After a longer time than expected, I got around to watching Kimi no Na Wa, Shinkai Makoto’s breakout masterpiece. And I have to say, I see why it succeeded where his other films were restricted to fandom and, to an extent, arthouse crowds. I’ve never been a great fan of his work, which while often artful and in his early days a remarkable achievement for what was basically an individual, never connected with me emotionally.
Yes, what Kimi no Na Wa at last manages, finally launching Shinkai into the leagues of Miyazaki, Takahata and Hosoda, is to have heart. The story is a strange one and the gets bogged down in a rather artificial drama in the final act, but what really matters is that the characters are likeable and compelling – plus the setting has interesting things to say about very different lifestyles in a changing Japan.
I was a bit confused by the title of this film. Why na and not namae? I’ve heard a variety of explanations from Japanese people – ‘It’s more formal and sounds more like a real title’; ‘It has the nuance of your full name, because they only knew given names’; ‘It feels uncomfortable to say “Kimi no Namae Wa?”’ (even though that’s the climactic line of dialogue in the actual script’; and maybe most convincingly, Shinkai just used the title of an old radio drama from 1952, adapted into a movie trilogy in 1953-4 that was a huge hit back in the day.
But this is not an adaptation of an older work. It’s an original story that on the surface is about a boy and a girl who swap bodies and live in each other’s shoes for a day. Not just one day, but over and over again. At first they think they’re dreaming, but begin to communicate with one another through phone journals and other messages, and eventually try to meet one another – though there is a lot that stands in the way of their coming together.
A lot of the drama is rather superficial, with a whole lot of made-up rules for this magical circumstance that it’s implied is connected to the power of a local god. But that’s okay, because the overall narrative is really just a vehicle for two things – the exploration of two characters, and their very different circumstances. She is set to inherit the temple and trains as a shrine maiden in a somewhat stifling small town where everyone knows one another and the girls at school sometimes pick on her for having to do embarrassing things like make sake the traditional chew-rice-and-spit-it-out way. He is a busy city boy living in a small apartment and working as a waiter in a restaurant, and despite his pretty face very inexperienced with women. Judging from his reaction to an excursion, he’s also craving more spiritual experiences.
It’s oddly cute to see Taki, the boy, with Mitsuha’s feminine mannerisms, very well-observed by the animators. Interesting that we’re introduced to him like that, too. Observing gender differences is far less important, however, than observing the social differences between the very different lives these two lead.
The film is also very beautiful. There’s some slightly jarring cel-shaded CG, but mostly this is a real visual treat. Glorious panning shots, intensely detailed backgrounds, masterfully-captured natural phenomena and even some explosions make for a feast for the eyes.
And while it’s somewhat on-the-fly and arbitrary, the film’s narrative makes for some great emotional highs and lows and builds to a good strong climax. Combined with really likeable characters and meaningful stakes, the result was good.
I see that a live-action remake is in the works. Honestly, I don’t see what it would add. In fact, I suspect it will lose the beauty and the carefully-observed physical comedy. A great step forward in Shinkai’s career.