Your Name - 君の名は (2016) 

Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name) is a technically gorgeous and charming movie that highlights the beauty of Japan, with an intriguing premise that is a sort of spiritual (and literally spiritual) extension for some themes Makoto Shinkai began exploring in 5cm per second. It is let down, however, by the weaknesses in its storytelling and some key plotholes that I found were too immersion-breaking. 

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There is no doubt Makoto Shinkai’s work is one of the most technically brilliant of all the Japanese animators I’ve ever watched. The utter eye for detail with the touch of shoujo anime hyperbole is designed to maximise the beauty of every frame. The flares of sunlight, the komorebi, glistening of surfaces, the landscape shots and the use of music all combine to make a visual spectacle of a film that is full of fluid movement. The memory sequence and the change in animation style was probably one of my favourite parts, and the entire soundtrack worked well with the film.

Like many recent Japanese movies (Mamoru Hosada's The Boy and the Beast comes to mind), one of the themes is the fundamental tension between the relentless pace of crowded, modern Tokyo and the idyllic, natural surroundings of the countryside, holding onto the last remnants of shinto spirituality and traditional Japanese lifestyles.

There is a fundamental anxiety in small towns, especially its struggle to keep its children after graduation. Initially, I thought the movie was going to delve deeper into this and play on the contrast between Mitsuha and Taki’s wildly different lives or the crisis of identity that might accompany their continual body switching. That might have been a more subtle movie, an exploration of humanity and identity that would have been quieter but, if done well, very profound.

Instead, Makoto Shinkai goes for the sweeping drama and grandeur, perhaps prompted by the feature scale of the film, taking the viewer on a whirlwind through the fragility of lives, regret and the red string of fate in time, shifting the tone, scale and stakes of the movie into high gear at the start of the second act.

The key problem I found in the film is the shaky foundation in the central relationship and the role of technology in the film. This is not an uncommon problem in a lot of Japanese movies and in Shinkai’s work in particular - he’s quite traditional and nostalgic about his characters and settings and I think it has to do with how areas of Japan have been comparatively slow to transform and catch up to the modern age - I vividly remember being surprised at how the computers in a city high school were still running Windows 98 when I visited Japan in 2008 - but I think it detracts from the immersion of the movie here.

Though I adored the charming effervescent humour of the first arc in the body switching, and the introduction to Mitsuha and Taki’s lives, the process of establishing a romantic relationship between Mitsuha and Taki was shaky at best. Makoto Shinkai holds out on a face-to-face meeting for dramatic purposes, which I understand, but I could not stop wondering how, in the age of smartphones, they don’t ever call each other or find out each other's full names or Mitsuha's town (don't they have signs?). It irked me the explanation seemed to just be 'because the second arc has to happen', even if any ordinary person would have found out that information so over the significant period they were switching.

Shinkai implies they slowly fell for each other during this period and I do assume more conversation went on in the ‘gaps’ between each montage clip, but I did wish there had been more focus on how Mitsuha and Taki communicated with each other as ‘themselves’ instead of simply writing updates on how they were living the other’s lives. There was a lot of opportunity to explore the function of technology in ‘long distance’ relationships (even one as strange as theirs), or at least address how their relationship dynamic changed.

The movie takes a bit of a confusing turn with the time travel elements but it finds firmer footing in the third act when Taki finds himself back in Mitsuha’s body and to the night of the comet strike. The process of the two finding each other is done very well if you ignore the relationship establishment question mark and just accept Taki and Mitsuha as the star-crossed romance that Shinkai wants his audience to see them as. The third act hits wonderfully dramatic and emotional beats that are all designed to highlight the animation and fantastical natural settings. Yes, the whole ‘schoolkids blowing up a power station as fake!terrorists to evacuate the town’ does come across as a bit far-fetched (can...middle school kids casually acquire dynamite like that?) but then it also made me wonder how I would convince an entire town to evacuate from a scheduled festival within an afternoon and it starts to seem like a more logical plan.

However, the movie suffers by not clearly setting up the ‘rules’ of the magic in the universe, making the memory loss and time skip feel arbitrary only for the reunion scene. For better or worse, the music and drama of the animation do a powerful job of managing to sweep aside those lingering final questions as they culminate in an emotional and thankfully happy ending that left a warm glow in its wake.

Overall, I’m still happy this film is getting the accolades and buzz, even it’s far from matching Spirited Away from a storytelling point of view. To me, 5cm per second remains the stronger of Shinkai's work but I seem to be in the minority here. I’ve never quite understood people who look down on anime as a ‘children’s’ medium and if it allows a couple more people to give Makoto Shinkai’s work and animated films a chance, all the more power to it.