Watching Makoto Shinkai’s wildly popular Your Name (Kimi no na wa, better translated as What’s Your Name?), which is on its way to becoming the fifth-highest grossing Japanese film of all time, I kept hearing the creator’s voice in my head. “Are you feeling something yet? Huh? Okay, how about if I add music? Very loud, over-produced pop music? Still not working? What if the characters speak in whispery, somber voiceover? No? How about if they bawl and we see their shiny tears gush down their perfectly symmetrical cheeks? Still nothing? Fine, how about if they shout their feelings really loudly to each other? No? What the hell is wrong with you? Feel, dammit!”
It’s not that the movie is bad, or even boring. It’s just very, very average, and it could have been a lot better. It delivers its emotional moments with a bludgeon instead of a feather. Its jokes come from contrived situations and body humor. Its characters are a collection of stocks. Though it’s actually a screenplay by Shinkai (based on his own novel), its overly familiar characters and plot lines make it feel as if it were ripped from half a dozen popular TV shows or comic books.
The plot involves teenage girl Mitsuha, frustrated by her life in a picturesque but dull countryside town, and Taki, an awkward teenage boy from Tokyo. One day the two awaken to discover they’ve swapped bodies. It starts to happen randomly, and once they’ve caught on they begin leaving notes and text messages for each other (since neither has any memory of what happened after they wake up in the “right” body the next morning). Taki is fascinated by his new body, while Mitsuha manages to help Taki overcome his shyness around girls.
I wish that the film had explored the details of this situation more deeply. In a society where teenage boys and girls rarely hang out together outside of dating, what’s it like for a teenage girl to explore the world of boys, and vice versa? What insights could both characters gain from the experience? How could they grow as people if they were allowed to regularly live as the other gender for a little while?
Sadly, Your Name only spends a few minutes on the body-swapping plot. During that time we learn that Taki-as-Mitsuha likes to touch his boobs a lot and that Mitsuha-as-Taki spends lots of money on sweets (to the actual Taki’s frustration). Both of them shock and confuse their friends: Taki-as-Mitsuha kicks a desk over at one point, and Mitsuha-as-Taki horrifies Taki’s male friends when she uses feminine language (“He seemed cute the other day,” one friend comments, leading to a gasp from another.) It seems that the defining characteristics of being a teenage girl are cuteness and eating lots of sweets, while being a teenage boy means being brash and clumsy.
I also wish the movie had delved more into Mitsuha’s family situation. She and her sister live with their grandmother and manage the local shrine, which requires them to dress in traditional costumes and make kuchikamizake, a type of sake created by chewing rice and then letting it ferment in a container. I also wanted to learn more about the girls’ father, who is presented briefly as harsh and resentful. But these parts of the narrative also get only a few minutes of screen time.
Instead, Your Name is mostly a formulaic race-against-time plot coupled with the constant question of whether Mitsuha and Taki will ever meet each other in real life. A question that, if you’ve seen more than one or two romance-themed anime featuring teenagers, you can probably answer. The movie’s second act twist admittedly shook me out of my eye-rolling state for a moment, if only because I genuinely wasn’t expecting it. But the moment was brief, and I could practically feel the plot dragging itself back to the much less interesting star-crossed lovers angle.
As with all Shinkai films, there are plenty of moments of stunning beauty. The recreation of Mitsuha’s countryside town is magical, as is the attention to detail in so many specific Tokyo locations (which have apparently become popular photo spots for fans of the film). And yet this time so much of it feels overdone. The sun shines just a little too brightly, the colors feel just a little too vivid. Everything looks too shiny and perfect. The particularly detailed and colorful still images also feel out of sync with the rest of the film’s animation, which is very sharp, clean, and strangely soulless.
Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda are frequently called “the next Miyazaki,” a label that both have wisely rejected (and one that seems to get attached to any Japanese animator who makes successful films that feature a touch of magic, youthful characters, or sentimental story lines). There’s no reason for Shinkai to want or need to emulate Miyazaki, but watching Your Name, it’s impossible not to make an unfavorable comparison. Miyazaki understands the importance of silence and contemplation, Shinkai fills his movies with pop music and quick cuts. Miyazaki’s characters have layers, Shinkai’s (at least this time around) are flat. Miyazaki’s humor comes from the absurdity of the everyday, or from authentic moments between flesh-and-blood characters–Shinkai’s comes from improbable sitcom-like setups and jokes about boobs.
This kind of light, fluffy fare that recycles character types and plot lines from folk tales and other films can certainly work, and it can even be great art. And I’ll admit that Your Name wasn’t dull (though it could have trimmed at least twenty minutes from its running time). Ultimately, though, it feels like a collection of of missed opportunities for depth and authentic humor. Given the enormous success of this film, though, I’m not optimistic that Shinkai will go in a riskier direction with his next one.