Bodies and souls
Let’s get some bookkeeping out of the way first: Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. is the best film of 2017 so far, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it never relinquishes the top spot. Additionally, it’s the best animated feature of the 2010s, and nothing else comes close—Coraline in 2009 and Wall-E in 2008 are the last two movies I could find that are even in the same ballpark. Your Name. might be the best animated feature since Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It is also just so goddam beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists in the world of today, and yet it’s a bracingly modern and infectiously energetic work.
Your Name. was technically released in Japan back in August 2016, breaking box office records and becoming the highest-grossing anime ever. At first glance, the plot seems like a body-switch comedy concocted for a couple of the lowest-rung Wayans siblings: As a comet streaks overhead, a small-town girl and a big-city boy suddenly find themselves switching bodies, meddling in each other’s lives and gradually falling in love. But the result is more like a Studio Ghibli version of an emotionally loaded, apocalyptically metaphysical mindfuck like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Donnie Darko.
If you follow the world of Japanese anime, you’re certainly familiar with Makoto Shinkai, but for slaves of the domestic distribution market like me, this is probably your first opportunity for exposure. Your Name. is Shinkai’s fifth feature film, and it’s based on his novel of the same name, which was published one month before the movie’s release. Although only 44 years old, Shinkai has also been quite active in the worlds of commercials, short films, video games and manga. The man likes to work! Given that prolific output, it’s stunning that he could produce something filled with so much honesty and integrity.
After the first of several high-energy musical interludes, the story opens in the remote village of Itomori, where high schooler Mitsuha struggles with the limited options (the local “cafe” is a bus stop vending machine) of her quiet little mountain town. One morning, Mitsuha wakes up in the body of “handsome Tokyo boy” Taki, while Taki inhabits Mitsuha, each only hazily remembering the experience the next day, as though in a dream. But the reactions of friends and family members and a series of furious notes and phone messages prove the tangibility of their experiences.
It’s the rare work of art that can base an extraordinarily powerful moment of emotional catharsis on a recurring joke about compulsive boob-squeezing, but that’s the miracle of this movie. Shinkai has apparently often been compared to a young Miyazaki, but perhaps there is a better comparison to be found in the deeply personal but cosmically expansive bedroom melodies of a young Brian Wilson. After all, the sublime Your Name., brimming over with the perfect youthful mix of anticipation and terror, discovery and discouragement, plays a lot like a teenage symphony to God.