AND NOW FOR SOMETHING MORE POPULAR.
Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016) is the highest-grossing anime film, ever. Bulldozing through Hayao Miyazaki’s previous box-office record for Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), it’s a perfect introduction for the anime newbie, cannily weaving together so many of the genre’s tropes—an apocalyptic event with a high school innocently built into the middle of its path, teenagers who are the only ones willing to accept that everything can be swept away in an instant, a love that defies the rules of time and space, and, of course, a few shots up skirts.
Shinkai’s first effort was a five-minute short in 1999, She and Her Cat, which looked at how a feline might see its life with its human owner. But he really made his name with Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star, 2002), which follows a young girl—don’t they always?—fighting a war in outer space as she desperately tries to maintain a texting-based relationship with her earthbound boyfriend. Hoshi no Koe was remarkable not only for its ability to take you from zero to tears in twenty-five minutes, but also for the fact that Shinkai made it entirely by himself: He even voiced the main male character in the film’s first version; his girlfriend at the time played the lovelorn military contractor. For all its subcultural appeal overseas, anime is not, for the most part, a niche or DIY affair, and Shinkai emerged as a curious auteur.
But people—as in the masses—love what Makoto Shinkai does, so no lightless infamy for him. His films display an endearing desire to dazzle. No child is left behind. His tales begin personal and insular but strive to cast the widest emotional net.
So here we have Mitsuha and Taki. One lives in a rural Japanese town called Itomori, the other in Tokyo, but both dream of a comet—and each other. You don’t need to know someone to dream about them, and they each see “nothing less than a beautiful view.”
They both wake up and are confused by their bodies. Their friends and family say that they were acting strangely the other day, while in the background TVs provide a cheerfully narrated commentary on the comet, dubbed Tiamat, due to soon make impact. Mitsuha and Taki don’t understand the queries about their inconsistent behavior, and both start displaying curiously cross-gender affectations. On the first day after we see Taki wake up, he appears horrified by his junk and sits properly, feet folded under him, with his friends. Instead of saying ore for “I”—the more masculine form—he says watashi, or worse, watakushi. He may as well have applied glitter to his cheekbones and pulled out a feather quill. Meanwhile, Mitsuha scandalizes her little sister by fondling her own chest in amazement and intimidates her classmates by thrusting her leg onto a desk. This send-up of gender roles is charming, to be sure, but what’s beautiful is how un-unique the film’s attitude is—anime often plays fast and loose with transgender imagery and sexual identities, so much so that that any American “coming-out” episode seems laughably lagging.
The reason for our heroine and hero’s schizophrenic, slapstick personality crises is soon revealed: They are switching bodies every other day, a discovery they address efficiently by leaving accounts of what each did with the other’s life on a diary app on the other’s phone. Mitsuha sets Taki up with his longtime work crush—which he would never have had the guts to go for himself—and Taki helps Mitsuha carry her grandmother, the only surviving proprietor of their family’s Shinto shrine, up steep roads into a clearing that locals believe is a portal to the underworld. There they deliver a jug of sake, made by Mitsuha chewing rice and then spitting it out and letting it ferment, as a tribute. On the way, the old woman describes the Shinto concept of musubi—the power of creation, or the ability to become—and its knotting as time itself. These are spoken of as myths, but by the film’s end they become the very warp and weft of reality.
Mitsuha’s story is fated to end on the night of an autumn festival at her family’s shrine, as the comet splits in two, with a piece landing right on her world. But this is no action movie—there are no mushroom clouds or people tearfully searching for each other in the wreckage. We see the light fall in her eye, then an unnerving clang, and she stops appearing in, and as, Taki’s life. He tries to show his friends her diary entries on his phone, emojis and all, to prove she exists, but they delete themselves before his eyes.
He draws detailed sketches of her town from memory, from when he inhabited her body, and, using them as a guide, he sets off to find her. Recognizing the places in his pictures, a man tells him that Mitsuha’s town was destroyed by the comet three years ago, with few survivors. Taki finds the cave, and there drinks her homemade sake—when two become one. Over and over Mitsuha and Taki find, document, and try to hold on to each other, but they don’t always know it. They can’t remember their names, they keep asking each other, “Who are you?” Their world comes alive when they know but falls apart as the memory slips away into something impossible.
Taki stands on a precipice and remembers her name, and then forgets it. Each is helplessly moved about by fate, time, death, or musubi. They quickly try to write each other’s names on their hands before they forget again, but Mitsuha disappears before she can get through more than a single line on his palm, and the music cuts.
Taki wanders around Tokyo eight years after the comet fell, doubting: “I’m not sure if I’m searching for a person or a place.” All he knows is something is missing. The title of the film in Japanese, Kimi no Na wa, is more a question than a declarative statement. It’s a phrase that trails off, a request: It can’t finish itself on its own. It wonders where, and what, might be its answer.
Your Name is now playing in select theaters nationwide.