Friday, November 25, 2016

Anime On the Big Screen: “Your Name”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 26 November 2016
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 107 minutes
Production Date: 2016
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

It’s pretty amazing that the two highest grossing Japanese films of 2016 have made it to Australian cinemas only months after their Japanese cinema releases. First “Shin Godzilla”, which had a limited screening last month, and now “Your Name” (officially rendered as “your name.” in the official English title) which is on track to become the sixth highest grossing film in Japanese box office history (close to ¥18 billion so far). I didn’t want get involved with the Christmas shoppers, so I went to the earliest session I could. Dendy have a new website and a new online ticketing service. When I printed off my PDF ticket it said I didn’t have to go to the box office. Great, except it had no cinema number on the ticket, which meant I had to go to box office where I was given a ticket anyway… With this film being a limited release and not a one off event, as usual there were no real otaku types to be found in the audience (well except me). There was a real mix in the audience; a few young people by themselves evenly split between the sexes, a Japanese mother and her young child a couple of older Asian women. The Asian cinema goers certainly outweighed the western ones. I know it was early, but I found it a little surprising that the amount of patrons in the cinema didn’t reach double digits.

The film initially follows the life of Mitsuha Miyamizu, a teenage girl in the latter years of high school. She lives in Itomori, a very small town of around 1,500 people way out in the countryside with very little for teenagers to do. She lives with her little sister and her grandmother, head of the local Shinto shrine. Both her and her little sister are shrine maidens and have to perform in a ritual every year where they make kuchikamizake, a type of sake where a person chews rice and spits it out and is left to ferment. Mitsuha finds having to do this practice publicly a little humiliating. She is also estranged from her father, Toshiki Miyamizu, the local town mayor. He left the household after a fight with Mitsuha’s grandmother after his wife died. Campaigning for re-election, he publicly humiliates Mitsuha by telling to stand up straight in front of a group of voters. Mitsuha later declares she hates her life and wishes she could be reborn as a boy in Tokyo.

At school Mitsuha’s friends explain to her that she was acting quite strangely the day before. She couldn't find her desk or locker and came to school with bed head rather than her hair usually tied up. However Mitsuha doesn’t remember any of this at all. She finds a scrawled message in her note book reading “Who are you?” which she blames one of her friends for. The next morning Mitsuha wakes up and finds herself in an unfamiliar room. She soon discovers to her horror she is in a teenage boy’s body. She pieces together enough information about his life from his father and his phone to know that his name is Taki Tachibana and the school he goes to and the names of his friends. Initially she is struck by the fact she is in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a place she has always wanted to go to, however reality soon sets in as she realises she has to pretend to be Taki, even though she believes it’s all a dream. She even manages to go to Taki’s part time job at a restaurant and somehow manages not screw up too much. There she meets Miki Okudera, a co-worker whom Mitsuha determines Taki has a crush on due to the amount of photos of her in his phone.

It soon dawns on Mitsuha and Taki that they aren’t dreaming and that both of them somehow swap into each other’s bodies almost randomly. Over the next few weeks the pair communicates with each other via writing in notebooks and on their phones. They lay down ground rules for each other so not to put a strain on family and social ties and more importantly not to embarrass each other. However Mitsuha manages to get Taki closer and closer to Miki. Eventually she sets up a date for Taki. But the date doesn’t go well for Taki. Taki later tries to call Mitsuha but the phone seems to be disconnected. No more body swaps occur either. Taki cannot fathom why this has happened and attempts to go to Mitsuha’s home town. The problem is he has no idea what the name of her town is or what prefecture it is in. Using only the detailed drawings he made he does as much research as he can and sets off for the most likely prefecture. However at Tokyo station he discovers his friend Tsukasa Fujii and Miki waiting for him. Initially he asked Tsukasa to cover for him at work and school, but Tsukasa told Miki, who agreed that Taki had been acting strangely recently so both of them decided to accompany him. Their journey takes them through a couple of prefectures, almost aimlessly wandering and asking the locals if they can recognise the town from Taki’s drawings. In a small ramen restaurant Taki soon leans the horrifying truth.

