Review of Your Name (2016)

Moving picture, 106 minutes

Shinkai Makoto (writer-director).

Seen in 2017.

Two high schoolers mysteriously swap bodies.

Contemporary romantic fantasy blockbuster. The first act is the best. It’s got meticulously animated scenes of everyday life with little motes of glitter and artificial lens flare because it’s Shinkai. It’s a romantic comedy on a fuzzy supernatural premise, sneaking in under the radar of a body swap scenario, a motif that started in the didactic Vice Versa (1882). It seems at first as if there might be didactic elements here too, related either to the increasing visibility of LGBT or to an understanding of the other sex’s conditions, but this is subverted: the gender roles and identities are ultimately conventional, and the characters do not influence one another’s views. The seriousness and massive visual upgrade aside, it’s not too far from Urusei Yatsura (1981); there’s a body swap in that one too.

The second act threw me back to “Reflection” (1987) with surprising force, but Mochizuki Tomomi is better than Shinkai. It makes no sense for a dense core of the comet to drop away from the main body and take such a path, and then to make such a neat round bowl in the bedrock. If the force were enough to make a crater a mile across, the shock wave would be fatal at the school, a mere 3 radii away. The site of the earlier impact, with its perfectly round perimeter wall of rock, steeply angled even on the outside (unlike Storax Sedan), owes more to dungeon-crawling fantasies like Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) than to any credible geology. The dungeon, it turns out, sits underneath a world tree at the exact center of the older impact crater. The round lake of Itomori is another impact crater, older still. The neatness of it all recalls early CRPGs and is practically a caricature of Gifu as a site of epic fantasy, in contrast to realistic Tokyo. Mitsuha’s traditionalist shrine maiden features play right into that.

Despite the awesome supernatural forces he puts at his own disposal in the writing, Shinkai doesn’t make any attempt to explain the body swapping. The difficulty of making that gel is the curse of the subgenre. Taki’s beautiful umbilical-seminal dream of musubi, adrift in time, is as close as it gets. I have a feeling that Oshii Mamoru would have done better, both with the swapping and with the apocalyptic scenes of the third act, which are pretty, but short and unsatisfying. As a meditation on Fukushima it’s not very touching, perhaps because it isn’t a Wexelblat disaster, or even a failure of the authorities. Clearly, the emotional weight is on the romance, with a curiously heavy emphasis on supernaturally induced amnesia as the main obstacle. One scene in particular, when Mitsuha and Taki meet in Tokyo and fail to recognize one another, recalls the harsh conclusion of 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), but this time Shinkai lets love and musubi conquer all.

The amnesia extends to gradual, observable data corruption and the magical disappearance of physical evidence, which is distractingly inelegant. The comedy is good though, when it’s not just the consequence-free boundary-breaking of Ranma ½ (1989). Katsuhiko—the Swedish subtitles transcribe his nickname as “Tessi”—is a particular joy to watch: a sidekick with an unusual but effective and credible character design who turns into an explosives-wielding apocalyptic acolyte, somehow without going over the top. The music, on the other hand, is mediocre.

On a personal note, I first saw this film at Bio Roy in Gothenburg, with people I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. Afterwards I took the same route home to Grevegårdsvägen that I used to take in 2002–2003, when I first studied at the faculty of the humanities in Gothenburg and lived on Briljantgatan. It’s a bike path via Viktor Rydbergsgatan and the student union building where I used to play TRPGs and work for a paper, over a hill to the top of Vasa kyrkogata, down past the mysterious #5 that my journalist employers claimed was some kind of nunnery, then uphill on Föreningsgatan where I’d peruse used books—that place closed down many years before this trip—and eat pizza as a student, on past Samskolan where the villas looked even more amazing than I remembered, and then downhill to Brunnsgatan and Seminariegatan. I got a glimpse of the inner parts of the university’s Linné campus, where I had my second stint with human ecology, before joining the route of my normal 2017 commute home from work at Torsgatan. I took this nostalgic little trip in April twilight, thinking about the film, amnesia, and the probability that work-related intrinsic stress had impaired my own memory and wiped out some of what I’d been and done as a student.

I wonder if the long-term effects of high cortisol on memory, in Japan’s high-pressure economy, is the real reason Shinkai keeps returning to memory as a motif. If so, he’s clumsier with it than Borges in “The Other Death” (1949). I find it significant that, in one of the brief scenes from job interviews ca. 2021, Taki says he wants to work with making the city beautiful because you never know how long it’s going to be there. This neatly encapsulates both the attitude of mono no aware and/or the instability of memory as enhancing beauty, and the conventional interpretation of Japan Sinks (1973) etc. as being connected to ancient existential fears of earthquake, fire and other cataclysms: in this case a meteorite. Again, as a meditation on Fukushima it seems ineffective. The notion of cathartic renewal through disaster clearly doesn’t apply to Fukushima. Like the Minamata disease and unlike Itomori, Fukushima simply drags on, albeit mostly for legal and economic reasons.

The strange thing about Shinkai is how sloppily he connects to such undercurrents, in relation to the accomplishment of his visuals and other surface elements of his work. The film is almost overproduced. Only one scene was visually unconvincing: The twilight scene on the crater ridge, when the protagonists begin to look for each other without seeing. Clearly the mist fails to cover the lake for more reasons, and worse reasons, than to show the time period. On the whole, the writing is little better than The Tale of Iya (2013), and I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. Maybe it is deliberately self-contradictory fabulism rather than fantasy. Outside the narrowly realistic confines of “The Garden of Words” (2013), Shinkai shows no desire to improve in credibility or internal consistency.

References here: En betraktelse av A Silent Voice, Weathering with You (2019), Suzume (2022).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction