In ‘Your Name’ — Japan’s top film of 2016 — a teenage girl named Mitsuha lives in a remote, traditional fictional town called Itomori. Itomori is beautiful — mountains rimming a huge lake — but Mitsuha longs to get out.
Mitsuha is a sweet girl, not naturally rebellious, but the opposing roles of her family members’ public service have begun to stress her in different ways. Her estranged father’s mayoral candidacy makes her feel exposed, while her grandmother’s traditional religious beliefs bring mockery upon Mistuha by some of her mean, “cool-girl” classmates — particularly when they spy her helping to prepare the ‘kuchikami no sake,’ traditional sake made from the spit of a virgin, for her grandmother’s offering to the gods.
In frustration, Mitsuha runs to the bottom of the shrine’s stairs and screams, “I wish I were a handsome, teenage boy in Tokyo!” The wind whips her words away and her cheeks redden, anime-style, with a vertical scribble of blush. But her wish will come true, with a twist: she begins a regular, involuntary swapping-of-bodies with a teenage boy named Taki. Suddenly she finds herself waking up in Taki’s bed, riding the Tokyo subway, navigating by cell phone.
And Taki — who does not seem to necessarily have had any prior wish to inhabit the body of a rural adolescent girl, but is remarkably game about it once he figures out what’s going on — finds himself, for a day at a time, living in Mitsuha’s body, wowing her PE basketball team with sudden major skills, walking to school along rural roads, and every morning (in an understandable sight gag for what’s, at its most basic level, a YA film) groping his newfound breasts.
It sounds a little comical, and as a plotline would not necessarily have lured me in on its own merits, except that writer-director Makoto Shinkai makes some decisions that elevate the film well above typical rom-com or animated-film fare. The second half of the movie opens into a much larger rumination on human connection, empathy, and the delicate interplay of individual and collective memory. “I feel like I’ve been living in a dream about someone else’s life,” Mitsuha thinks — and what is reading a novel, or watching a film, if not that?
On an immediate level, the plot hinges on a not-unheard-of cinematic question: What if you could go back in time and prevent a tragedy, save the life of someone you love?
On a larger level: What connects us? How do things that have happened to other people — tragedies so large they reach the level of legend, that are buried deep in cultural memory — often feel so resonant to us, so moving and so huge? Is that empathy? Is it something else?
My personal entry point into the film: I’ve had a soft spot for Japan ever since taking place in an exchange program there in the 8th grade. A dozen other 8th graders and I got to travel to the town of Otofuke (O-TOFE-kay — not Oto-fookey as our well-meaning principal helplessly called it, no matter how many times we corrected him) on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, after having hosted Japanese students in our northern California hometown earlier that year. Otofuke toed the line between suburban and rural, with modest houses, potato fields, mountains, schools. We twelve bumbling, slightly pimply and awkward American pre-adolescents were welcomed with an openness and generosity that was humbling. We even had to put on kimonos (at least, the girls did) and deliver speeches to the mayor, written out phonetically, in Japanese. Then we had a talent show that ended with everyone singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
In feel, if not quite in visual splendor, Otofuke came to mind again as I watched Mitsuha tend to her chores and walk to school with her little sister. She calls Itomori “the sticks,” and it must feel that way to her, but it’s based on Japan’s breathtaking Lake Suwa and the artwork for it is stunning: watercolor vistas of mountains, layered clouds, shimmering lake and fields which provide a respite from what, in other scenes, feels to me like an occasional stylistic over-cropping.
Likewise, the film’s cityscapes of Tokyo are gorgeous, featuring many real locations such as the Suga Shrine and Shinanomachi Station, and are rendered in exquisite detail — a brisk contrast to the sleepy natural/spiritual world of Itomori.
The underpass in Shinjuku, Tokyo, as shown in ‘Your Name’
Luminous and layered, the artwork actually reminds me a lot of the images from anime-inflected Big Hero Six, for which a whole computer was dedicated just to the development of the world of Sanfransokyo. Interestingly, the two films also share a concern with time-space travel and lost loved ones.
