PLOT: In a Japanese coastal village, teenage girl Mitsuha is struggling to remember events of recent days, in which she’s been told by her peers that she’s been “acting weird”. The next morning, she wakes up in Tokyo, in what appears to be a hyper-real dream. It only becomes apparent the next morning that she is regularly swapping bodies with Taki, an awkward boy living in the world’s largest city. Communicating only via messages they leave on each other’s phones on the day they swap, they try to improve each others lives- unaware that their feelings about body swapping are more complex than they could have initially imagined.
Your Name is one of the most inventive animated films in recent memory. It undeniably feels like a singular work, even as it picks up influences from countless different sources; director Makoto Shinkai has singled out various pieces of Japanese manga and literature as inspirations for his work. Yet for a Western audience, Your Name feels like the result of taking the body swapping social awkwardness of Freaky Friday, the chronology skewering mind-bending sci-fi of Arrival, the keenly observed adolescent woes of John Hughes’ films and the breathtaking animation of Hayao Miyazaki and throwing it all into a blender. There are plenty of cinematic touchstones for which Your Name is comparable, but the end result still feels like the rarest find of all- a truly original work of mainstream cinema.
For his prior films, Shinka garnered a reputation in his home country of being the “new Miyazaki”, a shoe which doesn’t fully fit due to the lowbrow (if admittedly hilarious) teensploitation comedy that Your Name frequently dishes out. Shinkai changes tones often, yet always manages to find the perfect balance instead of leaving the end product feeling tonally uneven; there is a level of madcap invention here that makes many Studio Ghibli works, to which his films will inevitably (and wrongly) be compared, feel somewhat serene by comparison. There is no doubt that he is a master of animation in the making; the film is visually breathtaking, even boasting a pastel-coloured hand drawn segment that manages to surpass the stop motion wonder of Kubo and the Two Strings to become the most stunning piece of animation I’ve seen on a big screen this year.
Most impressively, he manages to subtly nest recurring visual motifs into the frame, long before it becomes apparent that they are vital to understanding the mind bending narrative- making the perplexing revelations easy to buy, due to the strength of the foreshadowing and the extent to which it is underplayed. It is in this regard that the comparisons with Denis Villenueve’s recent sci-fi adaptation Arrival become inevitable- even though the approach to chronology in Shinkai’s film is decidedly different, if equally unique. Even the introduction of the body swapping narrative is handled in a subtle way, taking its time before revealing that the surreal occurrences in Mitsuha’s life that she fails to remember are a result of not being present in her own body.
Shinkai’s film has been derided in some quarters for being an “emo anime”. This is no doubt entirely due to one of the film’s aesthetic features and the sole negative opinion I have on the movie- one that makes it infuriatingly fall short of true masterpiece status. This isn’t about his slow lapse into sentimentality and sequences designed to trigger profound emotional reactions, as the movie is undeniably moving, despite some of the cheesy gender swapping gags early on. It also isn’t due to him focusing on the lives of two misfit protagonists, as both are empathetic, easy to like and eventually be brought to tears by, even with all the aforementioned crudeness that comes with adolescent gender swapping.
No, the derogatory emo criticisms stem entirely from the jarring soundtrack from Japanese band Radwimps. A popular band among teenagers in Japan, choosing them to make the music for a cerebral romantic sci-fi would be like choosing Fall Out Boy to make the music for Arrival. Shinkai has managed to perfect the tone and make all the disparate elements feel cohesive- it is only the musical decisions where that mastery eludes him. Out of context, the music sounds great, it just doesn’t fit with the film whatsoever, even though I could buy the argument that this music is exactly the sort of thing our protagonists would be listening to.
Your Name manages to perfect a balance of inventive sci-fi and emotionally complex characters that are so human, the story leaves a lasting impact. The movie devolves into saccharine melodrama in the closing moments, but that does nothing to detract from the utterly unique piece of work that came before- a true original and one of the year’s finest films.