Note: This review is based on the Dubbed version.
If, up until now, director Makoto Shinkai has been like a great local band who makes nothing but EPs, Your Name is the smash-hit first studio album that finally lives up to all that promise.
To be less esoteric, Your Name is finally a fulfillment of the promise of one of Japan’s most interesting directors of animation. Shinkai’s 2002 short Voices of a Distant Star wowed with its DIY-skill (basically drew and made it in his garage) and surprising heart and sensitivity.
This would end up setting the pace for all of his following works, all of which have the same pleasures, beautiful animation with heart-filled melodrama, that have always felt like the same sort of short sketch as Voices of a Distant Star extended to full-length. Great stories that come short of excelling on their thematic and narrative tendencies, as the attention began to follow him while he chased the “next Miyazaki” title that seemed to float around every exceptional anime director.
But Your Name is finally where it all seems to come together, where he manages to weld his beautiful images to something thematically and narratively satisfying at almost every turn. It’s a no wonder why this ended up being the biggest film in Japan last year, it’s a stunning accomplishment for Shinkai and a film full of wonder, heart, and imagination.
Your Name can be only aptly described as a body-swap drama that takes turns it should be far from me to spoil. Mitshua (Mone Kamishiraishi in original, Stephanie Sheh dubbing) is a girl living in a small rural town, going to high school and learning to carry forth the Shinto rituals of her people but dreaming of something bigger. Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki in original, Michael Sinterniklaas dubbing) is a boy living in Tokyo, going to high school and working nights as a waiter at a restaurant.
One morning, Mitshua seems to wake up in Taki’s body, initially believing it a dream. She quickly finds out the two have been intermittently switching bodies, Taki living in hers and Mitshua living in his. The two figure out each other’s lives and leave messages for each to know what happened on those days and to begin to understand each other’s lives.
It takes a number of turns from there, some romantic, some fantastic, all worth discovering in the film itself. I’ll only say that its small premise turns into a twisting tale of timelines and cosmic wonder. Your Name is something particularly special because it grounds its headier wanderings in a romantic intimacy and, to be frank, vice versa.
Your Name is such a success, both on its own and for Shinkai’s larger career, because it feels like a film that so perfectly manages to thread the needles between the two sorts of narratives it wants to tell. This film hits both its more fantastic beats and its more down-to-Earth musings and romances without ever sacrificing what’s necessary to tell both of those. But it then weaves them together into something larger and more interconnected, inextricable from each other. The fantasy is the love story and the love story is part of the fantasy.
Part of that is the eye that Shinkai brings to these films. His animation is a mix of strikingly photorealistic backgrounds with more traditional anime character designs (think what Pixar did for The Good Dinosaur, but less jarring) that comes out to something gorgeous. There’s something preserved in amber about his images, snapshots of times remembered as ideal as you can get.
That preservation of time gives Your Name that idealized feel, a quality of trying to capture something about the transition between teenagedom and young adulthood where something is lost and a certain idealism is gone. While that’s always been a quality of Shinkai’s work, it simply comes down to the fact that Your Name excels at that particular idea. It represents it with an unmatched grace and the unfolding of the story so perfectly exemplifies feeling all of those promises of youth slipping out of your hands.
It’s also how sweet this film is. Taki and Mitsuha have a more fully realized character than Shinkai has before achieved, and this film has deep affection for the two. It makes you really care for their success, for their love, and for their lives. Getting so up close to them helps ground as this film’s mythology gets larger and larger. But that mythology also makes the relationship feel more powerful, something more out of a folk tale. It blows it up to a grand scale, a love that transcends time and all that sort of rot.
This film hits its marks so well that its one bum note does stand out. There’s a recurring gag during the body swap involving breast fondling that’s really never as funny as the movie thinks it is. This is certainly a hallmark of the body swap genre and no one can begrudge the film for going to the well, but it’s just a little too often to ever be as funny as the film thinks it is.
But as I said, that’s one bum note in a beautiful symphonic experience. Your Name is exciting as a bit of history, the inevitable completion of a great artist, and that’s certainly how I’ve been discussing it. It’s also, on its own, a wonderful experience, something beautiful and intimate and rare.