This article refers to the original Japanese-language release.
‘Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!’ yells teenager Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) in Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016). Her request reeks of adolescent malaise, though she knows the source of her unhappiness. She lives in the quiet, scenic locale of Itomori, and her days follow a routine. After sharing breakfast with her younger sister Yotsuha (Kanon Tani) and their grandmother, she trudges through high school with her friends Katsuhiko (Ryō Narita) and Sayaka (Aoi Yūki), then carries out her duties as a kuchikamizake shrine maiden. The last of these sees her dance and participate in the making of sake by chewing rice, spitting out the resulting substance and letting it ferment to become alcohol – all in full view of her peers and their judging eyes, which she’s increasingly aware of.
Brought to life in vivid animation, her ordinary existence is one burdened by responsibility and restriction. The admonishing of her strict father, the town mayor who doesn’t live with the family but still corrects her behaviour in public, only amplifies that sentiment. Rather than dealing with him, her shrine tasks or her small town, she’d prefer to be living in the country’s capital, walking its streets, eating decadent desserts in its cafes, and perhaps even working part-time in an Italian restaurant. Although she doesn’t know him, she yearns for Taki’s (Ryūnosuke Kamiki) life, which comes complete with all of the above plus a sense of freedom, pals Tsukasa (Nobunaga Shimazaki) and Shinta (Kaito Ishikawa), and a pretty boss, Ms Okudera (Masami Nagasawa).
‘Be careful what you wish for’ isn’t a sentence anyone directs at Mitsuha – her passionate plea falls on no human ears but her own – but it’s a fitting sentiment in Your Name. Unlike many situations in which those words come to be uttered or remain applicable, however, they’re not simply a warning here, nor do they furnish a typical lesson. Mitsuha begs the universe for an escape to a life she’s certain must be better than her own. In the manner of many a body-swap narrative, her wish is then granted. But Mitsuha doesn’t just learn to value her own existence in the process, though that’s definitely one outcome of the events that follow. She also has her eyes opened to the reality she has been pining for, to the traits and discoveries that can improve her own days, and to a bond that transcends time, space and logic.
That’s the same journey Your Name charts as it tells both Mitsuha’s and Taki’s tales; what begins by literally placing each in the other’s shoes, and then watching the antics that result, soon morphs into something more. In his fifth film, following The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004), 5 Centimeters per Second (2007), Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) and The Garden of Words (2013), director Shinkai – also a writer, cinematographer, editor and storyboard artist – adapts his novel of the same name into a thoughtful and probing yet still energetic and amusing exploration of fantasy, fluidity and fulfilment. His protagonists seek something different from their usual lives, are forced to adapt when they get their wish, and are taught the value of getting what they want in unexpected ways. His feature commences with a common high-concept premise, uses its conceit to unpack the markers of teen existence, and turns its examination of methods for coping with hormone-addled adolescent needs and desires into a temporally twisted, romance-laced study of trials, anxiety and uncertainty.
Indeed, it’s easy to say that Your Name defies genre or categorisation. At once, the ambitious effort embodies a switch-oriented fish-out-of-water comedy, a teenage rom-com about opposites attracting and a sci-fi flight of fancy that starts with a comet streaking towards Earth. Uniting all of the film’s various guises is the upheaval that arises, not just from each of the narrative’s scenarios, but from living itself. It’s not particularly innovative to characterise navigating youth, encroaching on maturity, falling in love, finding a connection, or life in general as full of upheaval. What makes Your Name stand out is how – using familiar parts in unexpected ways, particularly in relation to how they are woven together – it achieves its aim, delves into its theme and communicates its message.
With this in mind, the aforementioned celestial body rushing through the sky, lighting up the heavens and headed for the ground Your Name’s characters walk on can’t provide a more appropriate opening, beginning the film with quite the sign of things to come. White and yellow lines dart through a sea of blue until one crashes through the clouds, emerges on the other side and continues its descent as life goes on below. With a flurry of eye-catching imagery, Shinkai is birthing us into his film’s reality, a realisation that couldn’t be more apparent thanks to the feature’s first words, from Mitsuha: ‘Once in a while, when I wake up, I find myself crying.’ He then switches to scenes of Tokyo seen from a great height, then enters two different bedrooms, with Taki’s voice joining in to take turns espousing the accompanying narration. ‘The dream I must have had, I can never recall,’ they continue. ‘But … but … the sensation that I’ve lost something lingers for a long time after I wake up.’
Welcome to a world in which distress is everywhere, even before ‘the day when the stars came falling’, as the joint voiceover goes on to mention. It’s a jarring truth that seems at odds with the playful tone with which it’s presented; already, Shinkai is indicating how struggle can inspire beauty, through little more than the juxtaposition of the ostensibly apocalyptic and the everyday, as well as the contrast of pain and hope that echoes within the dialogue. Mitsuha and Taki awaken to discover they’re somewhere unfamiliar – but somewhere that’s familiar to all the people around them. Consequently, everything they do is seen as troubling. We watch as Mitsuha arises from her slumber and acts in a manner everyone she knows deems unusual; Taki subsequently does the same. One fumbles with her breasts and forgets to make breakfast; the other doesn’t know where to go for school or work. They’re not themselves – they’re each other.
