My review of the film for Neo magazine (Uncooked Media) is below. I also wrote several online pieces related to the film; the links are at the bottom of the review.
In Japan, Your Name is the success story of the year. Makoto Shinkai’s film has become one of the most popular anime films ever, and one of the most populist anime ever. It’s nearer to Back to the Future than Spirited Away,nearer to Spielberg or Zemeckis than Ghibli. It’s a very smart film, with a modicum of depth, but it mostly succeeds as sheer entertainment.
Schoolgirl Mitsuha is frustrated by the backwardness of her mountain town. She prays to the gods to be reborn as a boy, living in the bright lights of Tokyo. In the next scene, she wakes up in Tokyo in a boy’s body, with a completely different life and friends.
In fact, she’s swapped into a body of a boy called Taki. Taki wakes in Mitsuha’s body in turn, and is just as baffled (especially by “his” new breasts). Both characters think they’re dreaming, until they swap back and realise a stranger was living their life for a day. Then they switch again. And again…
Bodyswap stories are as old as the book Vice Versa (1882), but Your Name uses the idea for a quick-brewed romcom. No sooner have Mitsuha and Taki realised their situation than they’ve become a tangled couple, arguing via messages on their mobiles, their notebooks, or scrawled on their hands and arms in felt-tip.
The weirdness of this “relationship” is that Mitsuha and Taki don’t meet when they swap. (There’s no All of Me scene where both their minds get stuck in one body.) Yet they’re utterly intimate. Not only do the teenagers experience each other’s bodies – which is as awkward as it sounds – but they also get each other’s families, lives and identities. The youngsters aren’t visitors in their second lives; they’re joint owners, entitled to make changes and improvements.
The bodyswapping scenes have been criticised for being darn fast. One ofYour Name’s shocks, for anyone expecting the sedate storytelling of Ghibli – or indeed, of Shinkai’s past work – is that it compresses much of the kids’ bodyswapping into a rapid-fire montage. But the concept is so good that it works even at revved-up MTV speed.
The montage is set to a toe-tapper, a song called “Zen Zen Zense” by the group RADWIMPS. It does for Your Name what “The Power of Love” did forBack to the Future. The vignettes are light and lively, as when we glimpse a girl who shyly fancies the newly masculine Mitsuha. The witty character animation sells the idea of a girl in a boy’s body and vice versa.
Less breathlessly, there’s a sweet, cliché-averting scene where Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, sets up a date between Taki and his workplace crush, the formidably chic Okudera. She’s the film’s best supporting character, who advances the story in the nicest of ways.
Alternatively, the best supporting character may be Japan. As Mitsuha and Taki swap bodies, each of their homes is valorised on screen. Mitsuha’s mountain town is gorgeous, especially the images of houses stacked up in vertiginous layers like a wedding cake. A funny scene has Mitsuha and her friends walking through the postcard-perfect backgrounds, complaining that there’s nothing to do.
Across Japan, Taki’s Tokyo is a super-real metropolis elevated to the level of Oz by anime colours and sunbeams. The beautiful backgrounds hide clues to the story: bisected circles, a ring of water, a lake which looks like a knot.
Japan’s culture is represented through the country’s Shinto practices. Mitsuha is presented as part of her country town’s shrine family, which is now a broken unit. The girl is embarrassed to perform a ritual to make sake for the gods (it involves saliva). It isn’t just local colour; the cultural details are used to seed plot information later.
It reflects how the king of Your Name is story. Vital info is planted in the early scenes, as in Back to the Future, along with false clues about where the story is headed. Scenes are slyly non-linear, in ways it takes a repeat viewing to sort out. There’s a playfulness about Your Name’s storytelling, which never descends to “It’s only a movie.”
Shinkai plays tricks on us; then he lets us see those tricks and how they construct the film. For instance, Your Name’s first act is shown mainly from Mitsuha’s viewpoint. This is crucial in how we react to later developments, pulled into sympathy with the characters.
Though it began as a broad, brash comedy about bodyswapping teenagers,Your Name changes significantly as the halfway point. It becomes the story of an obsessed quest, a spirit journey, seeking things lost but unbearably tangible. (It’s the part of the film which feels most like Shinkai’s past work). We travel to a hidden part of Japan which resembles Princess Mononoke and is dubbed the underworld.
The last act is a terrifically gripping adventure, played out under heavenly lights. At this point, Your Name becomes a thinly-concealed fantasy about Japanese traumas, with unmistakable echoes of recent events. Perhaps this helped the film’s box-office… but the sheer entertainment value surely counted much more.
FURTHER READING – I also interviewed Makoto Shinkai about the film for the AllTheAnime blog. In addition, I have pieces on the same blog focusing on Your Name’s ending, its sexual elements, and how it contrasts with Studio Ghibli’s work, as well as broader reflections on the film. Beyond that (!), I reviewed Shinkai’s own novelisation of his film and an interesting spinoff novel by another writer.