Your NameReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/14/17 15:42:12
Last summer, some friends and I were talking about how certain great, much-beloved Japanese animators were retiring and leaving a void that the up-and-coming talents didn’t quite seem to be filling, at least as we saw it from America, lamenting the situation until it became clear that we didn’t know what we were talking about: Roughly a week later, stories started showing up about an animated movie that was a massive hit, breaking box office records in Japan, and it was weirdly gratifying as a fan to see that it was the latest from Makoto Shinkai, someone who has continually impressed since making the brilliant 20-minute short “Voices from a Distant Sky” solo on his laptop. "Your Name" will probably not achieve the same tremendous popularity abroad that it did in its native land - both its eccentricities and its broad appeal are rather specifically Japanese - but it’s still a fine film as well as a must-see for lovers of animation.It introduces the audience to two teenagers who are opposites: Mitsuwa Miyamizu (voice of Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl who, though her father is the mayor of her small town, lives with grandmother Hitoha (voice of Etsuko Ichihara) and kid sister Yotsuha (voice of Kanon Tani) at the family shrine. The rites bore her, and she dreams of going to live in the city. This turns out quite literal, but with a twist - some mornings, she will wake up as a boy living in Tokyo, having to stumble her way through this other life. When she wakes up the day after that, it feels like a dream, except that her friends and family are asking her she was acting so weird before. So it’s probably no surprise to learn that Taki Tachibana (voice of Ryunosuke Kamiki), a high-school boy in Tokyo with a crush on Miki Okudera (voice of Masami Nagasawa), the manager at his part-time job, is having similarly weird dreams where he’s a girl in the country. It barely seems real until they start leaving each other notes on their smartphones, and start to wonder how this is happening and to what end.
Shinkai’s film became a sensation in Japan in part because he was able to tap into a number of facets of Japanese identity exceptionally well, finding much to love about both the bustling city and the more traditional village, and using Mitsuwa and Taki to bridge this divide in a way that many of the recent spate of nostalgic films couldn’t quite do in such a satisfying manner. Here, it’s possible - and possibly vital - to have a place in both of these worlds, rather than simply seeing them in conflict. Demonstrating it by having a boy and a girl switch places is a clever-enough metaphor on its own - it’s not hard to cast the country as feminine and the city as masculine - but it apparently works even better in this context; Shinkai has talked about how he found inspiration for the story within Japanese folklore, though he adapts it in such a way that this sort of gender-bending and spiritual exchange doesn’t play as the ancient mythology that gets tweaked or poked fun at.
Part of that comes from the level of detail Shinkai gives his film; one of his calling cards in recent years has been a fondness for using real places as settings and recreating them in such a way that a viewer will be forgiven for wondering if the animation was done over live-action backgrounds, though that’s not the case. He captures detail and geography in a way that grounds stories that are often unusual in the familiar, but he also makes sure that they are a world that the animated characters can live in. It’s a world that both the characters and audience can touch, and the attention to detail pays off in how MItsuwa and Taki are discovering real things rather than imagined representations, or how forcing them to fit the world seems to inspire a little more detail.
Plus, when things get really strange, the audience has something real to hold onto. And make no mistake, though the fantasy elements Shinkai creates do not become so detailed as to detract from the elemental impact of the switch, he’s building a story that’s bigger than two teenagers and their friends, one which could potentially dwarf them and get bogged down into details about How This All Works. Happily, when he does expand the scope, he does it in a way that’s immediately personal for the characters and hits the audience with something they can feel. It’s a risky move from a number of angles, unbalancing the interplay of the characters and scaling the action up, but never one that feels like it was done for the sake of having a big, effects-packed finale.
It does have one of course, and it’s as thrilling as expected - though Shinkai’s young characters tend to be easy to latch onto and understand, his imagination is grand and he’ll lavish the same sort of attention on a science-fictional tragedy as something that exists in reality. On top of that, he edits an exciting scene together with urgency - where animation will often tend toward steadiness in its big set-pieces, Shinkai uses the control an animator has over each frame to balance steadiness and motion so that he can sometimes cut more quickly than a live-action filmmaker might, because he can guide the eye and animate directly to the music. It’s exciting, dazzling filmmaking, though never so frantic that it wanders far from the emotional truth he establishes early on.Indeed, it’s good enough that, even if one doesn’t come to it with the cultural connections that helped make it a mega-hit or the pre-existing investment in the career of a filmmaker who shows that the future of animation in Japan is indeed bright, it’s well worth giving "Your Name" some attention. It’s not just a big deal, but a nifty fantasy that holds together even when it gets shaky.
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