Ever since Studio Ghibli closed shop with its final feature film When Marnie Was There in 2014 it is safe to say that there has been something of a void in Japanese animation. The latest to try and stake his claim as heir apparent to the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata is Makoto Shinkai with his latest Your Name. And by all accounts, it seems like Shinkai may have a valid claim to the throne.
This romantic drama starts with two high school students Taki the boy and Mitsuha the girl who live in different places in Japan but inexplicably find themselves switching bodies with one another at random. Their sudden fish-out-of-water state produces some of the more comedic moments of the film as they struggle not only to cope with their sudden gender switches but also their very different contexts (Taki living in Tokyo, and Mitsuha growing up in a small rural town). After awhile they begin to leave each other messages, mostly to keep their friends and family from sending them to the loony bin, but also as a way to communicate with one another (using in true contemporary fashion, a diary app on each of their phones). And through those messages they find themselves not only loving the other person’s life, but coming to a whole different appreciation of the beauty in their own. Eventually they start to desire wanting to find and discover one another. And it is at this point that the movie launches into a wholly unexpected, ambitious, and delightful direction and far be it for me to spoil that development here.
A constant theme in Shinkai’s work is the great irony that our technological world which theoretically makes the world a smaller and more connected place often just serves to show how isolated we are. And it is precisely that gnawing and desperate emptiness within that drives this melancholically beautiful film as Taki and Mitsuha manage to discover the other and find their own zest for life grow while achingly never crossing paths. In this way Shinkai borrows less from Miyazaki’s playbook but instead finds himself evoking the great humanist filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring) who made a career out of exploring the depths of human longing and disappointment. However unlike Ozu, Shinkai’s use of animation as his medium of storytelling allows him to frame this desperation with a visual verve that makes it as quietly uplifting as it is aching.
Of course, if your only exposure to Japanese anime is through that weird high school kid who only talked about Dragonball Z it might seem a little off-putting to see what is essentially a cartoon deal with heady and melodramatic concepts like love, longing, and isolation in a package much more akin to Hollywood romances. But therein lies the beauty of anime in general in that it is an extremely flexible genre whose flourishes can take this admittedly sentimental story and elevate it to something a little more lyrical and contemplative.
It helps that the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. While the visuals never quite match up to the meticulous design of any of Miyazaki’s backdrops, the film is bathed with light making even the most mundane urban landscapes strangely beautiful, and the film becomes more and more beautiful to look at as the story’s melancholy themes start to rise more and more to the surface.
Unfortunately, the great weakness of the film is that the film is extremely plot heavy. The jarring jumps between tones in the movie (more comedic in the first half, more dramatic in the second) and the more metaphysical leaps it makes in the second half would be more acceptable if the plot had taken a back seat to the movie’s more lyrical instincts. But by being plot-driven, it gives us time to contemplate exactly how the mechanics of this grounded fantasy work and when it forces us to do that it reveals the big gaping plot holes in the film.
Still there is a good chance those plot holes won’t bother you too much as just about everything else of the film, from the visuals to the score, encourages a much more meditative and evocative viewing experience. It is just a shame that the plot works so hard to get you to focus on how the characters get from point A to B instead. While the movie doesn’t quite stand up to the extremely high quality of the very best of Studio Ghibli like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke it falls very comfortably into the next tier of Ghibli movies occupied by the likes of Porco Rosso or Kiki’s Delivery Service. As such Your Name is more than an adequate for a Ghibli-fix until Hayao Miyazaki inevitably comes out of retirement.