Makoto Shinkai is a fairly well-known anime director. He has enough name recognition that people outside of the anime community actually know his name. His films regularly appear at film festivals and win a good deal of awards. He even gets the always sort of awkward next Miyazaki title along with Mamoru Hosoda. Overall a fairly enviable career. That said I think his films have always been a hair’s breadth away from being super successful. As I have mentioned they win awards and critical praise but they always seem more art house darlings than blockbusters. But all of that changed last year. Your Name was the fourth highest-grossing film of all time in Japan and the highest-grossing anime film worldwide. In fact, this little joke from the recent Fate/Grand Order short pretty much says it all:
To sum up the scene Your Name is just the go-to reference when you want to talk about financially and critically successful anime.
So with several other anime and manga making reference to the movie, and it generally just getting praise left and right, I really felt a NEED to see this movie. When I was able to see it at the New York International Children’s Film Festival I knew I had to go. Would this be the next 5 Centimeters Per Second or more like the new Children Who Chase Lost Voices?
Mitsuha is a young woman living in the countryside who dreams of moving to the big city so her life can begin. Taki is a young hot head from the city who has a crush on one of his coworkers. As the Tiamat Comet approaches the earth they begin switching bodies. Each time they switch bodies they do so for a day but return to their own bodies the next morning with only a hazy recollection of their experiences in the other person’s body. After several swaps, the two try to communicate via text in hopes of minimizing the damage the other one does while in their body. Will these two ever meet and see who this mysterious stranger linked to their life really is?
I have not seen The Garden of Words. It seems like an odd oversight in Makoto Shinkai’s catalog but then I remembered Children Who Chase Lost Voices. Then it all came flooding back to me. Children Who Chase really felt like him trying to chase Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli formula. The film missed the bulls-eye but still hit the target. It was not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. He went outside of his comfort zone and it showed for better and for worse. It was his movie that felt the least like his other films. It still carried a lot of his style and themes but it at the same time it feels it was desperately trying to be someone else more than breaking away from old formulas. I remember enjoying the movie but also feeling it felt extremely flawed.
So when Garden of Words came out I was interested in seeing it but I think Children Who Chase Lost Voices made it so I was not ravenous to see the movie either. So before I knew it the movie had slipped off my radar into the valley of the damned known as the back catalog. I keep remembering Animated Ink’s very positive review of the movie but I have yet to see it.
And so I dived into Your Name which in many ways seems to be a return to form for Makoto Shinkai. At the same time, it could be viewed as a retreat into him doing what he knows well and nothing more. But I wonder if that is fully the case. In fact, it is the crux of my feelings about the film. But to talk about that in-depth is to put my feet into spoiler country. So I’m going to talk about the film without digging into that and then I will give a spoiler warning and talk about the key point of where my analysis lies. If you simply want an At the Movies style opinion I gave it two thumbs up. It is a movie with a rich blend of visual brilliance, rich characterization, and a dash of whimsy that then builds into to some rich emotional impact. There is a solid reason it has been winning awards and breaking records.But for everyone else here is a little deeper analysis.
The first thing I wonder if how long it is going to take for everyone to grok the story. After establishing the two protagonists they have the first body swap. After that initial set up the story immediately jumps to the next day and the consequences of that body swap. There is no text on-screen to telegraph the change. I picked up what it was laying down after a few seconds but I easily saw how this might confuse people for a bit. It seemed like one of those scenes designed to mess with anyone only paying half attention. It also seems like the point where a person who always asking questions to their companions watching the movie with them is really going to start with a barrage of inquiries. There are a few more transitions like this but after the first one, I was 100% prepared for it so I rolled with them easily.
They are not random or a case of bad storytelling. These are very deliberate choices with thematic and narrative purpose but they do put a little more faith in the viewer than I might normally have expected. I wonder if that it a case of Makoto Shinkai having a good deal of trust in his audience, me being overly cynical about people’s ability to pick up what is going on, or a combination of the two.
It is also worth noting that there a distinct difference between what the characters know and what the audience knows. When Mitsuha and Taki switch bodies they only have a half-remembered dream-like memory of what they did in the other person’s body. So while we as the audience have a perfect knowledge of people, places, and other details Mitsuha and Taki only have a vague sense of these things when they are not communicated as written or electronic messages. The character mentions it several times but the audience never experiences that mental fog. By the end of the movie, it should be plainly obvious but it can make you wonder why they don’t do more to directly contact each other before then. Once again there is a faith that the audience will let the story unfold with an equal amount of reciprocal faith in the storyteller.
Beyond that, once you’re in the groove Mitsuha and Taki have a cute dynamic with each other. As they slowly realize that they are switching bodies with another person and that they can indirectly leave them messages it leads to a wonderfully compelling relationship. At first, their partner is this strange almost alien presence in their life. Then as they realize there is a strange person influencing their life and they become an annoyance. But as they settle into being a part of each other’s life they slowly become good friends and even more than that as their intimacy grows. It feels like a metaphor for romantic awakening in general.
