Maybe it’s fitting that I’m having trouble recalling the main plot points of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which hit American theaters in April. The animated film is a jumble of memories, which tell the story of a girl who saves her village from certain ruin by a calamitous meteor, all while sporadically switching bodies with a boyish counterpart. Science fiction and the throes of adolescence can both be confusing, I guess.
Through the fuzzy, dreamy lens of memory, Shinkai explores two eventualities of a single narrative: one in which a town is leveled by an meteor, another in which it is spared.
By the final scene, in the haze of hindsight, the protagonists struggle to remember even each other’s names, though they have alternately inhabited each other’s bodies. In a bizarre timeline and gorgeous dream-like animation, Your Name sketches out the nature of time and memory to link two defining features of present-day Japan: the gorgeous mythos of Shinto practice and the modern bustle of urban life.
At first, the movie has the trappings of young-adult realism that typify Shinkai’s animes. Mitsuha, a country girl from the village of Itomori, resents her provincial life and is embarrassed by the piety of performing a ritual at her local shrine. (Okay, the ritual is making kuchikamizake, or “saliva saké” for the ancestors, so you can see why she’s embarrassed). She longs for Tokyo, and shouts its name into the void of a placid crater lake.
Meanwhile, Taki is a frazzled city-slicker in, you guessed it, Tokyo. He’s interested in landscape, and aspires to be an architect, but right now he hangs out with an awkward troupe of teenage boys. Immediately following this exposition, the two wake up – befuddled – each in the other’s body. Taki is chagrined by his new feminine form, but that doesn’t stop him from copping a feel of his brand new breasts. Mitsuha is much less enthusiastic about her new machinery. It’s this kind of adolescent humor that brings a rather cosmic plot back down to earth.
Two metaphors explain the body-swap (and bring the movie out of Freaky Friday territory). One is the meteor which is fated to fly over Itomori, and which is presumed to be the auspicious celestial event of the century – news of its arrival is always on the TV. The other is the weaving that Mitsuha and her sister must do at their grandmother’s bidding. They hate braiding these threads, but grandmother insists, citing the long history of the art form. Later, she goes on to explain that everything is connected by cosmic threads, even if they are invisible to us – the Japanese principle of Musubi, the divine matchmaker. Maybe this explains Mitsuha’s and Taki’s predestined entanglement.
In one striking scene, the animation style changes completely, reverting to psychedelic colors in slow motion. Outlines of the figures blur, and the woven threads appear, one of which becomes a neon umbilical cord. It’s pretty cool. What I loved about this was that Shinkai’s portrayal of dreaminess is a distinctly Japanese kind of dreaminess. It hinges on the archipelagic landscape, the connection to a distant but familiar past, and Japanese mythology, with all of its ghosts and tampering ancestors. The movie’s look back on history is like Hayao Miyazaki’s look back on childhood in Only Yesterday: just visible enough to feel real, and yet cloaked in the irresistible fog of the past.
The narrative doesn’t dwell in these heady moments for too long. A lot of the action takes place in the rapport that Taki and Mitsuha develop when they’re “switched.” They communicate by leaving notes in their iPhones. Each receives lessons in propriety from the other: “this is who I have a crush on,” “please don’t speak in your provincial dialect,” “improve your posture,” etc. A kind of symbiosis develops as they get to know the other by actually becoming each other.
I found it very endearing to see these characters swivel between the banalities of Japanese high school life and the timeless, wordless world of the cosmos. The vibrant, opaque background washes reflect this, expertly paired with intermittent J-pop songs (by a band called Radwimps, who are like a genteel, Japanese Blink-182). Taki, in spite of his youth and flustered demeanor, seems to understand the connection between landscape and mood. When asked about his love of architecture, he remarks that it’s intimately tied in with identity and place, an intuition that Mitsuha also demonstrates by the burden she shoulders to save her village.
In one contingency of the plot, an explosive cloud flashes on the screen and lays waste to all of Itomori. In that single silent shot, that world which we’ve been peeking into is not just ruined, but erased (See Akira, 1988). It struck me that Japan is the only nation to have witnessed the overnight deletion of its cities by nuclear weapons; that particular collective trauma is unique to Japan, a stain on the psyche that is reimagined by successive generations. Place has an entirely different reliance on memory in Japan than in other contexts, where war at least leaves ruins and artifacts.
Such a sudden erasure can make the past feel more like a vivid dream, which is the impression that Your Name leaves, in its story and dazzling illustration. As the name suggests, it is a personal portrait, not only of the collective, but of the myth, dream, and the flickering memory of two individuals.
Your Name (Japanese: 君の名は)–Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Makoto Shinkai. First released August 2016. Running time 1hr 52min. Voices by Ryunosuke Kamiki and Mone Kamishiraishi.