Friday 18 August 2017

Your Name (Japan 2016: Dir Makoto Shinkai)

I will be the first admit that my knowledge of Anime is not huge - in fact, call me Mr. Pitiful - but that doesn't stop me from knowing a good thing when I see it. And Your Name is a very good thing indeed, a decidedly literary film which deals with some big concepts in its hour and three quarters; its combination of buzzy ideas and stunning visuals rightfully put it on many critics' 'best of'' lists in 2016, and it's now getting a welcome re-release in cinemas, including some IMAX showings.

Taki and Mitsuha are respectively a teenage boy and girl; he lives in Tokyo, while she resides in Itomori, a village in the country. Mitsuha, who with her sister has been brought up by her grandmother, is bored with rural life and also with being a girl - she shouts from the rooftops that she wants to be reborn as a boy in Tokyo! By some unexplained means both get to swap bodies, albeit briefly. After the swap they can remember little about their alternative lives, but take it in turns influencing each other's future. However, the approach of the Tiamat comet brings consequences for both Taki and Mitsuha that tests both their strange friendship and their hold on youth.

A quirky sort of love story which shifts its temporal perspective on several occasions, this is a film that is at the same time funny, sweet, bewildering, and heartbreaking. For anyone has seen the mawkish but odd 2006 US romance The Lake House (or even the 2000 South Korean film Il Mare of which the US movie was a remake), you'll have some idea of the mid film twist that takes things from mildly diverting to potentially tragic. The body swap theme is popular in Japanese literary culture - Shinkai based his film on sources as diverse as Shuzo Oshimi's body swap Manga Inside Mari and Torikaebaya Monogatari, a story from the ancient Japanese Heian period. With the arrival of the comet and in the film's last scenes there are also echoes of the disaster movie - it's a film that mixes the east and the west very satisfyingly.

Despite the timeless nature of the story, the characters of Taki and Mitsuha are superb creations - lively, enquiring, both amused and frightened at their experiences, but the supporting cast are also beautifully realised: Mitsuha's spunky younger sister Yotsuha, who in a running gag constantly catches Taki, while in her sister's body, fondling her/his own breasts; Hitoha, Mitsuha and Yotsuha's grandmother, who has brought them up on her own following their mother's death and local mayor father's abandonment, and is the custodian of the making of the kuchikami sake, an ancient family tradition; and also Taki and Mitsuha's schoolfriends Tsukasa, Shinta, Tessie and Sayaka, who help to flesh out the lives of the central characters and are a great supporting cast in their own right.

But the real hero of Your Name, as you would expect, is Shinkai's animation. A combination of stunningly realistic (and occasionally rotoscoped) backdrops which capture the bustling, anonymous cityscapes of Tokyo and the tranquility of Itomori (a fictitious area realised from a combination of Nagana, Gifu and, for the area where the comet hits land, Aogashima Island). Shinkai's use of the weather - scudding clouds, rain and snow - adds an extra dimension to these already vivid scenes. Like Ozu before him, Shinkai's frequent use of passing trains, whizzing through town and country, represents both the distance between the characters and the means of connecting them.

Onto this backdrop a fairly straightforward teen romance becomes increasingly complicated (you may want to see it with English language enabled, as I found the combination of a complex story, gorgeous visuals and subtitles at times overwhelming), raising questions about gender and culture which I wasn't expecting. Personally I could have done without Radwimps' (a popular Emo-lite Japanese band) rather generic - and overused - songs, feeling that this might unfairly date the movie in years to come. But this is a small criticism of a film which offers so much visually and narratively. See it on a big screen if you get the chance. Or failing that a very big television. Excellent.

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