Your Name: A Film on Reality, Seen through Fantasy

Your Name (Japanese title: Kimi no Na wa) is one of those rare pieces of art that defies genre classification—that breaks every assumption and expectation of science-fiction, fantasy, and coming-of-age narratives, and that takes our reductionist approach to film and fiction and shows that nice, convenient labels are never necessary in creating powerful works. It simultaneously melds body-swapping and time travel into a web of Shinto cosmology and modernized life, juxtaposing rural and urban Japan in ways that elucidate their differences yet recognize their mutual importance. I could say it’s Interstellar mixed with Freaky Friday mixed with Borgesian convlution and magical realism… or I could just say it’s Your Name, an animated film from writer/director Makoto Shinkai, and admit that no comparison to any collection of distant relatives would do it justice. It is singular, a product of a specific time and place, crafted from ores mined from geologies as distant and disparate as those of Mercury and Mars. And the result is incredible.

That said, it’s not at all reductionist—in fact, it’s crucial—to say Your Name is a product of the Japanese animation industry. Not only does it draw from distinctly Japanese tradition, religion, and culture, but it avoids our idiotic Western conceptions of animation, where we pretend that animated films and shows are either exclusively children’s entertainment (Gravity Falls, Zootopia) or adult comedies (The Simpsons, South Park, Rick and Morty). Your Name is neither; it’s a deep, compelling story about fate, time, and human connection that never has to disguise itself as “made for kids” in the way something like Inside Out does.

That said, what makes Your Name such a powerful piece of cinema? And this is where my writing fails me, because there’s no single thing to pinpoint: no simple element to cite as “the thing it does better than anything else.” Because it’s not story, nor animation, nor music that sets it apart (though they’re all exceptional)—it’s the way it weaves all the potentially disparate elements of this medium we call film into one immersive, impactful package. From the title sequence—a montage of scenes and music that left me breathless and entranced—it builds something that feels effortless: a story that flows from place to place and back again, that blurs the lines between scenes and places and people both narratively and artistically, and that understands that its audience is intelligent enough to follow its storyline without any of the exposition and handholding that a less assured film might have done. For want of a better cliche, it’s greater than the sum of its parts—a film that clearly took hours upon hours of careful, measured work yet comes off as effortlessly immersive and real.

Your Name follows the lives of two teenagers—Taki, a boy living in Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a girl from the small countryside town of Itomori, as, one morning, they begin mysteriously swapping bodies. And rather than let us wallow in exposition, it reveals the extent of their transitions through a series of back-and-forth, fish-out-of-water scenes that manage to be extremely endearing and quite funny while providing all the characterization the film needs to move forward. Moreover, its dialogue (even the subbed dialogue that I—the not Japanese-speaker that I am—had to follow) felt believable and real, to the point where I almost immediately became attached to both characters. The voice acting as well—even though, again, I don’t speak the language—felt emotive and honest to how it characters, and helped them come across intensely relatable, sympathetic protagonists.

Ultimately, by the end of that sequence, I cared quite a lot about each of them—which is important, since the following gut-punches and emotional blows could only work if the film’s audience is invested in their lives.

I won’t spoil what those are—since Your Name is definitely a film that deserves to be seen without advance knowledge of its plot—but suffice it to say those first scenes are hiding something huge: something that it hints at and then reveals in one powerful moment, that challenges every expectation of what this zany, funny, feel-good coming-of-age story was going to be. That moment throws these characters from their vein of inexplicable magical realism into a much larger, more complex world of cosmology and fate, raising the stakes in a way that utterly changes the story—that lets it blossom from a goofy teenage narrative into one about time and its traversal, about memory and its persistence (and then its inevitable decay). Thematically, it’s a bit reminiscent of Interstellar; even though their settings and characters are entirely different and their eventual conclusions almost diametrically opposed, Your Name asks similar questions about relationships that span disparate times and places, and keeps you guessing as to which model of the universe it subscribes to. By the final twenty minutes or so, I was hanging on the edge of my seat, my heart in my throat because I couldn’t tell what the ending would be—whether these characters I’d grown so invested in would be able to change their destinies, or keep them, or… well…

