As Makoto Shinkai’s worldwide phenomenon Your Name. hits North America, we celebrate with a review! There’s been much hype around it – even international releases, such as in France, saw major news outlets give the work attention with news of its record-breaking numbers and dithyrambic reviews. Amid the frenzy, we’ve decided it was an apt to time to give our own take. As anime fans, we haven’t discovered Shinkai with Your Name. – but did we find it worth more buzz than his previous works?
Your Name. tells the parallel stories of Taki Tachibana, a high school student in Tokyo, and Mitsuha Miyamizu, another high school student who also works as a miko for her family’s shrine in Itomori, a small countryside village. One day, they find out they’ve been exchanging bodies within their dreams. What will come out of this strange discovery?
Anyone who’s watched a Shinkai movie in the past will probably have one question in mind: does Your Name. live up to his previous works’ aesthetical standards? The answer should appear clearly after a few minutes’ viewing: yes, it does. He still possesses a fascinating descriptive power. All the sceneries are detailed and raise the work’s density by showing a lot of information. One can tell the environment Taki lives in with precision by simply looking at a few frames: a small apartment away from the city’s center tells us he’s probably from a middle-class family, and the general messiness of the place as well as lack of a female presence indicates, if we go with a clichéd line of thinking, that he should be living alone with his father.
But this isn’t limited to backgrounds: the character acting is also quite expressive. There are instances when the body switching isn’t immediately expressed, but one will notice it simply through the characters’ mannerisms. Otherwise, Shinkai remains faithful to his usual ways; the style isn’t exactly revolutionary. There is only one dreamy sequence which is perhaps the movie’s most beautiful – more abstract than the others, it better reflects the work’s supernatural nature, and is certainly bolder than Shinkai’s otherwise traditional work. All in all, there’s a touching amount of attention to detail; a sense of natural beauty mixed with a lot of dynamism. It is, at all instants, a flawless visual experience.
As for the story, truthfully, it isn’t all that strange. From the start, the movie brings a certain item to the forefront: a red kumihimo, often referred to as musubi. It’s a string (a braid to be exact), and it’s red. From there, it shouldn’t be hard to understand it as the red string of fate. In fact, fate is the main theme Your Name. explores; and it may also be where the movie comes somewhat short. Here’s the issue: our two protagonists’ romance is shown to be fated, but the story’s progression makes it appear that this fate is not only bestowed by some kind of superior being: it is also something they define themselves. But fate, strictly speaking, is omnipotent. On the basis that they can define their own fate, it’s not quite fate anymore.
This feels especially out of place in a story with a supernatural premise, in a world which doesn’t deny the existence of God (if anything, it seems to be accepted as the Miyamizu women faithfully participate in all sorts of religious ceremonies). And it gets worse: starting with the theme song Zenzenzense, it’s hinted that this fate has been at work for many generations. Either way, there is an inconsistency here: if their romance is fated and has been so for centuries, it can’t also be the fruit of their efforts.
There may be another interpretation, a little less unfavorable to the work: their “effort” solely lies in deciding to get up and set their fate in motion. In this interpretation, the characters’ will is reduced to this choice. Fate is waiting for them, invites them: they are simply the first to respond to its calls. But even this interpretation is far from perfect: it is a little too optimistic. It only works on the basis that, provided one decides to work for it, a beautiful outcome necessarily awaits them. We’re sure even our most optimistic readers would agree it’s a little too utopic a thought. Either that, or Shinkai is preparing the “answer” to Your Name. where the protagonists pour their soul into something only to trigger an apocalyptic fate.
Even if it fails to live to its thematic ambitions, Your Name. retains plenty of qualities. Our protagonists are an attaching duo. If anything, the body swap only brings out their quirks on a greater level: Taki’s discovery of the opposite sex, for instance, is a thoroughly amusing aspect. It’s thanks to the body swap that we discover Mitsuha’s femininity… furthermore, their helplessness as they discover the crazy situation they’ve been put into contrasts with a great deal of determination. This creates a touching spectacle; one realizes they’re two young people with the vulnerability but energy that comes with their condition.
