Friday, April 7, 2017

Your Name

Early in “Your Name,” the anime blockbuster that’s conquered Japan, China, and the rest of Asia, a high-school girl named Mitsuha performs a ritual dance at her family’s Shinto shrine. Dressed in the red and white costume of a miko shrine maiden, she and a partner pose and twirl, punctuating the leisurely rhythms of drums with precisely timed, jangly handbells. Mitsuha’s rural village is perched on the edge of a gleaming lake, surrounded by verdant forests and soaring mountains. It looks like a modern-day Eden. To Mitsuha, though, it’s an inescapable cage of tradition. After the rite is over, she rushes down the shrine’s ancient staircase to the empty street below and cries out, in frustration, “Make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” As fate would have it, her wish is granted. Soon afterward, Mitsuha begins switching bodies with Taki, a teen-age boy at a Tokyo high school.

Such a film seems like an unlikely candidate for “Titanic”-level success. But since “Your Name” premièred, last August, young adults in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and China have flocked to watch and rewatch it. It has become a national and regional phenomenon. Even its director, Makoto Shinkai, seems to have been taken aback: “It’s not healthy,” he said, during a December interview in Paris. “I don’t think any more people should see it.” The film has now grossed more than three hundred and twenty-six million dollars worldwide, making it the most successful anime film of all time—surpassing even Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” from 2001.

The success of “Your Name” is due, in part, to its remarkable beauty. It contains some of the most vivid imagery ever seen in an animated film. Although it was produced entirely on computers, like nearly all modern anime, Shinkai and his team seem to have synthesized the best parts of both worlds: the characters emote with a warmth reminiscent of traditional hand-drawn animation. The backdrops are digitally rendered in detail so exquisite that they resemble high-definition video. Tokyo’s streets surge with life, down to the anti-slip striations on the pavement; the countryside erupts with a lushness worthy of “Planet Earth.” Even mundane images—the tangle of recharging cables atop a high-school student’s desk; old cans cluttering a countryside bus stop; a wood-and-paper shoji screen sliding in its well-worn track—glow with a rich, romantic intensity. (...)

But “Your Name” has not been Disneyfied. It remains defiantly strange. The film’s oddest moment comes early on, when Mitsuha, as part of her Shinto ritual, chews and spits rice into a jar to make a primitive form of sake, fermented using human saliva. Later, Taki drinks the sake. Shinkai has said that he intended the scene to represent an idea common in teen anime, the “indirect kiss,” in which one drinks from the same container as one’s crush. But the image of a teen-age girl dribbling milky liquid from her lips has raised eyebrows. Pressed during a December TV appearance, he admitted that “saliva is a fetish element for a lot of teen-age boys.”

Midway through, moreover, “Your Name” takes a surprising turn. Its frivolity is interrupted by a great Something that cleaves the protagonists’ lives into “before” and “after,” in a way that anyone who has lived through a 9/11 or a Fukushima will understand. Eventually, the movie becomes a metaphysical love story steeped in Shinto cosmology—“Interstellar,” if that film had been written by Haruki Murakami, perhaps, instead of Christopher Nolan.

The easy gender fluidity of Mitsuha and Taki has led some Western commentators to describe the film as a “queer” movie, but gender bending is a classic trope in anime; the real subject of “Your Name” is the contrast between the country and the city. In this respect, it reflects an unprecedented change in Japanese society. Over the past few decades, more than ninety per cent of the Japanese population has migrated to dense urban areas, leading to depopulation and a so-called “hollowing out” of youth and industry in the countryside. Take, for example, Hida, the town in Gifu prefecture that inspired the one in which Mitsuha lives. A recent Nikkei newspaper study calculates that, by 2040, the town will lose more than sixty per cent of its female population between the ages of twenty and thirty-nine. In this demographic erosion, Hida is hardly alone. A handful of rural municipalities, desperate to expand their tax bases, have even experimented with giving land away to lure city-dwellers back.

By contrast, in the Japan of “Your Name,” the city and the country exist in symmetry, not competition. Mitsuha is a country girl and Taki a city boy, but they are equally educated and comfortable. Tokyo’s skyline beckons like a twenty-first-century Emerald City, but the countryside, too, brims with vitality, both natural and human—its forests unspoiled, its schools filled with students, its festivals thronged with visitors. The movie is an elegiac meditation on a Japan that no longer exists—if it ever truly did. From “Madame Butterfly” to “Lost in Translation,” portrayals of Japan that have been exoticized and idealized by Western eyes abound. But “Your Name” is Japan as the Japanese wish it was.

by Matt Alt, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Your-Name