Film reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Makoto Shinkai's Your Name

by Douglas Berman


Makoto Shinkai, Your Name (Kimi no nawa), 2017. 161 min.


Love is a striking example of how little reality means to us.

The bond between ourselves and another person exists only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time


Makoto Shinkai's 2017 animated film, Your Name, portrays a bucolic community threatened by a cosmic force and two adolescents who find themselves spending far too much time in each other's bodies due to the magical powers somehow latent in rice wine. While the premise sounds patently absurd, it is a good film—a fast-moving and occasionally thought-provoking meditation on reality, provided one does not spend too much energy trying to figure it all out. In the end, Your Name is less Inception than When Harry Met Sally.

Plot-wise, two teenagers, around the same age, are growing up in contemporary Japan: the girl (Mitsuha) inhabits an idyllic, though slightly stultifying, pastoral wonderland, replete with small country stores and a large lake; the other person, a male named Taki, resides in modern, hectic, Tokyo, equally fascinating, albeit in different ways.

Mitsuha is first seen behaving strangely in front of her classmates. What we don't know at this point is that through a kind of sci-fi presto-change-o switcheroo, she has begun to alternate her body with Taki, a city boy she's never met. Intermittently, as in a dream—and dreaming and waking are referenced repeatedly throughout the film—for short periods every day, they take over each other's bodies, only to have their memories erased as soon as they awake. Most of the movie tracks each character as they try to discover the other person's identity and, later, stave off a threat to the girl's homeland.

This is the main idea writ large. Your Name works most vividly, and enjoyably, in the early visitations, when we are first getting to know the characters and their dual abodes: the small-town feel, the abiding images of birds, slowly lofting into the sky, quiet roads, a high school soccer field, a country store and a pristine inland lake all evoke a kind of peaceful and timeless seclusion.

And while a good deal of Sturm und Drang appears in the last third, the small scenes early on work the best, such as when Mitsuha longs for a real coffee, and later, to her delight and confusion, finds her wish fulfilled in a bustling Tokyo café; in the varied encounters with classmates and friends and, most threateningly, in the confrontations with parents and teachers, those totemic archetypes of authority who are ever visible, even if mostly hovering in the background.

And Tokyo, while all pulsating street lights, underground subways and buildings, is not without its own poetic embellishments—less grim and relentless than the Blade Runner dystopias portrayed in depictions of the city—not least because we often see it through Mitsuha's uninitiated eyes. This is a film that celebrates the modern even as it conjures the fleeting ghosts of the past. Smart phones are ubiquitous; GPS is used at a crucial moment to track one of the character's locations. In Shinkai's Japan, technology is not to be feared but is simply part of the general locale.

Thematically, what impresses one about Your Name is how obviously, but also subtly, it manages to walk a fine line between melodrama and realism, disaster and redemption. While the movie's science fiction premise can feel slightly contrived—and even overly convoluted—in the abstract, the movie achieves success in the bonding of the two characters, their converging memories, sharing of experiences and mounting apprehension as they face a cataclysmic day of reckoning. While "teen film" can sound dismissive, it aptly describes the myriad ways adolescent learn to reckon with, and ultimately adapt to, the oddly-shaped, and perpetually ill-fitting garb of encroaching adulthood. Growing up feels strange, and the movie helps us appreciate this.

Somewhat more interesting, and in vogue, is the way the film begins to explore—if not actually delve into—issues of sexual ambiguity typified in contemporary Japan by the otokonoko (cross-dressing) phenomenon, which apparently began within the manga world.

Unfortunately, Your Name starts to plod a bit as it nears the climax; and while the references to quantum mechanics and time shifts are potentially intriguing, the exposition can detract from the action. And the obvious echoes of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster while heightening the political stakes and lending poignant urgency to the work, also make the ultimate moment of semi-redemption seem slightly overwrought. Just as Hollywood created its own Vietnam wish-fulfilment vehicles with the Rambo films, this movie walks perilously close to the line here.

The other pothole is the ending. While most viewers—including myself—were rooting for an amorous reconciliation at the end, the abrupt recognition in the final frames is less rewarding than one might imagine, reducing an elegiac tale of loss and painful acceptance of absence into a conventional "happy ending" that saps the tale of its greater grandeur. A less conventional auteur might have dwelt more solidly on the elegiac loss. We need only look to two maestros of the cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais, for examples. In Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert, 1964), Antonioni borrowed a dismal industrial landscape to create an emotional and existential correlative to the principal female character's ennui and disgust. And Hiroshima mon amour (1959) uses the Hiroshima bombing as the starting point for an epic journey into memory and forgetting. Shinkai's film should stimulate a look at both films.

Western cinephiles may also sense resonances with other films, such as Freaky Friday (body-switching), Memento (body writing) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (memory and love). And closer to home, the reviewer caught a strong whiff of Haruki Murakami's aesthetic universe, perhaps best illustrated in two works: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which takes place in two distinct worlds, and Dance Dance Dance, a story about a man searching for a woman whose name he doesn't know. Gender, loss and alienation all form principal themes in these works.

But while Murakami is happy to toss everything Eastern and Western into a post-modern egg scrambler, Shinkai's world is still unregrettably, unabashedly and recognizably Japanese. And perhaps that explains his durable appeal in the country. If Your Name is a flawed gem, it is still a gem nonetheless, especially as it demonstrates the director's ability to cobble together the raw stuff of the recent cinematic past in search of something new.

While memory may wane, age and even disappear, with enough hard work, intensity and care, we may reignite the old salvage buried beneath us and reclaim the dead past. If Antonioni and Resnais portray the alienation and decay of modern European bourgeois society, Shinkai's vision is stubbornly, romantically, a collective one.

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