This is Makoto Shinkai’s sixth major work and his third full length feature film. I was not a fan of his faux Ghibli film “Children Who Chase Lost Voices”, but I am a big fan of all his other works. For a while there I think he was on the cusp of pigeonholing himself with his trademark twilight panoramas and tales of romantic breakups and separation (often tied up with technology of some sort). However I think with this film he has finally broken out of that mould and proven he can stand on his own two feet. This is despite the gushing western mainstream media proclaiming him as “the new Miyazaki”. Wasn’t Mamoru Hosoda “the new Miyazaki” last week? Or was that Keiichi Hara, Sunao Katabuchi or even Goro Miyazaki? Maybe none of them are. I find this talk a bit tedious and diminishing of these new director’s films.

Anyway as per Shinkai’s other film’s it does contain twilight panoramas and lost loves and forced separations in a big way. However at the core of this this film is a rather intriguing and constantly surprising story. The basic story is no different to other body swap films like Disney’s original 1976 “Freaky Friday” or the tens of copies which followed that film. With its opening animation credits looking very much like the opening animation of a TV series and music by pop rock band Radwimps, it sort of sets the stage for a very mainstream family film squarely aimed at Japanese teens. About a third into the run time it changes pace, quite effortlessly and becomes darker (with Taki’s bad date with Miki foreshadowing that), and turns into a paranormal mystery. The third act changes pace again where the film turns into another teen subgenre where the teens try to save their beloved town from disaster but the town’s adults won’t listen. Naturally the teens save the day. Shinkai’s screenplay switches between the three different arcs with relative ease. I found the plot twists were quite surprising too.

Shinkai’s direction is fantastic as well. The cinematography, use of silence in dramatic scenes and editing are top notch and ratchet up the drama at the right moments. The animation, especially the special effects and use of filters in regards to light makes a number of scenes look incredibly realistic, however I still think his previous film, “Garden of Words”, has got this film beat in terms of realism and use of light. Shinkai certainly knows how to move a camera around within a “set” to maximum effect without looking like he’s showing off. Some trivia by the way; Yukari Yukino, the teacher from “Garden of Words”, has a cameo in this film.

Despite all the gushing reviews this film has being getting, I did have a few minor quibbles with it. First is the fact that Taki didn’t know the name of Mitsuha’s town which seems rather implausible. Though I completely understand that if he did know, it’d kill a lot of the plot. Second is the way Taki was able to “get in contact” with Mitsuha at the start of the third arc of the film. For whatever reason I couldn’t suspend a lot of disbelief in that. Like some reviewers I didn’t think much of the epilogue after the climax. I understand the audience would have probably hunted down and killed Shinkai if he hadn't concluded the film in the way in did, but I wish it was written a bit better. I think some scenes, especially in the last third, could have been trimmed to tighten up the film and ramp up the drama. I have seen complaints about Taki and Mitsuha “checking out their new bodies” and one review which bizarrely seemed to concentrate on this entirely.  Sure it’s a running joke, but  a really minor one. I’m not sure why people are making a fuss about it. The other aspect other reviewers harp on about are the scenes of natural disaster and making comparisons to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. I think to a small degree Shinkai is referencing the disaster, however it’s not used as a blunt instrument in the way it was in “Shin Godzilla”. Here’s it’s more matter of fact and used to advance the plot.

In conclusion, this is one of Shinkai’s better films, albeit far more commercial than what he has done before. While squarely aimed at a family and teen market, the film has enough plot twists and drama to keep adults thoroughly entertained. The final scenes were a bit too saccharine and safe for me. I think the post climatic scenes could have been better written. A little more trimming of certain scenes wouldn’t have gone astray either. I really wish the mainstream western media would give the Miyazaki comparisons a rest and judge other Japanese directors on their own merits. It’s really good film, but maybe not the second coming as others are suggesting. 8 out of 10.

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