*** (out of 4)
Last August, while Suicide Squad, Sausage Party, and Don’t Breathe were perched atop the North American box office, a different sort of movie fever was taking ahold of Japan. Your Name, an anime about a boy named Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and a girl named Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) who find themselves suddenly “switching” bodies, opened to become the most financially successful anime film of all time, beating out established classics like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Only this past weekend has it finally made it across the Pacific to North American theaters, and its arrival has been met with fervent acclaim from American reviewers: several of them have gone so far as to declare that director Makoto Shinkai has a claim to being “the next” Hayao Miyazaki.
When you consider just how much there is to take in on the movie’s surface, it’s not hard to see why people are so ecstatic. The technical aspects of the movie, for one, will leave you breathless: a moment in which the camera pans out from Mitsuha’s family shrine to reveal the large crater-like structure encircling it is just one of many sweeping, remarkably well-executed shots, and when a (surprisingly important plot-wise) comet is shown shooting across the night sky, the animation carries such a luminous intensity that you, just like the characters, find yourself gaping in awe. The songs were composed by the indie rock band Radwimps, and through their periodic insertion into various parts of the story, they provide extremely catchy bursts of energy that, as Shinkai himself noted, also ably “supplement the dialogue.” And then there’s the plot twist midway through, which would leave David Fincher of Fight Club and Se7en seething with jealousy.
So Shinkai definitely has style and flair. What he doesn’t have, however, is what makes him still unworthy to take on the Miyazaki label: a thoughtful story. To begin with, the first part of the movie is devoted to the sort of “Ach, I’m a girl! What?!” gender-bender comedy that naturally arises from a body-swapping premise, but anyone who’s ever hung around the teen-fiction section of a library will find it rather banal. If anything, in fact, Shinkai spends too much energy either reinforcing the stereotype that men are inevitably horny or catering to the actually-horny men in the audience: Taki-as-Mitsuha’s weird obsession with fondling Mitsuha’s breasts becomes a recurring motif, and the camera at times takes an almost-voyeuristic pleasure in either peering up Mitsuha’s skirt or showing her in underwear, but it’s telling that it conversely never spends time showing Mitsuha-as-Taki caressing her newfound penis or Taki in just boxers. (Proof I’m not nitpicking: at the theater where I watched the movie, several people in the audience made loud, vulgar comments after the show about the quality of Mitsuha’s rear end.) The ironic comments and situations to which we’re otherwise made to bear witness, such as when Mitsuha-as-Taki grabs Taki’s crush (Masami Nagasawa) by the hand and takes her into a private room to fix her skirt, are largely uninspired and easily forgettable, even though you’ll probably be laughing pretty hard in the moment.
From this simplistic comedy, the movie eventually makes its way to the big twist, which, as mentioned before, brilliantly unravels everything we think we know about these characters. Yet once you process it, everything that happens afterwards turns out to be comparatively predictable: the characters have to figure out how to get around the barrier imposed by the twist, but this results in a lot of action that, for all its climactic moments (complete with loud music and dramatic line readings), seems bent on making the plot more complicated for complication’s sake alone. More significantly, while Miyazaki always had something meaningful to say in his works – witness the meditation on humanity’s relationship with the environment in Princess Mononoke or the fervent condemnation of war in Howl’s Moving Castle – Shinkai never finds the time or focus to expand on some brief commentary he makes at the beginning on political corruption and the clash between rural tradition and urban modernity. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times deemed the ending “a deeply moving meditation on nation, history, catastrophe and memory,” but what you really get is at best just mere traces of those themes, if anything at all.
Still, there’s no denying that this movie is marvelously riveting to watch. You’ll find yourself engrossed in what happens right from the get-go, to the point that, as with the best of movies, you’ll completely forget about your life for two hours. And for all the story’s flaws, you’ll likely still come away very touched: as a romance, the film has the sort of zaniness that only anime can get away with, and with characters as likable and genuine as Taki and Mitsuha, you can’t help but root for them in the fervent hope that they’ll overcome everything that stands in their way. Don’t expect anything profound from this, but don’t look away either. You’ll be missing out.
Your Name (2016)
Country: Japan. Dialogue in Japanese, although there’s also a dubbed version.
Main Voices: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Etsuko Ichihara, Ryo Narita
Running Time: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG, “for thematic elements, suggestive content, brief language, and smoking.”
Produced by: Noritaka Kawaguchi, Genki Kawamura
Written and Directed by: Makoto Shinkai. Based on his 2016 novel of the same name.