YOUR NAME is a Japanese animated film that was the biggest hit in Japan last year and has now opened at about 300 theaters in the U.S., including several in the New York area, where it can be seen in English-dubbed and English-subtitled versions. It earned $1.6 million this past weekend, which is pretty damned good for that number of theaters. The Japanese title is KIMI NO NA WA, which might be more accurately translated as YOUR NAME IS… I actually prefer the Japanese title to the more prosaic one chosen for the English version or even the Japanese title with the English one in parentheses, like this: KIMI NO NA WA (YOUR NAME), although that might get a bit unwieldy for multiplex marquees. In any event, it’s a magnificent film by any name and it deserves credit for the simple fact that it doesn’t look like any other film that’s out in the marketplace right now. For one thing, it’s 2-D animation at a time when Hollywood seems to make only 3-D CGI animated films now. It’s also filled with light and color, two elements seemingly absent from just about every science fiction/fantasy film made by Hollywood these days. And YOUR NAME is indeed a science fiction-fantasy film, but, more importantly, it’s a contemporary romance.
The film offers an intricate and clever take on the not uncommon theme of “body-switching.” Here we have a high school boy named Taki who lives in Tokyo and a high school girl named Mitsuha from the remote province of Itomori (a fictional location) who find themselves waking up in each other’s bodies for a day at a time every few days. The first section of the movie focuses on their panicked reactions and the disruptions they cause their families and friends when they’re “not themselves” and the surprises they encounter when they wake up the next day in their own bodies and learn what they’d done the day before.
The next section focuses on their unique attempts to communicate with each other, via text comments on their phones, questions on pieces of paper and, most cleverly, via pen markings on their arms and hands. The text comments (apparently diary entries on the phone) let each other know what they’ve done and what to expect.
For example, when Mitsuha is in Taki’s body, she uses her “feminine powers” to get closer to Taki’s attractive co-worker, Miki, at a restaurant and even arranges a date with her. When Taki looks at his phone upon waking the next day in his own body and realizes he has a date, he rushes to get to the meeting place on time and is so astounded at having a date with the gorgeous Miki that he is tongue-tied and unable to follow up on the progress Mitsuha made while in his body, thoroughly disappointing poor Miki.
At one point, I wondered why Taki and Mitsuha just don’t call each other and talk, but in the very next moment Taki tries that and reaches a non-working number. So he takes the bold step of setting out on a trip to western Japan to find the region he remembers from his adventures inside Mitsuha’s body, aided by drawings he’s made of a crater lake that he visited while in Mitsuha’s body. (I’m still not sure why he didn’t wake up knowing the name of the town and province where Mitsuha lives.) At some point he makes a shattering and heartbreaking discovery that upends everything we’ve seen up to then. The final section has him trying desperately to find a way to change history. To say anymore about a new film might spoil the experience for those of you who plan to see it. I hope that by giving you this much, you’re intrigued enough to want to seek it out.
What makes the film’s rather complicated premise work is the way it gets inside the heads of both characters, both when they’re inside the other’s body and when they’re back in their own. They’re pretty bright young people so they don’t engage in acts of rank stupidity that I’m afraid we’d get in an American version of this type of story that went for cheap laughs rather than a sense of wonder. We get a lot of voice-over narration of their thoughts and their reactions to new things.
I was especially taken with small-town girl Mitsuha’s looks of awe upon seeing Tokyo for the first time. While in Taki’s body, she rides the elevated trains and looks out the windows, marveling at the sights. I remember reacting the same way when I visited Tokyo last year for the first time.
I also liked the way their “out-of-body” experiences had elements in common with the dream process, particularly the way we sometimes forget what we saw in our dreams and try desperately hold onto those snippets of memory as we wake up. (This could account for Taki’s failure to note where Mitsuha lived.)
The other important theme here is that of commitment. Both characters at some point resolve in their hearts to connect with each other despite the obstacles placed in their paths. Even when the concrete memories fade to a dim feeling of searching for something—they know not what—the commitment remains. It all makes for a highly emotional viewing experience.
YOUR NAME reminds me of other cinematic romances with fantasy or sci-fi elements. It’s especially close to an English film from 1971 called QUEST FOR LOVE that starred Tom Bell and Joan Collins and used to play on late-night TV back in the late 1970s. In the film, a physicist (Bell) in contemporary London suffers a shock during an experiment and wakes up in an alternate timeline in the same universe where he’s a successful playwright with a beautiful wife (Collins) and discovers that in this timeline World War II had never been fought and people who had died in the war, including the great actor Leslie Howard, were very much alive here, as was John F. Kennedy, eight years after the assassination that occurred in the physicist’s timeline. At the same time, science isn’t as advanced and men had not walked on the moon nor had they even climbed Mount Everest.
More astonishingly, Bell learns that the playwright has been blatantly unfaithful to his wife and had numerous affairs and Bell just can’t understand why. He falls head-over-heels in love with her and tells her so and she simply doesn’t believe him. After lots of false starts, he manages to find a way to tell her his story, with the help of a scientist whom he knew in his timeline, and get her to at least give him a chance. But then a great tragedy occurs and sends him hurtling back to his own timeline where his counterpart has been in a coma for three weeks. Realizing that Collins also has a counterpart in his timeline and is highly likely to have the same congenital condition she had in the other timeline, he has to race against time to find her and save her life in this one. It’s quite a beautiful film and I managed to watch it again for this write-up after finding it on YouTube, the first time I’ve seen it since the late 1970s.
There are similar elements in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), where an artist meets a strange young girl in Central Park and finds her a few years older every time he encounters her during the course of a year. She’s not from this time or place but has somehow appeared to him, real enough for him to paint a portrait of her and real enough to require him to race to Land’s End off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to try and rescue her from a storm, even though the incident, as I understood it, happened years earlier.
