This was my final project for the course WRIT109F, and I wanted to publish it on my site because it’s about a topic that genuinely interests me.
The Japanese animated film Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai, was released in Japan in 2016, eventually reaching USA audiences almost an entire year later in April 2017. I fondly recall watching the film as a high-schooler and being blown away despite what appeared to be a fairly cliche premise on the outset. And I wasn’t alone either. The film went on to be the highest grossing film in Japan of the year, the highest grossing animation of the year elsewhere, and won an accolade of awards to top it off. So how did it do it? Despite the film’s not-so-novel premise, I would posit that the refined production quality, surprisingly intricate plotline, and careful curation of thematic elements culminated in an animated masterpiece. More specifically, a masterpiece that captivated audiences at large by calling upon viewers to place themselves in the film.
Fig. 1: Taki (right) and Mitsuha (left)
Suffice it to say you should go watch Your Name if you haven’t already. But if you don’t have the time, then here’s the Sparknotes. It’s about two high school students named Taki and Mitsuha who are from the urban city (Tokyo) and the rural countryside (a small village called Itomori) respectively. They find themselves body-swapping sporadically and, by literally being placed in each other’s shoes, they develop a romantic bond. While this is not a particularly novel premise, here’s the twist: They suddenly stop body-swapping, motivating Taki to go searching for her. He finds that she actually died three years ago in a comet that destroyed her hometown, Itomori. Taki then must travel back in time and, with Mitsuha’s help, evacuate Itomori before the comet strikes. They’re successful, but they lose their memory of one another when Taki returns a red string (the one pictured above) that Mitsuha gave to him in the past before he knew her.
Fig. 2: Opening comet falls through the sky.
Moving away from the premise of the film, the first aspect of Your Name that captivates audiences on cursory viewing would be the high degree of animation quality. The opening scene of a comet hurtling to earth is a perfect illustration of this. It contrasts the sun shining brightly in the horizon, before the comet passes through the clouds, to the much darker ground and cities below as the comet breaks the atmosphere. In each frame, the comet comes closer into view. By the end of the sequence, the audience is the comet, viewing the cities below as the point of impact. The colors of this sequence are decidedly saturated and nuances such as the clouds being brushed out of the way by the comet and the clouds being briefly tinged red as the comet passes through, are readily captured.
Similarly, there’s no substitute for Shinkai’s calling card; the sense of realism he injects into his settings. This is because while Your Name is foremost a fantasy film, the settings are surprisingly grounded with many of them even being inspired by real-life locations in Japan! Some highlights include the following as noted in ToFuGo’s A Pilgrimage to the Real-Life Locations of Your Name:
- National Art Center
- Suga Shrine Stairs
- Shinanomachi Station
Fig. 3: Suga Shrine Stairs (real-life on the left, film on the right)
There’s something really satisfying about being familiar with the places in a film in real-life. For example, I’m from the Bay Area. In a film I recently watched, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, seeing the setting of San Francisco – with a stunning shot of the Golden Gate bridge – at the beginning of the film instantly hit me with a warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity. I imagine a similar sentiment could be extended to Japanese audiences when they saw Your Name; the film juxtaposes rural and urban settings in the film, allowing Japanese audiences to resonate with either end of the spectrum. Mitsuha’s setting is very family-oriented, traditional, and she walks or bikes everywhere, while Taki lives in a small apartment with just his father and commutes by modern transportation.
Fig. 4: Mitsuha’s ritual dance.
It’s not just the settings of the film that attract audiences, though; just as much attention has been applied to the characters themselves. Take for example the ritual dance that Mitsuha performs during a religious ceremony. Motion sequences are particularly difficult to capture in animation, and rotoscoping – a time-intensive technique akin to tracing – is often used to make them look more realistic. This requires a reference, though, and Your Name took the liberty of having the dance sequence being choreographed by an actual kabuki (traditional Japanese drama) actor named Kazutaro Nakamura according to a post on the site Sakuga Blog. Character facial emotions are also surprisingly lifelike in Your Name; see Taki in Mitsuha’s body rushing through the forest, trying to save Itomori. The expressions on Mitsuha’s face are palpable, responding with variations in her gait as she runs, even stumbles.
