This review contains spoilers
I try to keep track of every new film coming out. But one day, browsing the showtimes for a local Birmingham cinema, The Electric, I suddenly find the showtimes for an anime film I’ve never heard of. Its reviews are almost universally positive; in its native Japan, it has dominated the box office for 13 weeks in a row. No home media nor VOD release is on the horizon, though Funimation is planning a nationwide US release next year. 5 ODEONs, plus a handful of Vues and Cineworlds, even considered showing the film.
On the last day of screening, with all deadlines passed, I made a pilgrimage to Birmingham. For the briefest moments, I wondered whether a crowded train to New Street, a tram, a bus and a nighttime return was worth it. I sat in a vegan coffee shop, enjoying my latte more than any film could.
In the current cinema climate, the very notion of a subtitled foreign language film playing in an ODEON seems kind of incredible. Even the most interesting new films get overlooked. The ODEON at Broadway Plaza seems kind of tacky: a facade of a 1930s cinema emblazoned with a badly painted Nicholson Joker and Episode I Obi-Wan, as if a decade and a half of cinema had never happened.
But let it be said: Your Name is one of the most incredible cinema experiences of the year.
Makoto Shinkai has directed films for over a decade, but Your Name is probably his most ambitious project. Its genre seems impossible to quantify: a sci-fi film about a falling meteor; a fantasy about shifting between body; a high school comedy about modern Tokyo; a coming of age drama set in a rural town.
To western viewers without a Crunchyroll account, anime is known by a couple of shining examples, dominating over all others. But anime has never been one genre: Studio Ghibli produces both youthful fantasies and emotional war dramas; Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) helped define the cyberpunk genre; whilst something like Mind Game (2004) is a yakuza fighting, Moby Dick-infused acid trip.
From a western perspective, some of Your Name‘s scenes seem though no other culture could produce it. In its opening sequence, its razor sharp editing as Mitsuha and Taki’s lives are mirrored seems sheer insanity. The title credits are a music video (sung by Japanese band Radwimps), tracing Mitsuha as she grows up. The film falsely places us within sequences, only to exit them through a thought balloon held above a character’s head.
Your Name could only ever exist within Japanese culture. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected the Japanese consciousness, informing its cultural objects: the destructive power of Gojira (1954); the nuclear hellscapes of Akira; Japan’s most iconic directors, from Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August (1991) and his uncompleted work on Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), to Shinodo’s Children of Hiroshima (1952). Toho’s Gojira shifted to a full colour children’s fantasy; Tokyo rose up, rebuilt after the war to become a neon metropolis.
70 years later, the shadow of Hiroshima still hangs over, living on in the elder generation. But there is another influence: the 2011 Fukushima disaster, catastrophic to the urbanised landscape, leading to cancer growth and ongoing plans to decontaminate the landscape, as life goes on as normal.
In the world of Your Name, three years have passed since the rural landscape of Lake Itomori was ravaged by a meteor, killing 600, enshrined in memory through photobooks and lists of the dead. To the American consciousness, the meteor is not a symbol of the bomb, but as a fun action movie in Armageddon (1998), or, as Adam Curtis argues in HyperNormalisation (2016), a reflection of American anxieties which manifested as reality through 9/11.
Your Name’s elements can be found throughout American cinema: switching between the dreaming and waking lives of Taki and Mitsuha, it almost becomes Groundhog Day (1993), as every new day becomes paradoxical, trying to find an escape. But Groundhog Day was still largely a comedy. Your Name begins as a comedy, before shifting towards something much more serious.
The unreal presentation of dreams is nothing new: through Waking Life (2001)’s meandering, philosophical quest, we begin to wonder what separates the dream and the real. In Inception (2010), we ask similar questions, framed within an action movie aesthetic. Your Name refuses to give us a reason as to why Taki and Mitsuha’s lives are connected; any science fiction or fantastical explanation would ruin the mystery. Like Waking Life and Groundhog Day, it becomes an unraveling puzzle box: each day informs the next day, not existing in isolation. Taki and Mitsuha exert more control on an uncontrollable world, coordinating their lives through diary entries and text messages on their phones.
Though Taki and Mitsuha’s lives draw an interesting parallel, gendered life is not the film’s primary focus, playing a role more often for comedy. Within the continuum of gender, we become aware that feminine and masculine qualities must interact to create a cohesive whole. Taki embraces feminine qualities, speaking in the feminine tense, and stitching a flower pattern on his crush Miki’s ripped dress, securing a date with her over the hundred other waiters with a raging boner for her; one of Taki’s straight male classmates ends up being all “I’m gay 4 u”.
As though she were an anime cliche, Mitsuha wakes up every new morning to fulfil the male gaze, squeezing her breasts and looking at herself naked in the mirror – becoming a repeated joke, undercutting the film’s more serious elements.
Taki’s life in Tokyo represents modern Japan: yet as he notes in his job interview, even Japan is vulnerable to devastation. Unlike Mitsuha’s concrete high school, his is built on massive glass frames; living in a cramped apartment with his dad, he travels to school on the city’s subway, spends his lunch breaks in nearby cafes with his friends, and micromanages his life on his cellphone, as he works his evenings away in a posh restaurant.
Mitsuha’s Japan represents centuries of tradition – tradition which is disappearing, new ones embedded within. Her grandmother speaks of traditions of two centuries ago, as we see the rituals of fermenting sake, ingested in the mouth before being spat out. Where Tokyo has entire districts of cafés and restaurants, Itomori has iced coffee in a solitary vending machine. Teenagers wear American style baseball shirts; power cables embed themselves within the landscape. The film ends up feeling like a coming of age film set in suburban America, as Mitsuha seeks out a better life in the distance, unable to be perceived or experienced.
Enshrined within tradition is spirituality – their grandmother walks with Mitsuha and her sister through the natural landscape, telling us that, in death, we must give something in return. Outside the modern city, the rural landscape carries a spiritual power of its own. Even when life is gone, the landscape survives, untouched by death. In the film’s most powerful scene, walking across a seemingly unending landscape, Taki tries to cross between realms to touch Mitsuha’s ethereal hand; separated by space and time, outside of physical dimension, yet together through shared location.
Like with Groundhog Day, small differences alter the nature of reality: passing trains, or two people walking past each other on the street, or the person you see on the other table at the coffee shop. Taki and Mitsuha never truly meet within the film, creating awareness of the fleetingness of romantic destiny. Taki follows after Mitsuha out of instinct, sketchbook page in hand, dragging his friends along on a train ride through rural Japan; a chance conversation with a cafe owner informs his destiny. In Taki’s search for Mitsuha, he uncovers a cave painting, predicting the fall of the meteor, as it fell 1200 years earlier: traditions and civilisations rise and fall. Yet this destiny is overlooked even by modernity: news reports fail to predict its impact; Mitsuha’s father, acting as the town’s mayor, has no system in place to evacuate in the event of an impact, refusing the very possibility of it occurring.
Your Name could have played with the time paradox, creating a deus ex machina: reversing the devastation, moving the meteor’s path and saving a generation. The film plays with this somewhat, but like Hiroshima and Fukushima, as much as we pray, as much as we hope, we cannot undo the past. We cannot escape fate.
Safe to say, this was genuinely incredible and one of the best cinema experiences of the year.
As much as I wanted to, not even A Monster Calls could bring me to cry.
Your Name succeeded.