High schooler Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) lives in the mountainous Japanese town of Itomori, but yearns for the city life of Tokyo. One day she wakes up in the body of a Tokyo teenager named Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and he in turn wakes up in hers. Back and forth they swap, gradually growing to know each other by swapping notes in each other’s mobile phones, getting to know their friends, and settling into the unusual body-swapping situation.
The beauty of Your Name, a 2016 animated feature by writer/director Makoto Shinkai, is that the above premise tells only half of the story. What begins as a charming teenage comedy evolves into a superb and emotive drama. Its quality is reflected in its success: Your Name is the second-highest grossing Japanese film of all time, sitting just behind Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. That is the level of quality at which the film sits; not just a great anime, but a great film in its own right.
Ever since Miyazaki – still the grand master of Japanese animation – started declaring his retirement from filmmaking (a declaration that has never lasted), the Japanese entertainment media has been chomping at the bit to declare his successor as the industry’s de facto leader. At the moment it seems to be a two-way race between Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Boy and the Beast). In both cases it seems an unfair comparison. Shinkai is not the next Miyazaki; he is the first Shinkai.
There is a strong focus on character in Shinkai’s works that separates him firmly from his contemporaries. At first, in such works as his self-produced Voices of a Distant Star, it seemed a cost-cutting measure. It reduced the amount of action needed, but allowed for an engaging story at the same time. A decade and a half later, budgetary concerns are not so tight, yet Shinkai still has a focus on character that overtakes his concerns for the visual – and his visual sense is honestly superb.
Your Name is beautifully animated, with a skilled use of CGI to enhance and give motion to the generally more static hand-animation. He has a skilled handle on both techniques, and blends them judiciously and effectively. They also help express a profound sense of place. Shinkai’s Tokyo feels real. It is so deftly adapted from real-world streets and buildings that location-spotting of Your Name places has become a hobby among anime enthusiasts. While Mitsuha’s home town of Itomori is a fictional creation, it feels just as real. There is a tremendous sense of geography about it.
The idea of two teenagers comically swapping bodies is an old but comfortable one, and rather than play entirely for cheap gags – and admittedly there are a few – he seems much more interested in how each protagonist begins to affect the other’s life. Just when the light-hearted antics might be starting to wear thin, Shinkai throws his audience a curveball. The body-swapping suddenly stops without warning, and the film’s much more dramatic and resonant second half begins with Taki attempting to discover what has happened. The first half may be the more commercially appealing, but the second is where Shinkai’s skills as a writer and director really shine. There is a wonderful sense of melancholy through much of the film, even when it’s simultaneously being funny. The soundtrack by pop group Radwimps is superb.
Anime productions come out of Japan all of the time. Television series, original video animations, feature films. Some are bad, some are good. Occasionally one comes out that transcends the medium: an anime so good that it breaks mainstream and finds an enormous audience. My Neighbor Toroto. Akira. Ghost in the Shell. Spirited Away. It’s a high calibre list to join. Your Name joins the list with ease; this is a tremendous film.