For a while now, Makoto Shinkai has been knocking on the gates of international breakthrough. Your run-of-the-mill anime fan will recognize his name, but somehow Shinkai never quite managed to take his fame beyond his own niche. That is, until he released Your Name [Kimi no Na Wa.]. Shinkai's latest was a tremendous success, both locally and internationally, finally placing him next to anime greats like Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. Looking at Shinkai's oeuvre so far, that token of respect is well-earned.
Shinkai himself is bit weary of his newfound success and I must admit that it's somewhat of a double-edged sword for Western fans too. Your Name was released exactly a year ago, but its success kept it in cinemas and festivals for a much longer period than normally the case. The home release took a full year to materialize, just because of import worries and tight distribution control. For someone like me, who prefers the comfort and quiet of his own living room to watch a good film, that's pretty annoying. For a full year I've been ignoring reviews and online commentary about the film, needless to say I jumped on the home release the moment it became available.
Your Name is a film that blends the fantasy of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below with the romance of 5 Centimeters per Second, making it a pretty logical continuation within Shinkai's oeuvre. The fantasic elements are mostly there to propel the story forward and to conjur up a unique romantic dilemma, while the romance forms the true core of the film, providing the atmosphere and emotional pay-off. It's a fragile balance that, when not executed perfectly, could've easily brought out the worst in Shinkai's work, yet he pulls it off with great elegance.
The story revolves around Mitsuha (a girl living in a rural village) and Taki (a boy living in Tokyo), who swap bodies randomly. They go to bed being themselves but they wake up in the other one's body. At first they assume they're just being a little hazy and forgetful, but it doesn't take them too long to realize what is happening to them. It's the "why" that has them puzzled though. When they finally decide to meet up in real life, it turns out that's actually a little harder than originally exptected.
Shinkai gained notoriety because of his extremely detailed and overpoweringly romantic visuals, with Your Name he takes his style one step further. The level of detail is almost unmatched, making it virtually impossible to take everything in the first time around. The colors are bold and striking and even though Shinkai toned down the use of his trademark lens flares just a little, his play of light is still as impressive as ever. One of the more remarkable visual feats of Your Name is that Shinkai succeeds in making the urban scenery just as attractive as its rural counterpart. Modern-day anime is so rural-mad that it's nice to see someone who still knows to conjure up the beauty of our urban society.
The character models are a bit more detailed compared to Shinkai's earlier work. There's more nuance in the facial expressions and the characters have a bit more technical complexity. It takes away a little of their cuteness, at the same time it does add an extra layer of humanity. The animation too is top notch, with elaborate camera work, lots of movement and some stunning adaptations of live action techniques (like the timelapse scenes, which are beyond amazing). Needless to say, Your Name is a visual feast from start to finish.
The soundtrack is still going to be as divisive as ever. Shinkai has no problems using J-Pop ballads in his films, which doesn't always go over too well with international fans. I do have to say that he seems to have chosen some more subdued tracks this time around, which should make it a bit more bearable for those who are allergic to J-Pop. I don't particularly mind, though I would prefer a more tailored and unique choice of music. The dub is great, as can be expected from a high-profile film like this. Not quite sure if they made an English dub, but I don't see any reason to bother with one. If you can't take in all the visual detail because you're too busy reading the subtitles, that's just more reason to see the film a second time.
There's quite a lot of plot to go through during the first half, but Shinkai makes sure that the bond between Mitsuha and Taki keeps growing tighter, never letting the plot eclipse it. The second half reverses that balance, putting the romance front and center while keeping the plot going forward in the background. There are some nice twists and turns along the way, clearing things up without explaining too much, keeping part of the mystery alive. The emotional pay-off is kept until the very end though, with Shinkai conceiling his ending until the very last scene. While a bit more crowd-pleasing compared to some of his other films, I felt the ending fit the film and having it end any other way wouldn't have added much extra.
The real-world setting mixed with slight fantasy elements makes the film a bit more accessible compared to Shinkai's earlier films. Add to that an even higher level of stylistic finish, a 90 minute plus running time and an ending that is a bit easier to swallow for mainstream audiences, and it's no surprise Your Name turned out to be the hit that it is. While not my absolute favorite Shinkai, it's definitely up there with his best and it should have no trouble finding its way on the international home market. You have to wonder where Shinkai will go from here, then again that's the feeling I always have after watching his latest film and somehow he still finds ways to improve on his previous films. I just hope his next one doesn't take as long to arrive.