Makoto Shinkai is a director with a reputation for making a particular type of film. The common through line which thematically entwines his work is an emphasis on distance—physical, emotional, temporal or otherwise. His protagonists are predominantly adolescents, that awkward middle-ground between youth and adulthood, who grapple with the unique mix of stifled longing, gnawing uncertainty, and ennui that so well defines that tumultuous period of life. His films are stories told within the space between chance encounters and missed connections, gracefully edited to mine the many peaks and valleys which define the landscape of human drama. He is, to put it frankly, one of the most inimitable anime directors of his time.
His latest film, Your Name, is another virtuosic turn for the rising director, taking the timeworn trope of “star-crossed lovers” of which Shinkai is so fond for and literalizing it in the form of Mitsuha Miyamizu and Taki Tachibana, two Japanese high-schoolers who wake up to find their bodies and minds switched in the weeks leading up to a mysterious celestial event that occurs only once every twelve-hundred years. Gender and body-swapping are anything but unbroken ground in anime (see: Ranma ½), but Shinkai brings a characteristic tinge of fatalism and hapless comic infrequency to the mix that not only sets the film apart from its campy genre ilk, but distinguishes itself as his most upbeat effort, skewing apart from the more maudlin idiosyncrasies and indulgences which tend to frequently crop up across his body of work.
Each of the protagonists is yearning for something. For Mitsuha, raised in the shadow of her overbearing father and burdened by the expectations of her family’s traditions, it’s to leave the sleepy rural mountain town of Itomori and venture out into the liberating excitement of Tokyo. For Taki, a skilled draftsmen and average student living in the city, it’s to seize upon the courage to pursue not only romance but meaning as he matures into adulthood. Through their random transferences, Taki and Mitsuha grow closer to one another and themselves, sharing their most intimate of thoughts and feelings as both their hearts and fates become steadily intertwined in a bid to not only close the gaps of space and time, but also to defy the cruel indifference of fate itself. The plot takes point at highlighting the disparity between the lived experiences of gender, demystifying the supposed “mystery of the opposite sex” to reveal two achingly human people who want most what they seemingly cannot have. So really, fairly typical fare for Shinkai, though played out across a far broader spectrum of emotion apart from his default modes set between “melancholic” and “spurned by fate.”
What’s most apparent throughout the film is not just Mitsuha and Taki’s nascent romantic chemistry, but Shinkai’s signature hand at editing sequences. With emphasis of time and distance being his chief inspiration, it should be no wonder then that Shinkai would have a knack for compressing time and space through the medium of film to both comedic and emotionally resonant effect. Whether it’s an unbroken conversation spoken across a time lapse of Mitsuha walking home from school with her friends or the snap cut transition of Taki’s before-and-after snapshot of a dessert, Shinkai is an old hand at devising cuts that flow in line with the rhythm of a scene while also revealing qualities about the characters that inhabit them. The film’s score, composed by Japanese rock band Radwimps, is equal parts whimsical, charming and evocative, though the band’s lyrics in the English dub of the movie can at times come across as gratingly saccharine, perhaps an unavoidable causality of cross-lingual adaptation. On that note the film’s English dub is top-notch, with Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh delivering wonderful vocal performances that perfectly complement their Japanese counterparts in Ryunosuke Kamiki and Mone Kamishiraishi. Though of course, as is often the case with translations, some of the more culturally rooted jokes and parlances are incontrovertible between the two versions. Still, one could happily recommend either as a satisfying means of enjoying the film.
Shinkai’s previous films have always orbited around broad empathic milestones rather than explicit analogues to major events. Whether it be the passing of a loved one (Children Who Chase Lost Voices) or a deferred rendezvous (Five Centimeters Per Second), Shinkai draws from the font of universal frustrations that color the human experience for inspiration. Your Name bucks this trend in the form of a development intended to parallel with that of the ravages left in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. The earthquake, its resulting tsunami, and the cascading fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster produced a catastrophic shock wave to ripple across the country, claiming the lives of close to 16,000 people and resulting in the disappearance of another 2,500. Six years since, Japan is still reeling from the sheer magnitude of devastation and loss left in its wake. During a two-hour memorial special aired on TBS, Shinkai recounted how the experience of witnessing the destruction of the city of Natori and the tenacity of its inhabitants to grow and rebuild out of the destruction moved him to create Your Name. “The role of fiction is not just entertainment. [...] Stories can be lessons for people, communities and towns about how to survive.” It was this experience that compelled Shinkai to mature from the rote recitation of ennui which defined the greater part of his work and direct a film that spoke to the tenacity of the human spirit not only to subsist but to thrive in overcoming adversity even in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardship. The thesis of Your Name is an affirmation of the power of empathy and love to span the expanse of time and space, binding the wounds inflicted through inexplicable hardship and make us not only whole, but stronger for that experience. A lesser director might have diminished the pain of loss felt by the film’s protagonists in an effort to spare the audience, but Shinkai allows us to dwell within that pain, to emphasize the weight of it before offering even a hint of catharsis. Mourning is never easy, and Your Name, in addition to so many other strengths, forces us to reckon with that unerring truth and grow through it.
In the great ongoing debate of anime canonicity at large, Shinkai is often heralded as the “next” Hayao Miyazaki for both the artistry and accessibility of his work. This comparison however, albeit well-meaning, is reductionist. Miyazaki’s place in the history of anime is already well established, while Shinkai has not even yet reached his apex. The burden of expectation, to laud any one director as the “next” adoptive patriarch of their art form, is as misguided as it is creatively stifling. Art does not need successors; art needs artists. This much, however, is certain: Shinkai’s films speak directly to the times in which they were created, and with this latest work, he has more than earned the right to step from out of the shadow of comparisons to Miyazaki and forge his own name.
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Writer: Makoto Shinkai (novel and screenplay); Clark Cheng (english script)
Starring: Stephanie Sheh, Michael Sinterniklaas
Release Date: March 7, 2017
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications such as Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.