April 12, 2017

Do Not Read This Review of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name

Print More

For some reason, movie critics like to use the descriptor “the new Miyazaki” to refer to Makoto Shinkai, director of the blockbuster anime hit Your Name (titled Kimi no Na wa in Japanese). All questions of the quality of Shinkai’s movies aside, this is a completely bizarre comparison because there is very little in common between the work of these two men, besides the fact that they both direct animated Japanese films. Shinkai does introspective romantic drama, while Miyazaki (very, very broadly) does fantasy coming-of-age.

Regardless, a combination of the enduring comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki and the film’s own runaway success has led the easily-embarrassed Shinkai to say, “I don’t think any more people should see [Your Name],” in a Japan Times article.  Perhaps Shinkai was glad that, despite its massive commercial and critical success, Your Name wasn’t nominated for an Oscar after all.

The premise of Your Name is a body swap scenario: two teenagers, one a boy, Taki, living in the Tokyo metropolis and the other a girl, Mitsuha, living in the countryside, begin to inhabit each other’s bodies during their dreams, creating plenty of opportunities for romantic and comedic hijinks. On a thematic level, though, the movie is also about nostalgia, longing and loss.

At its most basic, the longing in Your Name is for another person. A common refrain from both Taki and Mitsuha is that they feel they’ve lost something, which they’re looking for: their romantically destined partner. Ample symbolic saturation of the “red string of fate” reinforces the central trope of two people, tied together by destiny. This is, to be sure, Shinkai at his kitschiest and most shamelessly sentimental. But Shinkai’s longing is also more than romantic. In some senses, it is historical: Your Name prominently portrays traditional Japanese culture, like a kagura dance that Mitsuha performs or the obscure kuchikamizake (rice wine fermented with human saliva). These rural cultural artifacts, juxtaposed against the numerous depictions of the glittering Tokyo skyline, emphasize the distance between modernity and the distant inherited past, while also recalling that past to the present.

When talking about nostalgia and longing, it’s important to remember that the romance in Your Name isn’t just romance as in an intimate and passionate emotional relationship. It’s also Romance with a capital “R,” in the more poorly-defined usage. Shinkai depicts everything in Your Name with a sense of hyper-realism. On the macroscopic level, shots are panoramic and layered three-dimensionally, presumably with computer assistance, while on the microscopic one, Shinkai uses his characteristic obsession with the small details of mundane settings to enhance the beauty of each frame. The scenery in Your Name is embellished: lens flares (bordering on the excessive but still tasteful) and fantastical coloring turn every scene, from the countryside to the city, into a vibrant, dream-like image.

Character presentation in Your Name also echoes this romanticism. It’s a fairly light-hearted movie, with its fair share of teenage gags (a running one being Taki in Mitsuha’s body fondling their own breasts in the morning) and quippy banter (a montage sequence depicting the body swaps is filled with these), presenting a somewhat idealized image of Japanese high school romance. But beyond the level of humor, there is also something wistful in the character motivations of Taki and Mitsuha. Both of them are driven by very straightforward desires. They want to move past where they are in life right now — in Mitsuha’s case, this means an escape from quiet, rural life — and to be happy with each other.

Your Name shifts in tone around halfway through its running length. It doesn’t necessarily become dark, but in vague, non-spoiler terms, the stakes are raised to life and death and Taki and Mitsuha must try to prevent the destruction of Mitsuha’s town, Itomori. Coinciding with this halfway point is a greater emphasis on the possibility of loss. At one point, Taki sees a collection of black-and-white photographs of Itomori in a museum, in an exhibit titled “Nostalgia.” It’s striking to see the landscape that we’ve grown so accustomed to viewing in Shinkai’s vibrant colors and grand scope in small, monochromatic images. The pictures introduce a sense of anxiety central to nostalgia: once something is lost, it’s hard to record or preserve it and impossible to perfectly recreate it. Taki finds himself sketching the scenery of Itomori, trying to recall the place he saw in his dreams—but no matter how good his sketches are, he cannot actually live in Itomori again.