YOUR NAME features a montage midway through that shows Mitsuha’s early years and the loss of her mother when she was very young and subsequent abandonment by her father. (He’s the mayor of the town she lives in, so he’s never very far away. He just doesn’t live with Mitsuha and her sister and grandmother.)
This montage recalls the final segment of TENCHI MUYO IN LOVE! (1996), a spin-off of the popular Tenchi Muyo video and TV anime franchise. In that film, Tenchi, an heir of a shrine family who plays host to a “harem” of extraterrestrial women, has to go back in time to protect his future mother and father when they’re high school kids, his mother having been targeted by a malevolent time-traveling alien due to her connection with an ancient alien dynasty.
Tenchi’s mother had died when he was very young, so this movie offers the only extended views of his mother in the entire series. At the end of the film, there is a brief segment showing scenes of Tenchi’s parents after high school, through marriage and the birth of Tenchi. I thought of this sequence when I saw that part in YOUR NAME.
Also, there’s a Studio Ghibli-produced animated film that was made for TV called OCEAN WAVES (1993), a contemporary high school romance about thwarted lovers in Kochi in western Japan that I thought of while watching YOUR NAME. It would give too much away about both films to say what they have in common and I’d like readers who haven’t seen them to see both films. OCEAN WAVES just recently got released in the U.S. on DVD and Blu-ray–the first time it’s been released on any format in the U.S.
If I have any criticism of YOUR NAME, it’s about the songs. The film’s ending is accompanied by a song on the soundtrack (by a singer in a group identified as RADWIMPS) that pounds home the message the filmmaker wants to send. The scene didn’t need the song at all. The emotions of the moment would have carried it just fine. As it stands, I found the song incredibly distracting. There are three songs in the film by the same group and several song sequences, so I’m guessing at least two of the songs are all played more than once. Aside from the title sequence, where it’s de rigeur to have a song like this in an anime romance, I didn’t think the songs were necessary.
Getting back to the appearance of these themes in other films, I’m not suggesting that YOUR NAME was influenced by the other films cited above, although that’s always possible. I’m just offering similar works that you might want to see if you liked YOUR NAME. Also, writer-director Makoto Shinkai inserts a number of unusual twists that struck me as highly original, so I never felt the film was derivative at all. The fact that the closest predecessor to it, in terms of theme and plot, was a little-seen 1971 English film strikes me as more coincidental than anything else. I have no idea if QUEST FOR LOVE ever even played in Japan, unless, of course, Shinkai found it on YouTube also. (It was posted three-and-a-half years ago.)
I’ve seen two earlier films by Shinkai: VOICES FROM A DISTANT STAR (2002) and THE PLACE PROMISED IN OUR EARLY DAYS (2004). I don’t remember much about them, so I need to see them again and track down his other work.
In recent weeks I’ve also seen two new Hollywood films based on Japanese material, GHOST IN THE SHELL and POWER RANGERS. Both deal, in their own way, with themes of memory, forgetting, and commitment. In GHOST IN THE SHELL, based on the animated feature of that title directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, the Major, a special police operative who has a human brain in her cyborg body, gradually learns that the memories she has of her past were false memories inserted into her brain. With a sympathetic scientist’s help, she eventually reconnects to her original self and her surviving family connection. It’s quite poignant, but it comes too late in the film, long after I’d given up caring for any of the characters after a steady stream of unimaginative and indistinguishable action scenes, most of them designed to be shrouded in darkness.
A comparable subtext ran through the similarly-themed ROBOCOP (1987) to much greater effect. It also had a scene where Murphy (Robocop) reconnects to a past that had been erased from his memory.
In YOUR NAME, both Mitsuha and Taki, separately, explore an ancient cave inside the crater of a long-dormant volcano that contains Mitsuha’s family shrine to learn something of the cause of their connection.
In POWER RANGERS, five disparate teenagers, all outcasts of one sort or another, find themselves drawn to a long-undisturbed cave in a mining area where they discover an ancient craft that holds the seeds for their rebirth as Power Rangers, new incarnations of a band of guardian warriors from millions of years earlier. Even though the teenagers themselves are not coping with particular memories of their own, they are drawn gradually into their roles as Power Rangers, despite squabbling amongst themselves and typically adolescent resistance to the new responsibilities being imposed on them. They eventually heed the ancient call to battle against a revived threat to their town (and, by extension, Earth) and follow the instructions of Zordon, an ancient warrior reborn in an imposing disembodied form, as they embark on a path of heroism and selfless dedication to something larger than themselves. As such, it echoes the theme of commitment found in YOUR NAME.
Interestingly, in “Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger,” the original 1992 sentai season that provided the inspiration (and action footage) for “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” of which POWER RANGERS is a remake, the five teens were indeed the original ancient warriors themselves brought back to life, although the issue of their ancient memories rarely came up.
While YOUR NAME has been given a limited release, GHOST IN THE SHELL and POWER RANGERS opened wide in 3440 and 3693 theaters, respectively. GHOST is already a certified flop. POWER RANGERS had a strong opening weekend, but has trailed off since then, putting the studio’s plans for sequels in doubt. Had YOUR NAME opened in the same number of theaters and been given a nationwide marketing campaign, I’m not sure it would have done as well as POWER RANGERS, but I wish I’d had the opportunity to find out. Anime is still a niche market in this country, despite the one-time popularity of Pokémon and the success of several of Hayao Miyazaki’s features. Still, word-of-mouth is strong for this film and I hope they open it in more theaters as the word spreads. As I left the theater I heard one adolescent girl tell a friend over her phone that this was one of the best movies she’d ever seen.