Mitsuha and Taki soon begin switching bodies, and, though that occurs within a narrative that contemplates deeper concerns and makes its more serious trains of thought known from the outset, Your Name takes some time to have fun with its central gimmick. Just as there’s a reason behind Shinkai’s match of initial imagery and mood – the comet as a sign of bleaker days ahead, and the warmth infused in the voiceover – there’s also a reason that he fills the film’s early scenes with levity. The movie may depict struggle on several levels, but it also knows the value of balance; indeed, as it dissects teenage tribulations, the importance of balance may be its ultimate message.
Accordingly, establishing that the duo is trading places happens in a lighthearted manner – Taki’s aforementioned self-groping, his hands roaming when he’s inhabiting Mitsuha’s body; the comedy of errors that eventuates when each endeavours to go about the other’s usual routine. Comments about them acting odd and not themselves abound, but both merely think they’re in a dream. When they awake in their own bodies, they then hear tales of their demeanour the day before; the following day, they wake up as each other again. Handled with humour and heart, these scenes show the pair settling into a pattern, working out ways to manage the transition – which seems to occur on alternating days – including leaving each other notes, both handwritten on their bodies and saved in electronic diaries on their phones.
Soon, their arrangement starts to run smoothly – or as smoothly as intermittently waking up to find your consciousness inhabiting someone else’s body can – and their coping strategies pay off. Mitsuha is suddenly confident and assertive, both in class and in the sporting domain, a change her male classmates certainly notice. Taki is thoughtful and attentive, a transformation that sees a new side of his relationship with Ms Okudera start to blossom. She specifically mentions his new feminine side, and they start to form more than a working connection, much to the dismay of his male co-workers.
Throughout the history of body-swap comedies – several versions of Freaky Friday (Gary Nelson, 1976; Melanie Mayron, 1995; Mark Waters, 2003), Australian effort Dating the Enemy (Megan Simpson Huberman, 1996) and US film The Change-Up (David Dobkin, 2011) provide some prominent and widely seen examples – navigating being trapped in someone else’s form fills the bulk of each movie’s running time. Shinkai, however, forces Mitsuha and Taki to adjust, and then, once they’ve become comfortable, takes their inexplicable switching away. With the film now favouring Taki’s perspective, he experiences an enormous sense of loss as he endeavours to settle back into his regular routine. (Of course, with the comet never forgotten and the spectre of disaster still looming, Your Name finds a way to bring him back together with Mitsuha.) As engaging as the outcome is, though, what’s arguably more important is what his reaction and their combined journey say about the state of being a teenager, dealing with difficulties and coming to understand life.
As an exercise in fantasy, Your Name commences with one of the oldest: wanting to be someone else, particularly when unpleasant events occur. It then interrogates that concept, like its subgenre brethren have, to examine what that really means – but it goes further, also questioning the very nature of fantasy. In the second half of the film, Shinkai layers more developments on top of his narrative to firmly thrust it out of the realm of reality, then resolutely demonstrates just why he keeps letting his tale mutate. Whether escaping the doldrums of the everyday or fleeing a hurtling comet is the aim, sometimes jumping into fantasy offers the only reprieve from the stresses of living. In Your Name, the two extremes aren’t as far from each other as they might seem.
With that in mind, there’s no doubting that, for Mitsuha and Taki, fluidity springs as the film’s running time ticks by. Diving into the central body-swap idea directly might provide the storytelling spark that ignites the feature, but becoming someone different in terms of growing, changing, reassessing one’s perceptions and learning from them proves the real outcome, helping the protagonists to confront the bigger trial that’s to come. Both Mitsuha and Taki remain forever altered as each coaxes out traits unbeknown to the other, thereby expanding their worldviews, their personalities and their emotional ranges. It’s the type of experience teenagers will have throughout the course of their coming of age and beyond, but given a supernatural twist, rather than relaying the same transformation through a simple friendship or romance.
That end point – living out a fantasy, learning from it, changing through it – isn’t indicative of a straightforward path to fulfilment, however. Nor does the feature’s ending, which is whimsically happy as Mitsuha and Taki eventually find each other in person, occur in the same place and the same time. The unexpected events of the film furnish a new awareness and recognition of the characters’ place in the world, but it also leaves them with a lasting impression that overcoming their trials will take them on an eventful path, rather than become their ultimate destination. In fact, when the final scene fades out, it feels like their story has only just begun.
Consequently, the notion of being careful what you wish for proves instructive; instead of simply getting what they desire, Mitsuha and Taki gain, above all else, the ability to weather the process of growing from awkward teens into functional young adults, no matter what life throws their way. In getting them to that crucial stage, Your Name works through its three thematic threads with an insight that belies what may have seemed a lighthearted jaunt about learning empathy for others and appreciating one’s own circumstances. And it does so seamlessly, letting its main considerations seep through the narrative. Shinkai doesn’t need to yell his wishes at the sky; instead, he voices them softly but with certainty to the film’s adoring audience.