Review: Your Name (2016)

Stunning skyscapes. The beauty in everyday things and moments. Close ups of mobile phones. The contrast between light and shade. Separation, longing, regret. Yep, it’s a Makoto Shinkai movie.

Your Name concerns the growing relationship between high schoolers Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), a girl from a lakeside township and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a boy from bustling Tokyo. The catch is, they have never met. Each has what they first believe is a dream, walking a mile in the other’s shoes — or more precisely, living a day in the other’s body. Before long though, they realise they are actually switching places. Such a setup is ripe for all kinds of shenanigans and no time is wasted getting started. Taki-as-Mitsuha can’t braid hair and Mitsuha-as-Taki gets caught out using female pronouns. As both characters by accident and on purpose begin messing with each other’s lives, they develop the typical squabbling teenage romantic comedy relationship. This is only the beginning of the story and overarching the entire movie is the suspense of whether the two will ever meet face to face and with Makoto Shinkai directing that could go either way.

There is a stack of detail packed into Your Name, and the way different threads of setting, character and story are woven so tightly together, without feeling rushed, is a real achievement. Most obvious, the art and animation is splendid. (I was so inspired I grabbed screenshots of my own for this review.) Stunningly drawn and lit backdrops and minutiae like the blur of a spinning bike pedal are so much more than simply showing off, drawing you into the world of the film, because despite the fantastical premise, it’s everyday interactions and settings that are celebrated. The everyday depends on where you are and attention is lavished equally on city, town and countryside locations. The settings are contrasted, sometimes directly such as with different street lamps, but no location is seen as lesser, even if some of the characters would rather be elsewhere. Light can be equally beautiful reflected by a stream or a skyscraper.

The story too is full of thoughtful creases and wrinkles. The catalyst for the extraordinary here is Shinto tradition and mysticism. I can’t vouch for the veracity of its depiction, but its inclusion widens an already sumptuously depicted physical landscape with a spiritual dimension as well. It also ties neatly into the thematic milieu. Both the heritage of the past and technological progress of the present are embraced and integral to the narrative.

Setting aside the restraint often present in Shinkai’s work, it’s a melodramatic journey, but earned through the density in plot and characters. Mitsuha and Taki are lively and interesting and supported by a gang of engaging personalities. It pays to take in the dialogue, as incidental moments are often built on later. At first, both Taki and Mitsuha rather arrogantly believe they can live the other person’s life better. Deep into the film though, Taki-as-Mitsuha wonders whether the task of tremendous importance he’s trying to accomplish could be better done by Mitsuha herself.

With the scenery and story elevating daily life and actions to sublime levels, the underlying themes carry real heft. This is emphasised with various audiovisual cues. There’s a recurring colour motif for example, impossible to miss once noticed. The clear chime of a bell marks several key scene transitions.  A sequence drawn in shaded sketch fashion contributes to the sense of stepping outside reality in a desperate situation. Once the light of the TV screen fades and the disc is being packed away, even the DVD box art reveals hidden layers of meaning.

Given the thought and care that has gone into all these elements, drilling down into the mechanics of the plot unfortunately turns up a lot of loose screws. A sudden bout of memory loss at one stage feels like a cheat to further the suspense. Later story developments, while packing an emotional wallop, rely on Taki and Mitsuha not realising some things which would be incredibly obvious when they are using each other’s phones all the time. Hopefully you’re too swept up in the emotional stakes to worry in the moment, and when does life completely make sense anyway?

A couple of other niggles stick out in such a high quality film. The surprise body swap is played up with humourous intent on both sides of the gender divide as each character gets to grips with their new body, but it gets uncomfortable when Taki physically confirms he’s in a female body each time. It’s then hard to gloss over the way the film ogles the attractive female characters. It’s not as intrusive as many an anime for teenage boys, but does cheapen the proceedings. The decision to cut short a climactic character moment robs a major scene of emotional catharsis in an otherwise heart-on-sleeve story. Less dislocating, but still odd, is punctuating the beginning of the movie with TV series style opening credits, but it passes quickly and is the only redundant time in the film.

Photo from 2013

Given my tendency towards environmental observation and appreciation of our place within it (as seen in this typical photo of mine to the right) Your Name feels like a film tailor made for me, but I’m pretty sure I’d watch it regardless it’s so engrossing. Back when 5 Centimetres per Second gave Shinkai’s recurrent themes their plainest treatment, without the speculative fiction wrapping, there was cause to wonder whether the well would soon run dry. Seven years and three films later, that has yet to happen. The plot foundation of Your Name may be a little shaky, but the emotional heart is as strong as ever.

8 twists of fate out of 10.
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