That’s actually part of what makes Your Name great—so much of its storytelling happens in implications, in suggestions, in the expectations for the world it constructs and then constantly develops. Its world is a kind of character—something that influences its plot, defines its relationships, and never explicitly defines its rules or boundaries. Intead, it takes the route I talked about when, over a year ago, I wrote about a little series called Gravity Falls—it centers all of its emotional weight on its characters and makes the story not about the world and what will happen to it, but about them and their fate, their story, their ending. Your Name understands that we care more about Taki and Mitsuha than Tokyo and Itomori, but at the same time, it marries those places with their memory and weaves them into its grand narrative about the transience and intransience of time. And in the end, it combines all of that with the anxiety of growing up in our crowded, modernized world (a theme clearly rooted in Japan)—of searching for forgotten memories and half-remembered dreams. In a very visceral way, its conclusion reminded me of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (though ultimately more satisfying) and, in a weird, roundabout way, of Spike-Chunsoft’s Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games. It’s powerful—so powerful it stuck with me long after the credits began to roll.

That said, Your Name is much more than just its narrative. Its animation is breathtaking: a mixture of traditional anime styles that carry an enthralling level of detail and 3D drawing that gives it a sense of heightened reality. The end result is a world that’s clearly drawn yet feels absorbingly real in a way that marries the effect of live-action with the stylization and freedom of animation. Its shots of Tokyo and Itomori in motion—of lights flickering in skyscrapers and the night sky shimmering over water—are visceral and moving in the way live-action films can never truly capture. Its seamless transitions, often achieved through shots of opening and closing doors, embody its ideas about connection, and its characters are drawn with a level of realism and detail that unquestionably helps us connect with them. Ultimately, it creates a fictional world somehow more immersive and powerful than its counterpart—one that despite (or even because of) its stylized nature feels three-dimensional and real.

In that same vein, one of the film’s greatest strengths is its soundtrack and sound design; narrative cues and events are cued by a vast range of sounds and leitmotifs that become a part of the film’s narrative code. And occasionally, at the perfect moment, a full song will burst through—something with vocals and synths and racing guitars that sucks you even deeper into its narrative. (Another reason to see it subbed rather than dubbed; not only is the original voice acting worth it—the music deserves to be heard in its original language.) Altogether, that combines with its art style to make a film more immersive and resonant than most examples of “realism” ever manage to be.

Or, in other words, by jettisoning another of our idiotic expectations of fiction—that to be impactful, a work must be “realistic;” that to be culturally relevant, a work must pretend to reality—Your Name creates something evocative and powerful. It never once tries to present itself as anything other than an animated film, never attempts to deny its nature as a piece of speculative fiction, as something about a world different from our own, and thus becomes the apotheosis of what such films can do. It draws us in, introduces us to its characters, describes its world through its sights and sounds and those characters through their interactions and their endearing, goofy, uncurated selves, and then builds all of that into one of the most powerful stories about friendship, love, and human connection that I’ve ever experienced.

Or, in other words, it takes our world and examines it through a lens of fantasy and fate, of memory and place, of temporality and time, and thus unlocks the representational power of fiction. And in doing so, it transcends the cultural limits placed on its genres—shirking expectations and becoming something effortlessly different and new.

Ultimately, I’ve always found the best works to be those that transcend their genres, and that exemplify everything their medium can do. And that’s what Your Name does; it takes a place—Japan—and a time—our own—and spins them into a memorable story about the persistence of memory, a timely narrative about the cosmology of time, and a tale about human connection in a world both more and less connected than ever.

You not only deserve to see it; it deserves to be seen.

(And some further reading, in case that piqued your interest.)

Vox: The Wistful, Animated Film Your Name Was a Huge Hit in Japan for Good Reason

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