Japan remains one of the few nations on Earth to maintain a preference for homegrown film content. Local, Japanese-made films commonly outperform increasingly ubiquitous Hollywood products. One of the more popular categories of Japanese films is anime, the stylized animation that has garnered plenty of cult fans overseas—but rarely makes much of a dent in box office receipts outside of its homeland. Last year the supernatural romance Your Name surpassed 2001’s Spirited Away to become the highest-grossing anime in Japanese history (and fourth highest-grossing film, period). Now the film is making its way across the globe seeing if it can match even a sliver of its success back home.
The film is written and directed by Makato Shinkai and is based on Shinkai’s novel of the same name, published just a month before the film’s premiere last August. Our two main characters are Mitsuha, a high school girl living in a rural town in Japan’s mountainous Hida region, and Taki, a high school boy living in Tokyo. The two come from very different worlds, but their paths cross when—mysteriously—the two begin switching bodies. These Freaky Friday-like experiences are disorienting but fade quickly in memory, almost like a dream. The intermittent body-swapping happens frequently enough, however, that it throws the lives of the two teens into chaos. They know nothing about one another’s lives and can’t even recognize friends and family—much less take school tests or perform well on the job—when in one another’s skins.
Unable to determine why it’s happening or how to stop it, the two start to leave notes behind for one another—in Mitsuha’s notebook and on Taki’s smartphone. Soon, a set of rules is determined. (No taking baths or otherwise getting naked, for example.) Though the situation is disorienting—particularly the cross-gender part of it—Mitsuha and Taki eventually start to appreciate it a bit. Mitsuha, longing to escape her traditional country life, revels in the cafés and crowded streets of Tokyo. Taki, meanwhile, grows to appreciate the beautiful landscapes around Mitsuha’s hometown of Itomori. In small ways they even manage to improve one another’s lives. The sudden emergence of Taki’s “feminine side,” for example, helps him secure a date with a crush-worthy coworker. And Taki’s big-city charm starts to make Mitsuha more popular in school.
Initially, the film is highly specific to Japanese culture. Mitsuha takes part in many small-town rituals, dressing as a miko (shrine maiden), performing traditional dances and even making kuchikamizake (rice wine) the traditional way by chewing the rice to start fermentation. Mitsuha hates these hidebound rituals and is frequently embarrassed of them around her cell-phone-carrying high school classmates. It doesn’t help that Mitsuha’s father is the mayor, making her a high-profile target for the occasional mean girl. Though the specifics are very Japanese, Mitsuha’s trials and tribulations don’t feel all that different from unhappy teenagers in American movies (say, for example, Molly Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink).
About halfway through, the film develops a kink in its narrative. Mitsuha and Taki suddenly stop switching bodies, lose contact with one another and struggle to reconnect. This twist takes the narrative into bigger, more complicated and rather cosmic territory, turning the film from a smalltime romantic comedy into a big-time romantic epic.
The film’s high concept premise borrows a bit from familiar supernatural romances like Ghost, Big, The Lake House, The Time Traveler’s Wife, etc.—stories in which simple boy-girl romances are complicated by random supernatural events but held together, inexorably, by some kind of fate. As usual the actual mechanism for this sci-fi/supernatural switcheroo is left purposely vague (something about a comet and the way in which all time, space and people are intertwined like the braided cords of Mitsuha’s old-fashioned hair ribbon). But Shinkai proceeds with enough confidence to sweep audiences along.
It’s not hard to see why this crowd-pleasing genre film made such an impact in Japan, really. It’s emotional, funny, exciting and vividly realized. The animation is topflight. Like most Japanese anime, the attention to detail is stunning. From the wind rippling though blades of grass in the countryside to the tangle of street signs above a Tokyo intersection, the whole thing feels wonderfully realistic. Shinkai—who’s making a name for himself with films like The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Journey to Agartha, 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words—has yet to invoke the effortless magic of Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). The plot is complicated, often pushing the characters around with its big, clunky gears. Still, Your Name is tough to ignore. It’s the sort of enjoyable, easy-to-access gateway drug that could introduce a whole new audience to the art of anime.