By Andrew Haas
I get excited when I hear that an animated film from overseas is getting a limited release near me. I may be more of a casual viewer when it comes to anime, but when the shows or films are good, they’re some of the most beautiful and creative works I’ve ever experienced. Now the U.S. has the chance to experience one of Japan’s biggest hits of last year, Your Name (or Kimi no Na wa). Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, this film got a lot of buzz in its home country, now ranking as the highest-grossing anime film worldwide. After seeing it for myself, it’s not hard to see why.
The story is about two teenagers from different parts of Japan. Mitsuha is a girl from the rural town of Itomori and Taki is a boy living in Tokyo. Despite living very far from one another, they discover that they are linked through random body swapping. They start changing each other’s lives and wonder if they’ll ever see each other in person.
At first, I thought I knew exactly where this was going to go: these characters would switch bodies everyday until they couldn’t do it anymore and go on a journey to meet face-to-face, right? Well, that’s how it seems at first. I will say I found myself enjoying how these two react to each other’s lives, as well as the impacts they leave when they return to normal. It’s clever how the body swapping element puts the audience in the shoes of the protagonists as they discover what the life and culture of the other person is like. The switching also operates on a bit of dream logic where they can’t tell what’s real and memories can get fuzzy, hence why they start leaving notes for one another. But just as I felt the story was getting predictable, it goes in directions that I did not see coming at all, adding a great deal of drama and even tension. Things that at first seem like random bits of plot and culture end up playing major roles. In fact, the aspect of remembrance becomes crucial to the relationship between the leads. There are points during the third act with so much emotional heft that I remember hearing someone in my theater actually start to tear up.
The characters are part of what makes this an enjoyable ride. The two main teens start off as the typical country girl and city boy, respectively. When they first switch, they go through the usual fish-out-of-water scenarios. They do get some amusing reaction moments, especially in the ways they realize what gender they’ve become. However, it wasn’t until they begin to cooperate with one another through their experiences that I became fully invested in them, and by the third act, I was rooting for them as they faced major conflict. Granted, I feel Taki doesn’t get as much time to develop as Mitsuha, but he’s still a likeable character nonetheless. I also appreciate how, unlike other animated takes on this trope, the film doesn’t have the voices switch with the bodies. Instead, both voice actors do a good job changing their inflections to match the other person without coming off as mimicry. Even the side characters have fun personalities, with Taki and Mitsuha’s friend groups being my personal favorites. The group of characters makes for an interesting examination of Japanese youth culture. Much like with our leads, everyone’s reactions to the oddities are quite entertaining, with great expressions coming through the animation.
I know little about Makoto Shinkai’s previous work, but I’m curious after seeing this. One of the things I admire about Japanese animation is its willingness to portray stories that, when you think about it, could’ve easily been done using live action. While that could be considered true for this film, the fact that it’s animated gives it an artistic sense that you can’t get with live action. All the locations and environments are beautiful to look at with great angles and a color palette that really pops, especially in scenes involving a comet that plays a big part in the film. Even when character animation is limited, the animators do a fantastic job in making the audience experience their emotions, further helped by the voice acting. The scene in which Mitsuha first wakes up in Taki’s body and wanders around his home is a great showcase of how a mix of visual artistry and vocal talent can portray a good character performance. There are a few montages set to the music of Japanese rock band Radwimps, and while I normally prefer scores, the songs do fit well what’s happening in these scenes, even if they can be a bit distracting at times. That being said, I’m happy to see such quality hand-drawn animation still being made today, even if it’s from another country.
Your Name is a charming film with gorgeous animation, great characters, and a nice blend of fun comedy and emotional drama that is full of surprises. I went in expecting another Freaky Friday-type film and got something that caught me completely off guard in the best way. As someone who only watches anime occasionally, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see this film. Plus, considering all the kiddie fare that animation is restricted into being in the U.S., I’m just happy to see anything different and Japan knows how to deliver. Note that I saw this film subtitled, even though there is also an English-dubbed version by Funimation. While I normally watch dubs and I’m sure the one for this is decent, I managed to get through the subtitles fine and the original Japanese voice acting is pretty good, despite the language barrier. No matter which version you see, I say the film is worth checking out.