Makoto Shinkai’s anime feature Your Name is the most beautiful-looking movie in town—although François Ozon’s Frantz, which opens this Friday at the Landmark, will surely give Your Name a run for its money. Incidentally, both films are romantic dramas that deal with characters entering into the lives of strangers, but while Frantz is relatively realistic, Your Name is a delirious fantasy. The latter, in fact, may be too delirious for American audiences. (The distributor has released it in only a handful of theaters in Chicago.) The plot revolves around a boy and a girl swapping bodies and culminates with them falling in love. Why they swap bodies is never adequately explained—it has something to do with a magical comet that passes earth every 1,200 years—but the film follows a certain logic in developing its premise, generating a sweet tone, good-natured humor, and even some affecting, tear-jerking moments. It reminds us that a good love story, like love itself, doesn’t have to make sense in order to work.
In Japan audiences ate it up. Your Name became not only the top box-office hit of 2016, but the highest-grossing animated feature of all time, surpassing Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Shinkai, who’s been making movies for almost 20 years, has been hailed in some circles as the new Miyazaki (though he rejects this label). Still, Your Name shares certain qualities with the output of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, and these qualities are intrinsic to the film’s considerable appeal. Like many Ghibli productions, Your Name lacks villains, conveying an optimistic view of humanity that shows people working together to solve their problems. And like every Ghibli film, it takes a reverential approach to nature, finding awe-inspiring beauty in trees, mountains, and sunlight. The environments seem plenty magical on their own, and they create an atmosphere in which the fantastic elements feel at home.
Your Name begins in a fictional mountain town called Itomori where teenager Mitsuha lives with her grandmother and younger sister. The opening scenes follow an ordinary day in which she goes to school, helps her grandmother with her weaving, and takes part in a public Shinto ceremony. Mitsuha’s life is relatively free of strife, but she finds small-town life lacking. “Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” she exclaims that evening, much to her own surprise. (Mitsuha has expressed no anxiety about being female, so her wish to become a boy seems to come out of nowhere.) Her wish is granted the next day, when she wakes up in the body of Taki, a handsome Tokyo boy. Your Name then follows her awkward attempts to assume his life, which involves studying architecture and working at an Italian restaurant. After this passage, the film returns to Mitsuha’s hometown, where Taki—now inhabiting Mitsuha’s body—struggles with being a small-town girl.
Shinkai—who also told this story in the form of a novel and a manga—doesn’t dwell on Taki and Mitsuha discovering each other’s bodies, which is probably for the best. (Taki does express fascination with having breasts, but the film presents this as an incidental joke.) Rather he emphasizes the characters’ daily routines, how they differ, and how the two learn to navigate very different lives after they start swapping bodies on a regular basis. Mitsuha seems to fare better in Taki’s body than he does in hers, performing well at his job and earning the affection of a female coworker, who becomes enamored with Taki after he starts showing his feminine side. Taki is more awkward as Mitsuha, although he gradually impresses her friends with his cosmopolitan demeanor. (If you haven’t seen the film, you may want to stop reading here—spoilers follow.)
As the story progresses, the two heroes come to help each other through their bizarre predicament, leaving helpful notes on each other’s smartphones that tell them how to respond to situations when inhabiting the other. This collaboration develops into mutual admiration and ultimately romantic fascination. About halfway into the film, Taki tries to seek out Mitsuha when he’s back in his own body, only to discover that she died three years earlier when that magical comet hit Itomori and killed one-third of the population. (Apparently Taki wasn’t just swapping bodies, but traveling through time—another fantastic detail the filmmakers don’t waste any time explaining.) The final act of Your Name follows his efforts to communicate with Mitsuha so that she can save her fellow townspeople from disaster.
The filmmakers switch gears from supernatural romance to supernatural disaster movie with surprising ease, generating a fair amount of suspense in the process. With its bizarre premise and climactic disaster, Your Name feels like a distant cousin to such Richard Kelly fantasias as Donnie Darko and The Box, though unlike Kelly’s films it never flirts with self-parody. The tone is uniformly sincere, even innocent. Moreover a sense of wonder pervades even when Your Name introduces darker subject matter. This wonder is rooted in the gorgeous animation, which renders with meticulous detail such ephemeral effects as smoke coming off a cigarette, speckles of flame popping off a bonfire, and the reflections of dusk on a mountainside. The filmmakers are so obsessed with qualities of light, in fact, that it becomes a prominent theme of Your Name. Crucial events occur during the “magic hour,” and the comet that’s so central to the plot seems to owe its magic power to the special light it casts.
The film’s sense of wonder also owes something to traditional Shinto beliefs. Not only do Shinto rituals factor prominently in the plot, but Your Name takes a brief pause from its story to explain a Shinto belief about the union of different elements within the human body. There’s a palpable spiritual presence in Your Name that elevates the love story, suggesting that certain events are simply beyond our control. Body swapping and romance come to seem like two sides of the same coin—Your Name presents both as miraculous.