When buying my ticket to Your Name today, the clerk mentioned off-hand, "I can't believe this is the movie that surpassed Spirited Away." I basically shrugged it off since I hadn't seen it yet, but it's easy to see why he was so perplexed. When describing the plot of Your Name it sounds like something we could easily produce here and have some awful laugh track underneath. Basically what you have is a body swapping movie where a boy ends up in a girl's body and vice versa. If this were a decade ago the live-action American version would star Lindsay Lohan and Jason Biggs or something.
Fortunately, that's not what we have here. What we have is another thoughtful, resonant dramatic piece of animated glory from director Makoto Shinkai. While others have labeled him the heir apparent to the great Hayao Miyazaki, his serious approach is more along the lines of Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies. In Japan, animation is given credibility whereas here even our best is seen as a novelty. What separates Your Name from other body swapping movies is its sensitive handling of gender roles, identity, fate, and other lingering themes teens grapple with on a regular basis. While this is all done within context of the Japanese cultural, these issues remain universal which is why Your Name has been a hit all around the world.
There is a metaphysical element to all of this, as well, and it can get a little confusing. Mitsuha is a young girl from a rural Japanese village who has been having strange dreams of living another life. Her sister, grandmother, and two closest friends say she was acting really strangely the day before, but Mitsuha can't remember any of it. There isn't much in her little corner of the world. Certainly there are no cafes to hang out at (One of those cultural tics Americans may not get.), so she spends most her time helping her grandmother tend to the local shrine. Her dream is to get out of her village and to live in Tokyo. But there is where we find Taki, a boy who is having similar out-of-body experiences. He's more of a typical sort of teenage boy; awkward and shy around women, especially his boss at the restaurant he works at. He's been nursing a crush on her but can't find a way to talk to her about anything.
Of course, these two are switching bodies, and eventually they figure out it has something confusing to do with a comet's arrival. The actual mechanics of how all of this works is probably where Your Name falters the most. It succeeds when we're seeing Taki and Mitsuha cope with their predicament, not when they actually begin trying to sort it out. What they find is that their lives are enriched by the other's presence. Mitsuha gives Taki the feminine side he needs to finally find common ground with his crush, opening the door to them becoming friends. Taki's masculinity helps her cope with an estranged father (who happens to be the town mayor), and emboldens her to deal with a life-or-death matter that arrives much later. They begin to know one another, inside and out, without ever meeting. And since they forget all of this the morning after, they have little chance of meeting and making the most of that knowledge.
What's interesting about Your Name is that it's essentially two completely different movies. The body switching part is what lures you in, and I'd have been content to just stay with Mitsuha and Taki's mismatched lives for the duration. But then a mystery arrives that flips the whole thing upside down, and the story becomes practically unrecognizable. When one character disappears, it's up to the other to figure out what happened and if the comet has something to do with it. Shinkai doesn't have the firm grip on this part of the puzzle as he does the teenage angst. It's a lot of spiritual, religious, cosmic mumbo-jumbo that doesn't totally add up, although we go along with it because of our emotional investment in these characters. However, part of what makes Taki and Mitsuha so compelling is their connection to one another. Without that, the movie loses something fundamental that is gone for far too long. It's a testament to the perfect pacing of Shinkai's script, which affords us ample time to understand who Mitsuha and Taki ar, but just as importantly how they are perceived by others. Gender dynamics are often fluid, a point Shinkai subtly makes with Mitsuha's interactions (and flirtations) while in Taki's body.
Every detailed hand drawn image is lush and vibrant, with shimmering water that you just want to dive right into. His idyllic interpretation of the Japanese countryside (in contrast to the crowded city) and its simplicity is reminiscent of the family dramas by Hirokazu Koreeda, who often notes the vast differences. It wouldn't surprise me if there was at least some influence. This stuff is simply breathtaking, and will make you forget about the latest Smurfs movie or whatever....well, if you haven't forgotten it already. Hand drawn animation is such a lost art form here that we are lucky the Japanese continue to find new ways to improve upon it. As for the film's score, it's a distracting ear sore of J-Pop that doesn't always fit with the scene's mood, but to be fair virtually all anime has this problem so it may not annoy genre veterans.
Don't worry, some American producer will find a perfectly suitable indie band for the live-action remake someday. It's sad but more likely to happen because of the film's massive success everywhere but here. I don't envy whoever takes that project on. Not that Your Name is perfect, but it has a magic all its own and has touched the lives of people the world over. We should join the club.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5