I fist learned of Makoto Shinkai through his short film Voices of a Distant Star, which he animated himself on his personal computer and came out 15 years ago. It’s the story of a young female mech pilot sending text messages to the boy she likes, but as she travels farther and farther from Earth the messages take longer and longer to reach Earth; it is what you would call a “sad story.” It’s got that hard sci-fi knack for being a single idea executed simply. It blows out teenage longing into a real separation and distance, while remaining relatable. It’s good and more importantly it shows promise.
It’s also not something I’d recommend because it’s more good for what it is, a thing basically made by one dude. It’s really more of a good portfolio piece then a good piece of entertainment.
I haven’t really kept up with his career, but looking over his filmography of features with actual staffs and production I’d say the themes and sensibilities he established early carried through. He seems to have made some more sad stories.
Everything that’s good about Voices of a Distant Star (and I assume most of his other work) is present in his latest movie Your Name, but there’s also so much more.
Your Name gives the audience and characters room to breathe and have fun. Sadness, longing, and loneliness are parts of this story but this story isn’t just about those things. We’re allowed to see these characters get to know each other, and how their relationship develops, and how they change each other; even though our two leads haven’t even really met.
The simple layout for the story is that a boy (Taki). who lives in the city and a girl (Mitsuha),who lives in a small country town, wake up in each others bodies repeatedly. The process is compared to dreaming, and when they wake up in their own body they have trouble fully remembering what happened when they were the other person. It happens so frequently (several times a week) that they develop a system of guidelines and keep journals to inform the other of what they did in their body.
The key to these early parts is how funny the movie is and how likeable the characters are. The film sucks you into their situation and gets you to care about them before it drops the plot bomb on you and them. Body swapping is not a new idea, particularly in anime, but Makoto Shinkai uses it as a very effective tool for establishing these characters and the mundanity of their lives, both to each other and the audience all while setting up the real plot.
To talk about this movie anymore in depth I’m going to need to talk about that plot a bit so if you haven’t seen the movie and want to go in completely fresh, consider this a strong recommendation. And if you’re still on the fence this’ll just be a soft midpoint spoiler that ‘ll let you know where the movie goes and not a complete point by point rundown of the events of the film.
At a certain point the swapping stops, and the movie becomes about Taki trying to find Mitshua’s town, only to discover that the town had been wiped out by a comet three years ago. The final act then being a race to avert disaster and save the town.
It taps into the things that so many Japanese works dealing with disasters do. I’ve seen critics bring up the Fukushima Daiichi disater, but it’s not explicitly about any real incident, it’s just tapping into some of those feeling and the ways events like that can effect people. And I just want to point out that this is a much older tradition in Japanese media. going back to Gojira. This part of the movie more reminded me of After the Quake by Haruki Murkami, a collection of short stories influenced, but not explicitly about the Kobe Earthquake. Murakami’s work, and explicitly the story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” from After the Quake, was very influential on Kunihiko Ikuha’s anime Mawaru Penguindrum, which itself was more specifically interested in the Tokyo Subway sarin gas attack. It’s not that Your Name isn’t tapping into the kinds of things people felt in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, it’s that those feelings are a part of the bigger experience of the human condition and the movie treats them as such.
Again, Your Name isn’t really breaking new ground, but what it is doing is effectively tapping into feelings and ideas that are relatable at a very low level. Like the strings of time talked about in the movie, all the thematic elements work together to form an effective web. All the elements to this story complement each other. And it’s all in service of the story of our two leads.
When I praised Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast last year, I talked about how that movie felt like a movie made for me. Your Name felt like a movie made for everyone. The way it handles people and the low level emotions and feelings it’s interested in and evokes makes it something I think everyone should be able to relate to somehow. And importantly it’s not evoking those feelings with an uplifting purpose in mind. This isn’t another “sad story” this is a story that uses that understanding and skill of evoking sadness to draw you in and take you on a journey worth taking.
I really liked this movie and I think it’s basically perfect. Thumbs up.