There is also something that makes Your Name. such a nice experience: its pace. Those who’ve already watched Shinkai before may think of him as someone who creates slow, almost atmospheric movies; some may even criticize him for being a poor storyteller or being boring. Your Name.’s most striking operation consists in reuniting with the supernatural roots of Shinkai’s work while also moving away from his old sense of pacing.
Your Name. has quirks and humor; it seems to be paced to fit the ever-accelerating rhythm of its protagonists’ lives. The story is structured in a very simple way, but is wholly coherent: it’s easy to follow and never boring. The greatest thing about this is how Shinkai never gives up the emotional sensitivity that made his earlier works: he still senses and brings out every emotional movement that happens within his character. If anything, the pacing participates in this: it helps convey the peacefulness of their normal lives; the craziness of their body swapping days; their unsettlement at discovering lifestyles they aren’t used to… it also emphasizes the more emotionally weighty moments. It seems Shinkai’s found the right balance between psychological aspirations and creating a fun story.
Another good example of this is the character designs. While his previous works featured realistic designs – the people that populated his works looked entirely banal –, the participation of AnoHana and Toradora! character designer Masayoshi Tanaka seems no coincidence. The protagonists are Shinkai’s most distinguishable yet: Taki’s hairstyle, Mitsuha’s bubbly face… although they look natural compared to Masayoshi’s earlier works, they’re Shinkai’s most “anime” yet.
This is another great aspect of Your Name.: it adds this dynamism to Shinkai’s largely likable romanticism and aesthetical sense so as to create a movie that hits all the “right” notes (or at least, the one that would set the work on the way to worldwide success).
However in all this, and particularly in the body swapping we earlier described as fun, a certain sense of banality remains. The characters’ body swaps, in the end, mostly reaffirms their respective genders: Mitsuha can sew, Taki has masculine mannerisms such as his way of sitting… there’s another example where, after spending time with Mitsuha in Taki’s body, two of the latter’s friends are seen together: one says “Taki was cute today”, to which the other reacts as if it were a strange declaration. Outside of all the gender stuff, one can also see Mitsuha’s grandma proclaim traditions must be respected, which the kids don’t seem to disagree with. Although the premise may seem quirky to a certain public, it is a movie with a relatively traditional set of “values”.
This isn’t a critique – no one will be outraged that Shinkai isn’t trying to break gender expectations – as much as another example what should’ve become clear through our review: Your Name. is “just” a nice romance. It doesn’t attempt anything new or particularly ambitious; it’s simply a pleasant work that will make its public both laugh and cry. Yes, Shinkai achieves this brilliantly thanks to the perfection of his craft, but one shouldn’t expect more going into the movie. It’s not a revolutionary piece of work that should be exaggerated as epoch-defining stuff. The reason of its popularity is simply that it’s a fun and dynamic, but also sensitive and touching, piece of work. It’s typically the kind of work people look for.
As such, we can’t be sure if it’s the Shinkai work people should be talking about; is it, for instance, a whole lot better than the movie which used to define him, 5 centimeters per second? It’s up for debate. Fans and non-fans will surely have different opinions. But it’s possible to take the following point of view: works such as 5cm/s go further into Shinkai’s aspirations as a creator, and Your Name. simply adds accessibility. 5cm/s is beautiful and introspective, but slow and melancholic; Your Name. is also beautiful, but somewhat less introspective. It replaces slowness and melancholy with speed and joy. The only meaningful element it attempts to add, which is to say the exploration of fate, it fails at doing well enough.
Despite all this, let’s not pretend our view of this movie is negative: Your Name. is very much worth the watch. It’s Shinkai’s most fun work while never abandoning the aspects that made him such a beloved director in the first place. It is doubtlessly a proud part of his catalogue, and a good entry point into his world, though future fans may be disoriented by the slowness of his previous stuff. Furthermore, it should easily top lists of “anime to show non-anime fans”. Anyone can enjoy it; and on top of that, its small number of flaws makes it difficult to dislike. Those who may be tempted to watch it should definitely try the experience at least once; for its fate is making anime history.
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