In Your Name, a conspiracy of the stars

Makoto Shinkai pushes the boundaries of anime

A millennial comet is hurtling past Earth and two Japanese teenagers wake up one morning with their bodies switched, living each other's life and dreaming each other's dream. Mitsuha in a small rural town becomes Taki, and Taki in Tokyo becomes Mitsuha. Then time bends, souls migrate, the sky bursts, and the painful transience of love pushes and pulls the two high-schoolers in a conspiracy of stars (and quantum physics, maybe).

The rave of Japan, Your Name is Makoto Shinkai's wide-eyed, gorgeous, passionate animation that has dominated the Japanese box office and as of this week become the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. It's still a long way to catch the top spot held by Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, that delightful swoosh of imagination and pluck that continues to define the cinematic pinnacle of animated movies (sorry Pixar) after 15 years. But the fact that Shinkai, 42 and not part of the legendary Studio Ghibli, has often been praised as "the next Miyazaki" -- we're always in search of the next something or someone -- only adds to the enthusiasm of animation fans now that the film is opening in Thailand and other Asian territories.

Shinkai, obviously, is more romantic than Miyazaki, and perhaps we may venture another comparison here: Haruki Murakami. In Your Name, there's a sense of voluptuous aching and wilful melancholy that readers often experience in Murakami's stories, even more so when the body-switching narrative unfolds into a longing for "the other half" -- the missing piece of our life that walks the other side of the Earth, or just the other side of street if you look carefully. An apocalyptic phenomenon, beautiful and irrepressible, exerts its force on the characters' consciousness -- such as the approaching comet in Your Name and the two moons in Murakami's 1Q84. In short, it's the Japanese poetry of identity and yearning, at once cataclysmic and metaphysical. In Your Name, as in Shinkai's earlier films, those layers are wrapped in the twinkle of teen romance and high school frivolity. Mitsuha is an anime heroine, pretty in the way only Japanese cartoon girls are pretty -- in an exaggerated manner, with every element on her face and body slightly larger than reality allows. She lives a frustrating life in a picturesque small town with her younger sister and a grandmother, and naturally she dreams of moving to Tokyo. That sort of happens when she wakes up in the body of Taki, a big-eyed boy who loves drawing buildings and who has a crush on his buxom senior colleague in a restaurant he works part-time.

Realising that they switch bodies -- it happens without warning on most days though not every day -- Taki and Mitsuho begin leaving notes on each other's phone in order to smoothen the continuity of their alternative identities. Soon each of them discovers that they can be the better "other" as Mitsuho makes Taki a more sensitive person, and Taki in Mitsuho's body makes her perhaps happier. The gender swap is presented with humour -- breasts, hair, crotch! -- but it also serves up the principle idea of how two people can complete each other.

Until one day the switching stops, as mysteriously as it began. The comet will become as cruel as it is spectacular, and there will be more twists involving a final quest by Mitsuha and Taki.

Those uninitiated with kooky stylisation of Japanese anime may dismiss the whole thing as childlike mock-seriousness. But it is not. The film moves with spry, confident steps as it deals with genuine emotion of the characters in their fantastical world, and it shows, once again, that the American school of animation practiced by Disney, Pixar et al, while brilliant and uplifting, still shies away from the heavier spectrum of human feeling and angst. The Japanese, in their ancient scroll-paintings as well as modern manga, believe that popular cartoon can occupy the range from romantic to disturbing, from suicidal dark to Shibuya bright. Studio Ghibli (and Shinkai here) has long proved that animated movies can be richly complex in the way they look at the world and human condition. And the Japanese audiences are open enough to allow such cartoons to become a smash hit, if done right as it is the case here.

All in all you can just watch Your Name because it is entertaining and beautiful. In fact all of Shinkai's animated movies are beautiful, in fact, from Children Who Chase Lost Voices to the hit 5 Centimetres Per Second (that's the speed at which a cherry blossom falls). Those earlier films are hand-drawn, which is why Shinkai is said to carry Miyazaki's glorious torch of the old manual technique; in Your Name however, Shinkai and his team reportedly used computer pens on hand-painted background -- but you can never tell, and the lush aesthetics, from the comet fireworks to the sunlit floor of Mitsuha's bedroom, is such a relief from the attractive yet increasingly banal, obsessively-realistic Hollywood technology we've come to regard as the standard. We love Pixar, we'll wait for the new Disney film, but something like Your Name -- and rewatching the Ghibli films -- reminds us that the full potential of animated film to broaden the boundaries of human perception lies elsewhere.

Oh, and the songs are great too.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist