All the things anime fans have come to expect from the acclaimed director are present and accounted for, but is that enough?
There’s a scene in director Makoto Shinkai’s new theatrical anime, Your Name, which serves as a pretty good litmus test for how much you’re likely to enjoy the movie. The male and female leads, in their separate hometowns, look up to watch a shooting star streak across the night sky, leaving a tail of light as it flies across the heavens.
Astronomy enthusiasts in Japan have pointed out that the depiction of the meteor isn’t completely congruent with real-world science. All the same, it looks utterly gorgeous and produces an immediate, almost magically sentimental effect. It’s the most compactly crystalized example of the film being led by its heart instead of its head, and if that decision works for you, you’re likely to come away happy to have seen Your Name.
While the director has been routinely celebrated by anime fans both in Japan and abroad, Your Name got an unprecedented amount of mainstream domestic press coverage for a Shinkai film. Fittingly, the script is confident enough to trust moviegoers already know the basic premise: high school students Mitsuha and Taki, living in rural Gifu Prefecture and Tokyo, respectively, mysteriously begin to switch bodies when they fall asleep. As such, te movie wastes no time getting straight into the conscious-swapped scenes, which are described as “Happening a few times a week, with no particular pattern,” which lets the convention be used as often or infrequently as is convenient for the scenes Your Name wants to show the audience.
For the most part, Mitsuha and Taki take the supernatural phenomena in stride. Taki learns to appreciate the natural beauty of Mitsuha’s hometown and the traditions of the shrine her family administers, while Mitsuha takes full advantage of the proximity to Tokyo’s trendy cafes and fashionable entertainment districts that come with borrowing Taki’s life. But while it’s a refreshing change to see characters in this sort of situation not immediately go to pieces, during this section of the movie one of Your Name’s major weak points is exposed.
After a few extended scenes establishing the body-switching mechanic, the movie drops in a montage of Taki and Mitsuha going about each other’s daily life. On the upside, it’s set to an incredibly catchy song by Japanese rock band Radwimps.
At the same time, though, it doesn’t really do much to establish who the characters are. If you’ve seen the trailer for Your Name, it’s clear that the emotional beats hinge on the growing intimacy between its two leads, and the question of whether or not it’s the basis for a lasting interpersonal, or possibly romantic, relationship. Montaging so much of that process makes it feel like their connection forms simply because of a passage of time, as opposed to admiration or attraction, because it glosses over so much detail.
Making things more difficult is that the nature of the story means we don’t see Mitsuha and Taki interacting with each other. Sure, they leaves notes, scrawled both in notebooks and on body parts as well as entered into their smartphones. For most of the film, though, when we see one character’s body doing something admirable, it’s the other character’s soul inside. It’s particularly tough to understand what draws Taki to Mitsuha. Whereas the story establishes Taki as an earnest, friendly guy who works hard at his part-time job and hopes to become an architect, Mitsuha spends the majority of her screen time in her own body either loudly complaining about how boring her town is or quietly complaining about having to help out with the shrine.
Even when they swap bodies, we can see Taki, to an extent, trying to make positive contributions to Mitsuha’s life. He stands up to a group of would-be bullies targeting her and tries to make her town just a little more enjoyable for someone dreaming of a cosmopolitan life. Meanwhile, Mitsuha eats fancy desserts and pursues an attractive coworker of Taki’s, a romantic quest she seems to find much more fun than he does.
There’s also a major third-act plot twist that’s likely to take the audience by surprise, but which the characters it affects should have seen coming a mile away. While it feeds into the rest of the story, after this suddenly introduced crisis is resolved the movie spins its wheels for another ten minutes or so before finally heading into conclusively resolving whether or not Taki and Mitsuha will have any sort of continuing connection.
And yet, despite the fuzzy motivations linking one scene to the next, many of them are extremely well-done when judged as individual moments. Somewhat like the comet hurtling across the anime’s sky, the audio and visuals are always moving toward some strong sentiment, whether it’s elation, melancholy, apprehension, or reverence.
The film is a near-constant joy to look at. No one in the animation industry produces environmental art like Shinkai does, and the background of almost every scene is dripping with color and emotion. It’s not just Gifu that looks breathtaking, but Tokyo as well, with some beautiful renderings of Tokyo’s urban Shinjuku district on display. On that note, it’s nice to see Your Name elegantly sidestep the cliche of “rural life good, big city life bad,” as Mitsuha’s enthusiasm for the Tokyo lifestyle is presented as a completely valid opinion.
While not as jaw-dropping as the backgrounds, the character animation also shines in spots. While Mitsuha isn’t too keen on performing a shrine dance at her grandmother’s insistence, the audience will be glad that granny got her way, because the stunning movements of the ritual are an artistic highlight of the movie. As with many stand-alone theatrical anime, the voice-acting is more subdued than what you’ll hear in a typical Japanese animated TV series, but still lands in a more emotive space than a Ghibli or Mamoru Hosoda feature.
For a movie in which connecting threads are such a visual and figurative theme (Mitsuha’s shrine duties include weaving ceremonial braids, and the name of her fictional hometown, Itomori, literally means “string protection”), it’s sort of a shame that the seams tying together Your Name’s plot points aren’t more tightly sewn. Part of that might be due to the film’s running time. At 106 minutes, it’s not excessively long, but it’s only the third anime of 90 minutes or more by Shinkai, whose breakout work was the 25-minute Voices of a Distant Star and whose last project was The Garden of Words, which clocked in at just 46 minutes. With that in mind, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that he might still be refining his personal style of piecing together the story for an anime of this length.
As a very hands-on creator, Shinkai also wrote and edited Your Name, and it’s possible that a different editor might have removed the musical montage and trimmed the late lull before the ultimate climax, freeing up a bit more space to devote to developing Taki and Mitsuha’s characters in a more detailed manner. That, in turn, would have helped make it a little more logical just what, other than pure familiarity, sparks their deeper interest in one another.
That said, none of these issues seem to be hurting Your Name at the box office or in the eyes of Japanese viewers, who’ve made it a smash hit. At the screening I attended, the theatergoer next to me was sobbing right along with the on-screen characters during especially moving scenes, which leads to what’s arguably the movie’s greatest strength.
While the motivations connecting one scene to another are often fuzzy, it’s always clear what Your Name believes its characters are feeling, and the characters’ actions in any individual scene show that they, at that instant, believe it too. They believe it so strongly that, at the story’s most important points, they can make you believe it too.
All of which brings us back to that comet, which shouldn’t really look as awesomely beautiful as it does. It’s tempting to label a movie “dumb” if you’ll get the most out of it by watching without thinking about the details too hard, but that would be an unduly harsh way of judging Your Name. The more apt description would be to call it a young movie. Your Name is filled with the sort of emotional conviction felt by teens and young adults who know exactly what they feel, even if they don’t entirely know why, and the movie is in no way embarrassed about that being its driving force.
If that’s a mindset you can appreciate, either because it’s the one you have now or you remember it being a strong, positive force in your past, Your Name will hit you right in the heart.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’d like to rewatch Your Name and count how many shots of sliding door thresholds there are in it.