That’s a thematic summary of Your Name: teenage lovers connected by destiny, a longing for a time of child-like romance and wonder and a fear of losing that time forever. Perhaps one of the reasons Shinkai feels strangely about Your Name’s popularity is because he’s made films about these exact subjects before. While all of Shinkai’s work can be said to have some connection to Your Name, one in particular, 5 Centimeters Per Second, shares not only these thematic similarities, but also several beat-by-beat scenes and set pieces. Given the strong lineage between the two works, it feels strange to talk about Your Name without contextualizing it with 5 Centimeters, one of Shinkai’s earliest films and now almost a decade old.

5 Centimeters is a short, hour-long piece that is also about teenage lovers. It lacks the supernatural elements of Your Name, but keeps the premise of a boy and a girl (Tohno and Akari, in this case), separated by distance, trying to find each other in the world. Shinkai’s vividly colored skies first appear in 5 Centimeters, as do his favorite set pieces of trains and objects going to and from outer space.

While 5 Centimeters shares many of the same themes as Your Name, its approach to them is noticeably different. Shinkai demonstrates the same eye for detail in 5 Centimeters as he does ten years later in Your Name, but the scenery is more muted, and Shinkai even uses detail to make a scene duller: an apartment room filled with trash and empty beer cans is rendered down to the discarded bento box and is all the more depressing for it. The dialogue and characters, too, are much less vibrant than the ones in Your Name. There is a lot more internal narration and a lot less comedy.

One parallel between 5 Centimeters and Your Name is particularly illustrative as to their differences. Towards the end of each film, the respective couples find themselves in Tokyo, but everyone is unaware that their partner is in the same city. Both couples haven’t spoken for a long time. Everyone is yearning to reclaim what they once had.

In Your Name, Shinkai engages in a bit of manufactured choreography: Taki and Mitsuha pass each other by coincidence, and neither seems to recognize the other. But after they’ve passed and seem to be walking away, they turn around, recognize each other, and reunite. It’s cheesy, yes, but also the same sort of sentimentality that Your Name has delivered with polish and finesse all along.

In 5 Centimeters, literally the exact same scenario happens. The difference is that when 5 Centimeter’s Tohno turns to look at Akari, a train passes between them, and by the time it’s gone, so is Akari.

What is Your Name, then? A sort of fix-it to the ending of 5 Centimeters, Shinkai’s second film? A re-affirmation that love does win in the end?

There are a lot of reasons why Your Name is far more well-known than 5 Centimeters. Your Name has a feature-length runtime and a more widespread distribution. But the cynic in me also identifies Your Name’s increased marketability as an important difference. It is a feel-good movie about love, as opposed to a feel-bad one. Your Name romanticizes adolescence, the positive emotions of a first love and the triumph of reclaiming it. 5 Centimeters is about two characters who don’t have supernatural body-swapping to connect them, and when they lose their love, they don’t get it back.

It’s fairly interesting that a pretty thorough subversion of Your Name’s thematic premise can be found in Shinkai’s work from ten years ago. Maybe Shinkai seems to be so unsatisfied with his most recent product because he knows he’s cheating his earlier films. He has taken the central emotional conflict of 5 Centimeters, the impact of which relies on a lack of resolution, and, by authorial fiat, added one. He creates a new emotional response, one with the same base but an entirely different flavor.

That is, to be sure, probably too harsh of a judgment of Your Name. One of the narrative challenges that Shinkai faces in the film is that he must create a story that both has a positive catharsis and meaningful depth. He needs a movie that elicits emotion without shoving that emotion in the audience’s face. And in this challenge, Shinkai largely succeeds, a few hiccups notwithstanding.

It is also possible to view Your Name not just as a more simplistic, consumer-friendly version of Shinkai’s previous work. Your Name showcases Shinkai’s development in storytelling techniques, with a nuanced narrative arc and an actual climax (which 5 Centimeters…lacks). And, in a larger sense, the theme of reclamation in Your Name can be applied across works as well: the romance that is lost in earlier films, like 5 Centimeters, is reclaimed in Your Name.

While I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Your Name’s conclusion, especially when taken in the context of 5 Centimeters, it was definitely an enjoyable experience.  While any fan of anime is somewhat obliged to see Your Name as the next Big Thing coming out of Japan, it’s also, contrary to Shinkai’s pessimistic outlook on his own success, a legitimately good movie on its own merits. There are moments of manufactured cheesiness, but I think these are outweighed by Your Name’s polished construction and genuine emotional power.

Your Name is playing at Cinemapolis every day until April 20th.

Albert Chu is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].