Animation Film 'Your Name.' May Be the Best Body Swapping Movie in Decades
Although lacking slightly in character development, Makoto Shinkai's newest film is saccharine, gorgeous and heartwarming.
The "body-swap" genre is no longer novel for American moviegoers and, unfortunately, a majority of such films -- especially since the turn of the century -- have not only been vanilla (in both substance and casting), but also infuriatingly vapid examples of a modern trend towards fiscally safe, ambitionless cinema. After some brief Googling, one can conclude that the insipidity of such flicks seems to correlate with their MPAA ratings; the more "adult" the film is meant to be, the less substance it contains. Examples of this phenomenon include: Rob Schneider's lowbrow, broad comedy The Hot Chick (2002); Jennifer Garner's almost endearingly innocuous 13 Going On 30 (2004); and a Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds "mantasy" (fantasy, for middle-aged men, and more specifically dads) called The Change-Up (2011).
The films within this micro-genre that have had the most impact on the cinematic zeitgeist are those that mostly ignore the understandably enticing allures of exploring the sexuality of another human's body (all of the above-mentioned make liberal use of that trope), and instead focus on the emotional growth of their protagonists. Perhaps the most recognizably beloved body-swap films since the millennium are the 2003 Disney remake of Freaky Friday (which explores stepping into a relative's shoes to bridge a familial gap) and those of the Shrek franchise (which preaches acceptance of oneself regardless of external beauty).
In one of its first scenes, Japan's most recent animated export, [sic] Your Name., recognizes the inherent sexual comedy in body-swapping pubescent characters of opposing genders: a teenaged girl wakes up, dazed by her surroundings, until she looks down and notices her own breasts, as if for the very first time. She proceeds to fondle herself until her elementary-aged sister interrupts to notify her of breakfast. We soon learn that this is in fact Taki, a hotheaded high school student from Tokyo, trapped inside the body of Mitsuha, a benevolent country girl craving a more upbeat and urban lifestyle. Mitsuha also receives a similar, sexually explorative scene, but her reaction is antipodean to Taki's -- she screams at the alien thought of her newfound member, and only begrudgingly uses the bathroom.
Beyond this, though, Your Name. makes sparse use of such material, and instead proves to be a heart-melting story about two Japanese teenagers, disenchanted by their own realities and searching for something more substantial -- one can even interpret this as a metaphor for the "body-swapping" filmgoer. Thankfully, the movie doesn't force us to suffer through an opening act that's chock full of exposition, and conclusion by a fatuous explanation of the body swapping itself (this is, in this writer's opinion, where Freaky Friday falters). Instead, we are dropped into the drama only after the inciting incident: Mitsuha's friends notify her that she was acting strangely the day before, something that confuses Mitsuha just as much as it entices the audience's curiosity as to why.
From there, we watch as Taki and Mitsuha slowly realize what exactly is going on: they live one day in their own bodies, and the next day in one another's. They not only have to navigate the difficulties faced in trying to manage an altogether foreign world (Mitsuha has a particularly tough time blending in with Taki's friends, due to her palpable femininity, and also struggles to perform adequately at his job as a waiter, while Taki confronts a more conservative society than the one to which he is accustomed, and bucks against traditional values in evermore rebellious ways), but also the difficulties of their own lives, the ones they would face even if they weren't body swapping.
Mitsuha lives with her grandmother, and is no longer on speaking terms with her strict, politically oriented father (the reasons of which are revealed late in the film), while Taki's brash nature keeps him from landing the girl of his dreams. Just when you think these two will meet and fall in love, the story swerves into unexpected terrain that's better left unmentioned here, lest we give too much of the plot away. While the deviation is a laudable move, simply because something like this hasn't been done in mainstream film before, it turns out to be not as satisfying as one might wish.
At this point, it's worth noting that Your Name. is the 4th highest grossing film in Japan (only behind Miyazaki's masterful Spirited Away, Cameron's enormous Titanic, and Disney's heartwarming Frozen). It's also the highest-grossing anime film ever released globally. It somehow feels as if writer-director-animator, Makoto Shinkai, had a premonition of this commercial success: the film feels scared of its own potential greatness because it doesn't want to alienate a mainstream audience with what some might presume to be a too long runtime.
As it stands, Your Name. runs 112 minutes, but enchanting as it is, it flies with clipped wings, as it contains two or three hyper-speed montages that disappointingly shirk character development. The most incensing of these montages is one that occurs just after our heroes realize what's going on –– they explain, via voiceover, that they laid ground rules for one another while inhabiting the other's body, but that those ground rules were, at the very least, "massaged". A 20-minute segment explores Mitsuha and Taki pushing the boundaries of their respective new worlds. Alas, this portion of the film is over all too soon.
Furthermore, the film could have offered a more satisfying emotional wallop if the characters' arcs were not deflated by a rush through character development in order to tell a more conventional "story" (nearly all of which is crammed into the film's second half). This causes a tonal diversion from character study to sci-fi mystery that makes the story sputter. It doesn't help that, despite all these twists in the road, the plot ends up going pretty much exactly where any modestly intelligent viewer would predict.
Nonetheless, Your Name. is an engaging if saccharine universal tale of self-discovery. It's also a visual masterwork. In that regard, at least, Your Name. may offer some consolation for those who dread the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the Japanese anime icons that founded the legendary Studio Ghibli.