“Your Name” wields its body-swap premise cannily, turning it into an expression of the aches and hopes of teenagers, and humanity.
There is no doubt that you should watch “Your Name” in theaters, as soon as possible. If you frequent any single film site on the internet, you know this. The international anime hit is sitting pretty at 98% critic approval Rotten Tomatoes, 95% audience approval, and has become the 4th highest grossing film of all time in Japan. The world has resoundingly recommended it. My own paltry opinion follows suit.
“Your Name” is my first Makoto Shinkai production, but it won’t be my last. The director notched his belt with several ambitious projects, mostly sci-fi films and romances such as “5 Centimeters Per Second” and “The Garden of Words,” which hinged on characters held apart by duty, circumstance, distance, or fantastical space wars. Such are the trials we millennials face. He’s also responsible for a 1999 short titled “She and Her Cat: Their Standing Points” which I can only assume is the pinnacle of his work and, in fact, all human endeavor. “Your Name” carries on the interests and conceits that have defined Shinkai’s career, and its brash mix of zany body-swapping and melancholy ruminations on culture and identity may strike American audiences as peculiar. This peculiarity is exactly why Americans must watch it.
The story of “Your Name” follows two earnest teens, Taki, a Tokyo boy, and Mitsuha, a small town girl. On one nighttime walk with her sister, Mitsuha, anticipating the plot, shouts over the pines of her bucolic, 1,500 resident town, “I hate this town. Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” It might be a goofy translation, but Mitsuha’s desire is clearly related as she wanders through the town’s soft afternoon light with her high school friends, dryly noting, “No bookstore. No dentist. But two pubs for some reason.” That bit of comedy needs no translation to small town Americana.
Not long after, Taki and Mitsuha jolt awake in each other’s bodies. Antics unspool as both mistake the event for a dream, hazily surviving the day then losing grip of the details when they swap back. They disturb norms and relationships with the recklessness of a dreamer, not realizing they’ve taken on a real body and life. We learn that if Taki could get away with squeezing his newfound boobs in bed for hours, he would. Luckily Mitsuha’s sister interrupts, as if the teens indulged in hormonal explorations all day, we wouldn’t have a film. Or, well, we’d have a different film. As reality sinks in, they communicate via diaries on arms and smartphones, setting ground rules; “No baths! No looking! Don’t spend all my money!”
… its brash mix of zany body-swapping and melancholy ruminations on culture and identity may strike American audiences as peculiar. This peculiarity is exactly why Americans must watch it.
While the above makes “Your Name.” sound like a bawdy teen comedy, that’s far from its only ambition. That’s Act One. It soon contains rushing adventure, aching tragedy, suspense, fantasy, cultural commentary, mystery, and gentle romance. “Your Name” wields its body-swap premise cannily, turning it into an expression of the aches and hopes of teenagers, and humanity. Like great fiction, like dreams, Taki and Mitsuha’s power frees them, if only momentarily, from the cage of their own experience. Their forgetfulness upon returning reflects the challenge of seeing other people, other bodies, other lifeways, as equal and real.
This dichotomy of remembering and forgetting is also expressed in the contrasts between Tokyo and Itomori, Mitsuha’s fictional hometown. Mitsuha is eager to forget Itomori, and Itomori is forgetting itself. Her accent embarrasses, her politician father urges modernization, and her Shinto ceremonial duties stifle her. Taki meanwhile is harried and short on cash, working a restaurant job to help his family, who seem ever-absent from their apartment. Neither way of life is fully condemned nor romanticized by the film, though Taki and Mitsuha each harbor glowing notions of the other lifestyle. There may be no cuter moment in cinema this year than Mitsuha visiting her dream café as Taki. She ogles poodles in sweaters for a good minute and orders the fluffiest of pastries. It is delightful and purely emotive. It’s giving me heart palpitations. Another huge credit to the film is that it rolls with Mitsuha’s desires to flirt with Taki’s female coworker, permitting her to explore while leaving her sexuality open-ended. The fluidity of identity and sexuality in this film would be unprecedented in a U.S. blockbuster, as the furor over the slightest gay presence in “Beauty and the Beast” has made freshly apparent.
It’s all too rare for foreign films to acquire a decent release in America, so take hold of this moment. Even acknowledged masterpiece “Spirited Away,” with Disney/Pixar’s support surging behind it, was only the 150th highest grossing film in America in 2002. Doubling the rarity of this film’s theatrical release is that it is hand-drawn, an art form American studios have abandoned. One arresting sequence, which I won’t spoil here, changes style, evoking colored pencil on a white background to enormous emotional effect.
I haven’t mentioned my questions and concerns with the film because it’s so entirely deserving of your eyes. That said, they are substantial. Deep breath now: Taki comes off as a thinly drawn “nice guy,” the plot holes are the size of a small moon, key scenes are told not shown (we don’t see any of the first day Taki spends in Mitsuha’s body), the philosophy and exposition are tritely delivered by a wise grandma sage figure, and the breast to penis joke ratio is unbalanced. I demand equality in all spheres. The film is too much stimulation, brimming with underserved scenes, relationships, and plots that even lively montages can’t fill the audience in on. Yet, none of this matters. Irresistible and elastic, it’s like a well-worn sweater that somehow holds a flattering shape. “Your Name” is charming and humane enough that, statistically, (recall that 95% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes?), you won’t mind one bit.
“Your Name” is rated PG for thematic elements, suggestive content, brief language, and smoking. 112 minutes. Now playing in select theaters, including the Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Playhouse 7, and NoHo 7.