As Friday loomed, I started searching for something to review. My eyes rested on a listing for “Your Name.” A huge hit last year in Japan, the movie went international where it eventually beat “Spirited Away” as the highest grossing anime film of all time. More importantly, though, I just really wanted to see it. So I drove an hour to the nearest theater that was screening the movie, and you know what? It was worth it.
Not everybody is into anime or animation in general. Getting the uninitiated to watch one, no matter how good it may be, is like pulling teeth. I’m not one of those people; my teeth have been pulled.
“Your Name” is set in modern day Japan, but deals with the fantastical. The two protagonists are ordinary high school students. Taki (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki) lives in busy Tokyo, while Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) resides in Itomori, a quiet mountain town. One day a comet begins skirting the earth and causes the two strangers to switch bodies. No more explanation is given, but if I can accept that a comet brought the dead back to life in “Night of the Living Dead” without further explanation, I shall not demand more from this film either.
The body-swapping set-up made me nervous at the outset. I tend to loathe that sub-genre with its rote sequences of characters trying to convince somebody of what’s happened to the desperate attempt to switch back. None of that really interests me.
But this movie goes to some unexpected places. They don’t switch permanently, for one, and don’t have a desperate plan to switch back. They randomly wake up in one another’s bodies, deal with it, and then un-swap again. As they figure out what’s happening, they begin leaving messages for each other, on their phones, in their notebooks. First, they set ground rules: Taki is instructed not to touch Mitsuha’s breasts while in her body, for example (a joke that could be sleazy but is played more innocently than it sounds). Eventually, as they learn more about one another, they begin helping each other. Taki aids Mitsuha in becoming more popular in school, while she gets him closer to his beautiful co-worker, Miki (Masami Nagasawa).
It’s a fun set-up that takes the film to its halfway point, but there are a couple of missed opportunities. Mitsuha, for example, clearly develops feelings for Miki, but writer and director Makoto Shinkai basically drops the idea as soon as he brings it up. The film could have used the body-swapping premise to really explore what her feelings meant and to further probe male and female identity in modern Japan (or the whole world, for that matter).Instead, it takes a different kind of detour to the film’s climax, and it’s here where the movie lost me a little bit. I won’t reveal what happens next, but the story moves into an even more fantastical arena that’s still entertaining but extremely melodramatic with a love story that it doesn’t quite earn.
Happily, though, it’s also a gorgeous film from beginning to end. The visuals are almost baroque in their intricacies. Details abound. As Taki steps into a lake, mud billows behind his footstep and dissipates. When sake is poured, little bubbles can be seen resting at the bottom of the cup. And the myriad shots of the sky, whether pierced by the sun’s rays or covered by thundering storm clouds, are a marvel to behold. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed simply looking at a movie this much since… well, “Ghost in the Shell,” last week.
“Your Name” can get a little confusing, especially for a non-Japanese speaking audience. Between the myriad subtitles (ones for the dialogue, others to describe on-screen text, often at the same time) and Shinkai’s habit of jumping around time without much explanation (early, a scene ends with Taki realizing he’s in Mitsuha’s body, and the next scene has an oddly calm Mitsuha sitting down for breakfast. It’s distractingly incongruous until you realize that this moment is actually taking place a day after that prior sequence) can make the film a little more confusing than it needs to be.
But I much prefer working to understand a film than having everything spoon-fed, and I certainly was able to follow the general story. Some of the smaller complexities, though, seemed a little out of reach on first viewing, so I’m not sure if everything in the story hangs as well together as it should. Either way, I certainly won’t mind watching the film several more times to figure out if it does.
Makoto Shinkai certainly seems intent on dethroning Studio Ghibli –the current most popular anime production company in Japan- with his beautiful visions and tender stories. He doesn’t quite succeed, as his typical need for melodrama becomes a little overbearing in ways the calmer style of Ghibli does not. Still, if you’re an anime fan, this is a must-see. And even if you’re not, you might want to see it anyway. Your heart and definitely your eyes will thank you.