I feel like I’ve been waiting to be impressed by Makoto Shinkai. That’s not to say that his previous work has been bad. It’s just been a bit aimless, repetitive, or overwhelmed by a tendency to wallow in his signature aesthetic. I’ve been following his career since I first saw 5 Centimeters Per Second in the mid-2000s, and for a long time, my opinion of him hadn’t changed much. He’s great at production design – particularly his trademark hyper-detailed backgrounds – and evoking a particularly wistful sense of melancholy. But while he’d been improving as a writer (Garden of Words was a well-executed short story), it wasn’t in any radical, attention-grabbing way—or so it seemed.
Midway through last year, I started hearing buzz for his latest feature, your name.It was blowing up the Japanese box office, and my friends lucky enough to access advance screenings kept coming back with glowing reviews. I sat through the chatter impatiently – the film wasn’t out early in my area, and I could hardly jump on a plane to Japan just to see a single movie. I wanted to know why people – including longtime Shinkai skeptics like me – were being converted by this unexpected megahit.
Luckily, I got to see the film early for review purposes, just short of its April 7th release date stateside. Without spoiling anything for those still waiting, and after what’s felt like ages of unending hype, I can now report that your name. lives up to all the brouhaha. This is the best anime blockbuster that I’ve seen in years – a gorgeous, tightly paced and scripted piece of artistry that manages to be about something more than Shinkai’s usual hobby horses. That’s not to say that his voice is absent – there’s enough star-crossed love, lush scenery, and celestial imagery to make it clear that this is his project absolutely – it’s just that he’s finally managed to tie all this into themes that truly complement the cosmic scale of his sentimentality. your name. is a perfected version of the story that Shinkai has spent his entire career telling, an instant mainstream-ready classic in the vein of Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, if those films had also contained some Ghibli-esque ruminations on how Japan’s ancient traditions intersect with increasingly modernized life.
Now that I’ve gushed about the film like everyone else, it’s time to get to the brass tacks of what its themes are trying to achieve. Over the course of my acquaintance with Shinkai’s oeuvre, I’ve seen him obsess over certain story beats, in particular the idea of bonds that transcend time, space, and emotional state. Every single one of his films has been dominated by plaintive yearning for both a relationship and period of life that’s been lost. your name.‘s innovation on this front is that it turns this circumstance between two individuals into a metaphor for Japanese society as a whole, particularly the relationship between the present and the past, the city and the countryside. This is the type of thing that Ghibli is known for doing, but your name. accomplishes something similar without merely copying that studio’s style (as Shinkai already tried with Children Who Chase Lost Voices). As a work of magical realism that refuses to confine itself to either the urban or the provincial worlds, Taki and Mitsuha’s journey involves both fateful meetings on the Tokyo subway and visits to the netherworld via remote mountain shrines. It’s a neat synthesis of the two types of magical realism I’ve seen most from Japan – the urban strain popularized by Haruki Murakami as well as Hayao Miyazaki‘s rural romanticism.
In the end, these parallel spaces come together to save the day in a situation that channels unresolved emotions surrounding recent events in Japan. If you were watching the news in 2011, you might remember the Fukushima disaster. It was the biggest nuclear incident since Chernobyl; three towns were evacuated in its aftermath, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Many of these people still haven’t returned home. The surrounding area still constitutes an exclusion zone and may not be declared habitable again for decades. It was a traumatic moment not only for those directly affected, but for the people of Japan as a whole. your name. makes conscious use of Fukushima imagery – the barricade, the newscast, the circle of absence – to stir these cultural memories, but then it proceeds to work through these feelings in the safe space of an optimistic mainstream film. I imagine that this was a contributing factor to your name.‘s domestic success, alongside its general excellence. As Mad Max: Fury Road has proven, well-written and exhilarating original blockbusters are good, but if they also happen to cut through current cultural anxieties, that’s even better.
NYAV Post (in cooperation with Anime Limited) put out a great dub for this. The leads are very solid in their roles, although Stephanie Sheh (Mitsuha) takes a little longer to shine than Michael Sinterniklaas (Taki). It evens out in the first 20 minutes, however, and there were no performance hiccups for the rest of the film. The translation is largely excellent, excepting two particular difficulties. The first is that important connotations are lost in translating the particular Japanese word for “twilight” used throughout the film. The specific word happens to pun on a way of asking “who are you?”, meaning that every time the leads say it, they’re also asking for “your name.” This double meaning is hugely resonant throughout the film, but there’s no easy way to capture that in English. The second is a scene where the humor hinges on different gendered versions of Japanese first-person pronouns. Since we don’t have those in English, this is substituted by Mitsuha awkwardly referring to herself in the third person. It’s clumsy, but I also can’t think of a better way to have resolved the issue, so I’ll have to accept it as a necessary casualty. These are just nitpicks – overall, this English dub is an enjoyable and satisfactory way of experiencing this movie.
The film’s three insert songs were also re-recorded in English for this dub. I found the results to be mixed. Singer Yōjirō Noda (who supplied the film’s soundtrack alongside his band, RADWIMPS) is a proficient English speaker, and his delivery sounds fine. The problem is in the song lyrics, which are as clunky as translated song lyrics tend to be without meticulous adaptation. They cram in more words than can fit per line, and I generally prefer how the Japanese versions flow. They’re not terrible though, and it’s cool that we even got these versions in the first place.
After all of this discussion of the film’s themes and the director’s career, if you have to take one thing from this review, let it be that your name. is an absolute blast. I haven’t had this much fun with an anime film since Summer Wars. The body swap plot results in a ton of funny gags, mostly because it’s blunt and straightforward about the kind of stuff that would go down in that situation. The character writing is strong, though not super unique. Taki and Mitsuha are distinct and likable enough to carry the story, and it’s fun to see them connect through their game of corporeal telephone. It’s also super well-paced, accomplishing more in its first half-hour than most films do in their entire runtimes. The chronologically scrambled plotting is both novel and effective, tying into the movie’s metaphor for time as interwoven threads. And for all my talk of its cultural context, your name. is totally accessible to non-Japanese audiences. It ranks alongside Miyazaki and Mamoru Hosodafilms as a great introduction for people unfamiliar with the medium.
All in all, your name. lived up to half a year’s worth of hype. I look forward to seeing it again with friends in a few days, when it finally arrives in theaters near me. Shinkai has finally pulled off an unqualified hit, and I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next. Maybe something that’s not about star-crossed lovers? I can only dream.