The visuals are extremely impressive. At this point, it almost seems silly to point that out in a Makoto Shinkai movie. It mostly seems to be important to mention if it is better or worse than usual. It is worth noting that he has not kept his more unusual shading from Garden of Words. If that stylistic deviation was your jam then you’re going to be disappointed but if you thought it looked odd then he heard you loud and clear.
Before I get to spoilers which also dovetails wonderfully into my conclusion I wanted to mention one little note. There is a bit of imbalance between Mitsuha and Taki’s circumstances. I feel overall Mitsuha has many more challenges on her path. She is the one who dreams of moving to the big city for more social and economic choices. She can take over the family business or get married at home but in the city, she can move back home and do that if she wants but also has a million other choices. She also has a conflict with her father who has turned his back on their traditions after becoming a politician. She is the one with the major connections to all the supernatural elements. She also draws more negative attention by having another person in her body. Taki’s main conflict is he wants senpai to notice him. While having a crush on the beautiful girl at work is a legitimate story line it has far lower stakes.
In fact, even when Taki gets more serious story lines it also springs from Mitsuha’s circumstances. As much as they begin to effect Taki and raise the stakes for him they do the same to her infinitely more. This is neither praise or criticism. I can’t say it enhanced or ruined the experience for me. It was a choice that was made and I wanted to draw attention to it. It seems like an excellent avenue of discussion. I’m a bit too neutral on the fact to start that conversation but I am curious to hear other people’s opinion on it.
Past this point is where I discuss what I consider a potential spoiler. I’m not going to actually spoil anything but I’m worried that my discussion might inadvertently bloom into a spoiler for anyone watching for the first time so better safe than sorry.
OK. This movie did REALLY well. I think I have made that pretty clear. It is not like Makoto Shinkai has been director a string of stinkers like he was M. Night Shyamalan but this has taken him to a different level. And It has gotten me wondering why that is. And I have a theory. It might just be because he broke one of his biggest pieces of formula. For all that I said that he has gone back to basics, there is one change that is different from normal. He is diving into romantic partners being separated and their desperate need to communicate with the tools they have. That is his MO to a T. But this time the ending is totally definitive.
One of the first thing that jumps to mind when I think of a Makoto Shinkai story is an ambiguous ending. They are not exactly Star Driver or Inception but there is a distinct decision not to put a bow on the conclusion of the story. This is one of the defining parts of Voices of a Distant Star and 5 Centimeters Per Second. Your Name on the other hand distinctly has a THE END ending. Unless you go into off the wall fan theory territory there is little room for discussion of what exactly happened at the end. You could argue “Your Name is actually the dream of Squall From Final Fantasy VIII at the end of Disk Two” but then I don’t really want to be your friend. The thing is, I wonder if that is a factor that contributed to the runaway success of the film.
Now I’m not claiming this is the only reason. That seems to be a bit too bold of a claim and one I don’t believe. Good timing, a growing fanbase, cultural resonance, luck, and just an overall well-made product all contributed to the film’s success. I just have to wonder if ditching the ambiguous ending (alongside a bunch of other factors) helped the film connect better with a mainstream audience.
I’m not totally sold on this idea. I myself could present a half a dozen reasons why this theory may be utter bupkis and then turn around and counter all of them. I’m not accusing him of trying to just pander to the lowest common denominator. As I mentioned several times the film is generally structured in a way that trusts the audience’s ability to have patience and pay attention to detail. It is not an attempt to feed pabulum to babies. I just wonder if he inadvertently (or deliberately) stumbled on a more mainstream structure without utterly changing how he makes films.
And that leads into my final thoughts. I loved this film. I think he wisely saw what he did wrong with Children Who Chase Lost Voices and went back to familiar country and has been rewarded for that. But I wonder if I have punished Children Who Chase Lost Voices unfairly. In retrospect, I wonder if put far less effort into seeing Garden of Words because of Children Who Chase Lost Voices which is sort of silly since I was merely slightly disappointed by his previous work more than disgusted. When so many people complain that they get more of the same from creators it seems counterproductive to punish them for experimenting.
What I’m saying is that I really hope that Makoto Shinkai tries something a few steps off of what he has done before next time. I would argue that the problem with Children Who Chase Lost Voices is it probably could have been more accurately called Directors Who Chase Lost Miyazaki. It was a movie trying to be an imitation of what it thought it should be. Your Name is much more a Makoto Shinkai trying to see what else a Makoto Shinkai film can be. It was a slight but important twist on his formula. If his next film can be a little bolder with its departure but still be true to its author I think it could be amazing. Your Name was quite exceptional and is a wonderful portent of what is to come next.