exceptional to write home about either. The RADWIMPS vocal though, for some reason one of the songs is still playing in my head on repeat, and it’s getting super annoying. Maybe because the vocal reminds me of BUMP OF CHICKEN.
Okay, now that we’ve covered basically everything pertaining to the movie itself, there are a couple of related things that I want to talk about. First, I feel like I have to restate a few things that I said recently, namely about anime productions that use real-world locations for modeling their settings. It’s no secret that Shinkai himself uses them quite often, but to tell you the truth it’s a practice that I, as a fan of Japanese animation, have silently been brewing contempt for. Photographs of real locations used not as tools for inspiration, but rather shameless production materials have been trending in the anime production business for the past ten years. The resulting backgrounds tend to look great, the process makes production easier, and the fans love them. Satou Dai, better known for his work on Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, has in the past expressed negativity toward these types of productions. For the aforementioned reasons he compared them to a drug, one that takes “creative” out of “creative process.”
Over the years I’ve grown to agree with the old man, because to be quite frank some of the recent productions have gone way overboard with promoting tourism. Take Amanchu for example. I haven’t seen the show, I only got to see a few posters, and I can tell you those were enough to turn me off completely. On them, the main character is making poses as if she were a tourist guide who’d love to show me around, rather than a character who cares about what happens in her own life. However, now that I’ve spent a few weeks in Tokyo I got to experience something close to what I imagine local residents get to experience when watching such shows. Seeing the same skyscraper scenery, riding the same trains on the Yamanote Line, and experiencing the same Tokyoite consumerist culture as pictured in the anime I can understand why Japanese fans love it. It’s one thing to look at the backgrounds, think they’re pretty, then visit the locations out of curiosity, but it’s something else entirely if you see the redrawn “Fun! Tokyo!” posters that advertised this very fucking movie to you weeks before you actually saw it! Backgrounds modeled after real places form a deep emotional bond with fans who are living out their everyday in those same places. I still don’t have to like the lazy principals behind the practice, or where it’s taken the anime genre as a whole, but I can understand why it’s so hard to let go of it.
The other thing that I wanted to touch up on was the Shinkai versus Miyazaki debate. I’ve seen every major Shinkai work to date, and one thing that is strikingly obvious from the evolution of his opus is that the guy has slowly warmed up to the idea of more accessible storylines. His first notable work was Voices of a Distant Star, which was a sci-fi flick made for otaku by an otaku. Beyond the Clouds was a beautiful, thought-provoking work, yet in spite of that many people don’t seem to like it. Why? Because overall it’s a clinically boring experience. And, don’t get me wrong, 5cm Per Second was visually stunning and everything, but it was still depressing as all hell.
Then we get to Children Who Chase Lost Voices. I loved this one for its clear and precisely laid out story. The artist took a step back, seeing with far better clarity where he shouldn’t overburden the viewer. His symbolism was universally understood, yet remained intellectually inoffensive. The Garden of Words that followed was short and sweet, to which Shinkai added a touch of provocation. At the same time, he kicked it up a notch with the artistry.
Shinkai directed his best stories when he wasn’t being too selfish with what he wanted to say. Miyazaki was the same in that regard, with Howl’s Moving Castle being his last widely appreciated work. Both of these guys became the talk of the street for their feel-good movies. They both have their own quirky artistic wishes, and it’s hard to assign rank whose are worse, but I think you get the point. Shinkai’s stories have changed for the better. Taki and Mitsuha may have struggled reaching each other through the fabric separating their realities, but at least they didn’t let themselves be thrown into utter despair. In contrast, the flacid protagonist from Byosoku 5cm simply chose to remain miserable. Miyazaki’s self-indulgence produced similar defects. In Howl’s Moving Castle he made the world of magic and wonder accessible to both children and adults, unlike in Ponyo from which he barred basically everyone over the age of nine.
What I’m trying to say is that the director standing in front of us now has finally matured. He doesn’t get hell-bent on portraying the extremes of his pet peeves anymore. Your Name has a story that was a joy to watch, fast-paced with zero downtime and little room for the director wallowing in self-reflection. Aside from the storyboard, the movie’s staff demonstrated a level of technical proficiency which is currently unrivaled in the feature-length film space. Not by Kyoto Animation and not by Studio Ghibli. Skeptics who aren’t prepared to dethrone Miyazaki just yet might be able to argue against the growing chorus of Shinkai supporters, but their struggle is missing the point. Shinkai Makoto is still a relatively young guy who still has time to polish his storytelling and steady his guiding hand, which is why I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring out in the coming decades.