In any case, ‘Your Name’ is worth watching for the visuals alone. I’m no expert on anime, and perhaps for that reason I find some of its conventions a little distracting (the occasional gaspy breathiness and penchant for overreaction, the enlarged quivering eyeballs and slightly fetishistic schoolgirl thing). But, Taki and Mitsuha are so endearingly rendered that I could easily move past what must be an American English-major’s desire for gritty realism and enjoy their characters in all their fumbling, well-meaning, adolescent confusion and joy.
The score is entirely written and performed by the Japanese band, the Radwimps, a name that makes me chuckle every single time I think of it.
The Radwimps have plenty of talent (I listened to them for a whole afternoon, and you can, too – within minutes you will easily forget that you cannot understand a thing they are saying, unless of course you speak Japanese) and they match the emotional tenor of the film perfectly.
At first shocked by the body-swapping that’s taking place, Mitsuha and Taki soon move into attitudes of genuine friendliness and curiosity. They write notes for one another to find when they wake up. They coach one another through life decisions — particularly Mitsuha, who finds that, to Taki’s slight chagrin, his female crush at work is suddenly charmed by his new “feminine side.” Mitsuha — a little delighted by her unexpected power — uses this to arrange a date for Taki, who struggles to live up to the femininity he’s accidentally acquired. The joke is funny but meaningful, too.
Director Shinkai links all that is natural and gentle with the feminine — as with Mitsuha’s all-female family (her sister and grandmother), tending to the shrine and to nature, whereas Taki lives in the bustling, sharp, angular city — in an essentialist way that might make some hard-core feminists raise an eyebrow. But the generous nature of her and Taki’s gender exchange, the primacy of Mitsuha’s point of view to the story and her strength which equals Taki’s, gradually make that less pressing. Shinkai, anyway, seems much more concerned with the idea of union and connection. He uses thread as a visual nudge toward this idea throughout the film. Mitsuha, her sister, and grandmother weave at a traditional loom, and the red ribbon she wears in her hair (with its parallel in Taki’s red bracelet) is prominent in scene after scene. Mitsuha ties it into her hair every morning; when Taki’s inhabiting her body it serves as a little sight gag, always tied haphazardly and falling to the side. In more urgent moments of the film it takes on a much larger and even dynamic presence, sweeping around them and connecting them.
You can only imagine my delight, poking around on Google Translate, upon learning that the Japanese word ito means “thread or string,” while mori, of course, is self-explanatory.
Which leads us to the serious part of the film: During Itomori’s annual star festival, the comet the townspeople gather to watch will split, and one part of it will fall upon the town, destroying it and leaving a vast crater in its wake.
Taki realizes that he has been living just ahead of Mitsuha in the future — three years, in fact — and that he has a chance to save her, if only he can go back, find her, and convince her.
This is where the film lifts into something larger than a teenage love story and into a commentary on tragedy, humanity, and cultural memory. You can’t help but feel the horrible inevitability as the comet splits and dives toward Itomori, the broken thread. The visuals from the star festival are breathtaking, the Radwimps are on point, singing their hearts out; and the gentleness with which the message is delivered is so touching and genuinely humane that [can a reviewer admit this without losing face?] I was a little choked up.
Shinkai’s brilliance lies in the fact that his references have multiple touchpoints. While the moment of the comet’s strike clearly suggests the hit of a bomb — a few brief seconds, but very powerful ones, of billowing clouds and irrecoverable, monumental loss — there are other, more recent references that a Japanese audience might feel very keenly, such as the 2011 tsunami, in which nearly 16,000 people died.
In what seems a very Japanese fashion, there is no overt finger-pointing from Shinkai. We all know that, at least when it comes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what took place was no natural disaster but its polar, man-made opposite. Shinkai is perhaps more gentle and more generous, here, than he needs to be. But his focus on the human side of loss is undeniably moving.