With Studio Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki set to retire, the realm of Japanese animation is seeking a new king. The release of The Red Turtle earlier this year proved that Ghibli was by no means dwindling, yet director Michaël Dudok de Wit was only making a fleeting cameo and is by no means intending to fill the shoes left by Miyazaki.
Before his latest film, Makoto Shinkai was flying firmly under the radar. Despite critical success with Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) and The Garden of Words (2013), Shinkai was far from emulating the international acclaim which Miyazaki boasts. However, Your Name has proven to be his breakthrough project, and already he is being touted as ‘the new Miyazaki’.
The film opens with a spectacular sequence showing a meteor crossing the sky, debris plummeting towards the ground. This is followed by Tokyo high school boy Taki waking up to find he is in the rural town of Itomori, and now has the body of a high school girl – Mitsuha.
What follows is a chain of events in which the two characters find themselves sporadically and unpredictably switching bodies. Your Name’s story shares more in common with Freaky Friday (1976) than with pictures such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or Spirited Away (2001). But don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking the film is a teenage romp or a comedy caper.
Albeit charmingly witty and with plenty of gags about teenage insecurities and dilemmas – when Taki wakes up in Mitsuha’s body his first impulse is to fondle the breasts he has found himself attributed – Your Name is beautiful, moving and at times perplexing. Fate, time travel, and the supernatural form the cornerstone of the narrative, but love stands strong as the driving force behind the animation’s events.
With every time the characters wake up to find themselves in the other’s body, they gradually fall in love with each other. The film’s twist may seem telegraphed to some, but it does not detract at all from how stunning and heart-warming Shinkai’s creation is.
And as the spiritual and emotional connection between the two protagonists grows, there is the looming threat in the background of the falling star which threatens to crash down on the town of Itomori – akin to the meteoric backdrop of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).
As impressive as the film is, it would be wrong to hold it in as high a regard as the greater of Miyazaki’s masterpieces. The plot at times seems to lose momentum and it could definitely be argued that coherence is sacrificed for complexity and over-ambition. Works such as Princess Mononoke (1997) or Ponyo (2008), despite their other-worldly nature, remained simple and grounded, whereas Your Name occasionally teeters on the edge of convolution.
The regular intermissions of montage sequences backed by Japanese pop will divide international audiences. Some will find it adorable and culturally absorbing. Others will cringe and eagerly await the return to normality. I have to confess I occasionally found myself longing for the delicate yet powerful orchestral scores of Ghibli regular Jose Hisaishi, during the upbeat pop-interludes by Japanese rock band Radwimps.
Nevertheless, Your Name is fantastic. Released in Japan in August of last year, it has since overtaken Spirited Away as the highest-grossing anime film of all time. It will undoubtedly be in the running for an Academy Award come January, and we can only hope there is more to come from Shinkai. Despite not quite echoing the sheer genius and enchantment which Miyazaki’s back catalogue holds, it is a stunning emergence by the director onto the international scene.
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