Nearly every article you read about Your Name, a 2016 Japanese animated film that made its American debut April 7, will mention, offhand, that it’s one of the biggest films of all time in Japan. Bigger than any Harry Potter or Marvel film. Bigger than Avatar. Bigger than every other Japanese movie not named Spirited Away (which remains the biggest film in Japanese box office history).
But the premise — which sees a teenage boy from Tokyo and a teenage girl from a rural Japanese town start waking up as each other at odd, random intervals — might give you pause. A body-swap movie? Is the fourth-biggest film in Japanese history? Really?
The catch is that, where you might hear “body-swap movie” and imagine lots of scenes where the two main characters examine their new anatomy with crude jokes — because you know the American remake of Your Name would do this, while Good Charlotte’s “Girls & Boys” played on the soundtrack to let you know everything was humorous fun — Your Name is a beautiful, sweetly nostalgic movie about growing up, figuring out your place in the human species, and falling in love, complete with a casual acceptance of gender fluidity and death that’s neat to see in a movie apparently aimed at teenagers.
Which is to say that many articles about Your Name present its box-office success as a curiosity, but once you get about an hour into this film — when it effortlessly pulls off a big reveal — you’ll say, “Oh. Yeah. I get why this movie was huge.” It’s the kind of movie where, were you 13, you might see it 15 times in theaters, the way some people did with the box office-shattering Titanic in 1997.
Your Name is probably too specific to Japanese culture and religious traditions to really break out in the US the way it did in its native country, but that’s too bad. If you live near a theater playing this movie, you should seek it out. It’s as effortless a crowd-pleaser as any film in recent memory.
Your Name is beautiful at every level
Director Makoto Shinkai turns Your Name (which he also wrote) into an almost heartbreakingly gorgeous film to just look at. Even if you turn off the sound, the story is more or less clear from the visuals, which at any moment might include a snowbound Tokyo cityscape or a comet streaking through the sky or a lazy summer day in the country.
There’s a depth and texture to every (hand-drawn!) image, which stands out in this era when many American animated films aim for Pixar and wind up at “plasticine.” And Shinkai is at the center of it all: He’s listed as Your Name’s cinematographer, editor, and art director, in addition to directing the film and writing its script. (One thing he didn’t do: write the film’s lovely, elegiac score, which is courtesy of Japanese rock band Radwimps.)
In particular, the director’s script is beautifully paced. There’s more than enough time to get to know Taki and Mitsuha, the boy and girl who start waking up as each other, and there’s also plenty of time for an explanation of how the phenomenon seems to work. Nothing is rushed, and every time the story begins to lag, Shinkai drops in another revelation (or three) that takes things in a new direction and unearths the deeper truths behind Taki and Mitsuha’s unexpected connection.
By the time Your Name reaches its final half-hour or so, the film has moved so far beyond its initial premise that if you think back to the beginning, you’ll be astonished by how far it’s come.
It’s the very best kind of movie story, where it squeezes possible every drop out of one idea before moving onto another that provides just as much drama. Yes, there’s a love story here, but the obstacles Shinkai throws up in its way are truly clever.
American viewers may find themselves confused by a few cultural leaps the story expects of its audience. (I’m still not 100 percent sure how one key plot point involving sake was supposed to work, but it made emotional sense, so I went with it.) And I probably could’ve done without another movie where a wise old person explains everything that’s happening, a well that Shinkai keeps returning to.
But ultimately, I don’t care. What most makes Your Name such a good movie — and presumably what made it such a sensation in Japan — is the way it gently considers questions that adolescents wrestle with in earnest, then keep battling as they enter adulthood. What does it mean to be who you are? Is your identity fixed or malleable? And do you have an ultimate purpose, a reason to be alive?
The answers to all of these questions are left open-ended in Your Name, right up until its cathartic but not closed-off final shot. If life is a sentence, Your Name doesn’t dare suggest ending it with a period; instead, it offers an endless drift of commas.
Your Name is playing in limited release throughout the US. Check here to see if if it’s playing near you. It’s available in both a subtitled version and a version dubbed in English; I recommend the former, but, hey, if only the latter is available to you, it’s worth it.