Fig. 5: Phone diary depicting animation details.
And then there is the uncanny attention to detail that has gone into the consistency of time – which is particularly important due to the nature of this film’s plot. When Mitsuha is in Taki’s body and she looks at his smartphone for the first time, we see that the time is 8:52 AM and she is late for school. At 9:32 AM on the smartphone, she is at the train station. After school, when she goes to a cafe with Taki’s friends, the time is 5:30 PM on the smartphone. Of course, there are also all the minute icons that would actually be present on an iPhone’s home bar. In another instance, when Mitsuha visits Tokyo in the past before Taki knows her, they are the same height. Three years later, when they finally meet face-to-face again, Taki is noticeably taller than her because he’s aged whereas she passed away shortly after meeting him.
Fig. 6: Japanese rock-band, Radwimps.
Outside of its strong animation quality, Your Name’s production quality is further enhanced by its soundtrack which was produced by Radwimps, a well-known Japanese rock band. Contrary to the music for most films which is composed post-production, Radwimps stated the following in an interview with Forbes: “We talked with the director and the producer more times than I can even remember. The songwriting process was moving forward at the same time with the animation so it influenced each other. The music changed the story, the lines, and if the new scene was created, we changed the music”. As a result, while English-speaking audiences may not be able to fully appreciate it due to differences of translation, the lyrics to the songs in the film very closely mirror what is happening on the screen. My favorite example of this is the song “Nandemonaiya” which plays alongside when Taki and Mitsuha reunite as adults at the end of the film:
Just a bit more, a little bit more, let's stay together (...) We are time-fliers, we are time-climbers Don't wanna be lost in its hide-and-seek I won't let you go, won't never let it go My hand finally overtook you
In the first line, the song hints at their reunion and the pining they share for one another. Shortly after, on-screen, they make eye contact while riding adjacent trains. The next line, “we are time-fliers, we are time-climbers,” reinforces the idea that they are lovers who have been separated by time, while “don’t wanna be lost in its hide-and-seek” parallels them frantically searching for one another on-screen once they’ve arrived at the station. “My hand finally overtook you” is a reference (as far as I can tell given translation limitations) to them finally meeting face-to-face. Following the interlude of the song where they tearfully ask each other for their names again (remember, they’ve severed their connection by Taki returning Mitsuha’s red string so they’ve technically never met), the film slowly pans to the sky with the lyrics:
The wind that passed between us Where did it bring the sorrow from? The sky we looked up crying Was kind of awfully clear
The “wind” is clearly an allusion to the conflict that came between Taki and Mitsuha’s love. “Where did it bring the sorrow from” reflects that neither Taki nor Mitsuha can remember the events that transpired previously in the film because, technically, they’ve never met in this timeline. However, the last two lines are the most beautiful part of this sequence to me. They reflect the idea of a clean slate for Taki and Mitsuha’s love, one that is clear of conflict in the future. And of course, this is all followed by a brief interlude in the song and a seamless transition into the credits scene.
As is evident, Your Name achieves a high level of audience immersion through 1) its beautiful, detailed animations, 2) surprising realistic settings, and 3) distinctive implementation of songs. But the surprising nuance of the plot is what really keeps the gears in your head turning while watching; it’s not a film where you can just turn your brain off and soak in the scenery (lest you wish to find yourself lost). In fact, it was complex enough that it took me a couple of re-watches to piece together everything!
While there are a number of messages that the film tries to convey, they mostly boil down to the idea that “love is timeless” and that “everything is connected”. So what does the plot of the film turn to? Time travel. Time travel is a finicky phenomenon with no shortage of interpretations of what happens when one plays with it. By taking the “messier” option outlined above, it stands that Your Name leans less grounded in science. But this means that the film is able to 1) delve into sometimes not-so-sensical fantasy elements, and 2) better apply cultural elements and symbolism which more “science-y” films, such as Interstellar (which is actually trying to convey a very similar message), simply don’t have the luxury of touching.
Fig. 7: Mitsuha watches the comet split over her hometown.
Both of these elements are predicated strongly upon Mitsuha’s side of the story. Mitsuha’s family practices a religion that emphasizes musubi, a higher power that connects all things. Remember that comet which is poised to strike and destroy the village? Well, Mitsuha’s grandmother, Hitoha, takes Mitsuha and her sister to the village shrine which we see is at the epicenter of what appears to be a crater left by a previous meteorite long ago. The shrine itself also appears to be composed of the remains of the meteorite. In essence, I think that the meteorites serve as the vessel of a higher power – love. This theory can be compounded by the meteorite in the present day acting as the spark that connects Taki and Mitsuha with one another: “The feeling has possessed me, I think, from that day…that day when the stars came falling”. After Mitsuha has died, Taki drinks from Mitsuha’s kuchikamizake that is stored within the shrine, allowing him to go back to the past and close this open circuit. Of course, this all “ties” in with the braided cords that Mitsuha’s family constructs: “(they) are the god’s art, and represent the flow of time itself. (…) they twist, tangle, sometimes unravel, break, then connect again”.
Fig. 8: Braided cords that the Miyamizu family works with.
In essence, I get the impression that Shinkai wants the audience to think about the parallels in the film in terms of these cords. There are several other parallels outside of the ones I’ve outlined, from Hitoha (who says she shared similar dreams to Mitsuha when she was young) to the meteorites themselves (the present meteorite hits where the old one hit long ago). Metaphorical strands, then, are slowly connecting, intertwining as the audience explores the ideas above. Within the context of the film’s structure itself, we see said strands connect briefly in the beginning when Taki and Mitsuha are adults, break as we watch what happens in the past (the bulk of the film), and then connect again at the very end when Taki and Mitsuha reunite as adults in the present. Musubi encompasses everything. All of this is really just the overarching idea, though, and Your Name is happy to inject numerous other instances of symbolism just to emphasize it further:
- The red string that Mitsuha throws to Taki when she visits Tokyo before Taki actually knows her. This is a clear allusion to the red string of fate, a legend that depicts lovers destined to be together.
- Mitsuha’s teacher at school says “tasokare means ‘who is that’ and is the origin of the word tasogare-doki. Twilight, when it’s neither day nor night. When the world blurs and one might encounter something not human”. The latter half hints at how Mitsuha and Taki will finally meet face-to-face briefly after Taki drinks her kuchikamizake; when their individual timelines brush against one another.
Fig. 9: Taki and Mitsuha meet when their timelines briefly overlap.
Outside of actively calling upon the audience to think about connections being established, the idea of tradition is a powerful motivator in the film. In particular, Your Name likes to use Mitsuha’s father, Toshiki Miyamizu, as a metaphorical punching bag. Toshiki abandoned the family’s traditions when his wife died, preferring to engage in politics as Itomori’s mayor. Throughout the film, we’re treated to snide comments left and right about corruption from Mitsuha’s peers. And when Mitsuha needs his help most to evacuate the townspeople, he predictably brushes her off, forcing Mitsuha to take matters into her own hands. There’s also a neat foil between Toshiki and Taki here. Both fell in love with members of the Miyamizu family, yet it is Taki – who extensively researched Itomori and wanted to preserve its traditions in his architectural designs as an adult, in contrast to Toshiki who entered politics – that is rewarded by being reunited with his lover.
The idea of Taki studying architecture and wanting to make designs that people resonate with is an allusion to one of the inspirations behind the film: the Japan 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake. Shinkai has stated that the comets that fall in Your Name are representative of the natural disasters that transpired in 2011; that we often forget warnings from the past or dismiss them. To this end, Taki sees illustrations of the previous comet scrawled on the walls of the shrine when he enters it to drink Mitsuha’s kuchikamizake. Some might also argue – such as in Thelen’s “The Rural” in Shinkai Makoto’s Kimi no na wa (Your Name) – that Your Name presents an “out” or “healing” for Japanese audiences wherein tragedy (the death of Itomori’s citizens) is averted even if the disaster itself is inevitable. Similarly, Taki’s desire to “build landscapes that leave heartwarming memories” because “you never know when Tokyo might disappear as well” acts as a coping mechanism for which Japanese audiences are nudged to look beyond the loss of material structures and to appreciate what once was.
This only outlines one reason why the film might particularly appeal to Japanese audiences; it stands that Your Name was met with resounding success worldwide. But as many fans of Shinkai’s films will attest to, Your Name is probably not his best work. A common criticism of the film is that it is overly childish and relies on YA (young adult) elements too heavily. By contrast, some of Shinkai’s other works, such as The Garden of Words and 5 Centimeters Per Second, depict more conventionally thoughtful and mature themes from the director. The former is a film that uses a schoolboy and a teacher playing hooky as a commentary on Japan’s rigid social structure and taboos. On the other hand, the premise of 5 Centimeters Per Second is arguably the antithesis of Your Name; it follows a boy and girl growing apart with age and their unreconciled love.
Fig. 10: The Garden of Words and 5 Centimeters Per Second
Then why am I writing about Your Name? The reason is simple: the other films lack majority appeal. While both of the other films were well-received by critics, neither of them went on to enjoy the smashing commercial success that Your Name did. The Garden of Words requires heavy reading between the lines that most younger audiences would glaze over (or simply not find relevant); the melancholy and the gut-wrenching ending of 5 Centimeters Per Second relegates the film to more mature audiences. On the other hand, Your Name enjoys broad audience appeal for a number of reasons:
- YA characters
- Safer thematic elements
- A happy resolution
YA characters are overdone to be sure, but we just can’t seem to get enough of them. Teenagers are at a coming-of-age point that carries a bulk of emotional turmoil; consequently, they’re expressive, immature, and insecure. Your Name banks heavily on these characteristics through its protagonists. Mitsuha, for example, has an outburst where she exclaims “I hate this town! I hate this life!” after her classmates witness her performing a family religious ceremony much to her embarrassment. In another instance, she is berated by her father for slouching. Taki has an awkward first date. After swapping bodies, both Taki and Mitsuha share awkward moments exploring their newfound physiques. You get the idea. We’ve all been there at some point; YA characters are easily related to and invested in.
Fig. 11: Mitsuha expresses her angst after her classmates see her performing a religious ceremony.
Consider juxtaposing Your Name’s characters to The Garden of Word’s. The relationship between an estranged student and teacher doesn’t fly as smoothly. This holds especially true when the film pushes towards a more intimate relationship between the two that is taboo. Similarly, the thematic elements captured in The Garden of Words are just too mature and specific for most audiences. One of the prime reasons why Your Name works so effectively at fiddling audiences’ heartstrings is because it is vague. Taki and Mitsuha monologue repeatedly at the beginning and at the end of the film about how they’re searching “for something, for someone”. Well, so is everyone else! Everyone wants to believe in fate, an innate calling, or that there is someone special out there that they resonate with. Ostensibly, for similar reasons, we never actually learn what Mitsuha’s family religion is called outside of a quick reference to Shinto practices because it acts as a placeholder that the audience is able to better insert themselves in. It should further be noted that Shinto has 1) no founder, 2) is incredibly diverse in terms of the deities worshipped, and 3) does not push for others to convert. You might see why the word ‘safe’ comes to mind.
Likewise, the resolution of Your Name is unmistakably a happy one wherein adult Taki and Mitsuha happen to cross paths, recognize their fated love even though they’ve technically never met, and then embrace one another. This may actually come as surprising given that the ending of some of Shinkai’s other films tend to be less positive. In fact, 5 Centimeters Per Second has the complete opposite resolution; the main character watches his childhood love interest simply walk away after they have crossed paths and (ostensibly) recognized each other! Despite the ending of 5 Centimeters Per Second being arguably more impactful, by contrast, the ending of Your Name just has the perfect cliche to it that most audiences can’t get enough of.
At the end of the day, I would be lying if I said I thought that Your Name was the best Japanese animation since sliced bread. It enjoys widespread success – to a substantial degree – by virtue of its beautiful production quality and use of safe, majority appeal elements. While Japanese audiences might be particularly partial to some of the film’s motivations, in my opinion, Your Name also does not necessarily present a high-level, moral message despite the surprising plot complexity and healthy use of symbolism. In essence, I would suggest that the film is ‘pretty vanilla’. But there’s the good and bad type of vanilla, and Your Name very much falls on the positive end of that spectrum. For these same reasons, then, I would attest that it is the benchmark with which any noteworthy, modern Japanese animated film is held to.
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