In the world of anime movies, one name shines above the rest: Hayao Miyazaki. His most well-known movies are recognized not only by anime fans but also the general public, highly regarded for storytelling, music, message, and artwork. Of course there are also anime films that have the backing of a large franchise to ensure financial success, but reaching out beyond the anime crowd has proven elusive, as one needs to have seen at least a portion of the main franchise in order to understand characters and plotline. Amidst the landscape, there is Makoto Shinkai, the director of such films as “5 Centimeters per Second” and “The Garden of Words.” Perhaps you have heard of them, but Shinkai undoubtedly plays second fiddle to Miyazaki in terms of name and work recognition, something that may change with the release of “Your Name.”
It has not been an easy journey for “Your Name” for most American anime fans, despite the film’s premiere at Los Angeles’ Anime Expo in 2016. After that slight toe dip into North America, the film took the next flight back to Tokyo, where it ironically was released when I myself was in Japan on vacation. The film then made its rounds around East Asia, racking up recognition after recognition and earning praise and plenty of money not only in its home country but abroad as well. Now, I could have gone out of my way to watch the film whilst in Japan, but I decided against it, believing that without subtitles, I would struggle to understand what was going on. Thus began the waiting game. Every story of praise and every financial landmark increased my anticipation and annoyance as the film seemed destined to not return across the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t until Naka-Kon 2017 that Funimation released the theatre list for the United States, but even then, the local theatres did not have their systems updated immediately to allow for ticket sales. Worse still was the fact I was out of town in Detroit for the film’s premier weekend, and I knew that convincing my friends to delay viewing the film until Monday after I returned was a tall order.
The only thing I knew going into the film was that it was about two teenagers who were able to switch bodies. But even knowing that was not enough to prepare me for what lay ahead as one feels like he or she has started the film in the middle of the story. See, one anticipates at least a sequence to show the body swap taking place, but not here. It was a bit of a surprise to see the two main characters, Mitsuha of rural Itomori and Taki of urban Tokyo, already in the midst of one of multiple body swaps, and both characters are trying to figure out their bizarre predicament through the inquiry of family members and friends. The other thing that one immediately notices is the absolutely gorgeous scenery throughout the entire film, a Makoto Shinkai hallmark but which has been taken to an entirely new level here. The rich and decadent oranges, purples, blues, and greens dance and swirl in tandem, accentuated by liberal but not overpowering levels of saturation and vibrance and combined with a glossy sheen from the lighting effects which result in scenes that photographers would love to capture. The scenes attempt to mimic the effect that one would have if camerawork were not done only at eye-level. Instead, there are vast sweeps of the luscious landscape both from above and below eye-level, and characters are often portrayed as if the camera were placed at one’s feet angling upward. This sort of creativity makes scenes more evocative and realistic, as if one were right in front of the characters or in that scene. The scenery sweeps are also backed up by animation that looks lush and fluid-like in its realism, especially in the comet streaks, in the twinkle of the stars, and when the wind blows. The fact that these details are included shows the craftsmanship that has been baked in, and elevate the film from exceeds expectations to above and beyond. Furthermore, for such a dialogue-driven anime, the fact that there was so much animation and action such as characters running or biking, motions of trains, plus the motion of other non-animate objects in the background, shows that the first and foremost focus was to put aesthetics over budget. Finally, neither the drawings and the animation overwhelm the other, and both added together create something balanced and beautiful. Should an IMAX version of this film exist or be made, by all means, take my cash.
But don’t let the imagery distract you too much, because it is the storyline where this film begins to show cracks. Now, it’s not that it’s sloppily cobbled together or the pacing is off. Instead, Makoto Shinkai attempts to immerse the viewer into the story perhaps a bit too much, with the linear and moderate-length dialogue amongst the two main and other secondary characters barely able to form the storyline quickly enough. There’s no pause in the middle of the film to explain what’s going on and perhaps one too many elements are being interjected to allow the entire storyline to function so the audience ends up as a passenger, feeling every bump and curve in the journey ride as the two main characters struggle to figure out both their connection to each other and what’s going on. But thankfully these characters are relatable and genuine, and each line of dialogue is strategically placed so that both primary and secondary characters develop in a stepped manner, and these layered aspects are touched on and utilized later on in the movie. There’s no sense of drama or overdone desperation, but more curiosity to get to know the other person and altruism for the sake of other people, giving off a balanced, heartwarming, and soulful effect.
Unlike other Makoto Shinkai films such as “Five Centimeters Per Second” and “Voices of a Distant Star,” however, this feeling does not end at the film’s conclusion. His prior films either leave the viewer hanging or very saddened, though not traumatized in a “never speak about this ever again” manner. But with how beautiful and passionate his films are, the tragedy of the characters and central theme of lost opportunity hit especially hard, and mentioning one of Shinkai’s films in passing results in a feeling of quiet melancholy so one oftentimes does not bring them up. It’s as if the journey was a brilliant main course but the destination and conclusion was a hellish dessert. With “Your Name,” however, whilst not a complete bucking of the trend, the ending note is more upbeat and optimistic than in prior works and leads one to want to talk about the film more and more.
Makoto Shinkai has not given up his signature qualities with “Your Name” and diluted them down to make his films more acceptable to the public. The film still holds onto qualities that made his prior works beloved by fans, including stunning artwork, rich animation, and genuinely deep characters. The relationships that Shinkai manages to construct in his films are nothing short of exceptional, and whilst the storytelling is deep and rich with “Your Name,” it slightly bites off more than it can chew, which is perhaps one reason why Shinkai’s works are less appreciated. The themes in a Shinkai film are deeper than a Miyazaki film, the flavors richer and more complex, and as a result make them inherently less approachable for audiences. If a Miyazaki film is like eating sushi at a casual Japanese restaurant in one’s hometown, then a Shinkai film is like going to a Japanese restaurant in Japan and being served the chef’s special by locals speaking only Japanese. But “Your Name” has somehow managed to balance out the desire for rich storytelling with a strong plot and all of the other qualities that Shinkai films are known for, and the result is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a film that can be appreciated by both anime fans and non-fans alike, and though Americans had to suffer through a long wait for “Your Name” to go back across the Pacific Ocean, the film lived up to its hype and made the wait much more bearable. Bring on “Your Name” onto disc format along with the next Makoto Shinkai film, but in the meanwhile, the below trailer will have to suffice: