So a little-marketed movie named Your Name just broke a box office record for being the highest grossing anime movie of all time. Before all you ask, yes it did better than Spirited Away (2001). Not only that, but it managed to become a smash hit in Japan, becoming the second movie ever to break the hundred million dollar mark. Which means a lot of Japanese people went to see it with their practically non-existent time off. And that fact combined with the nature of the film itself may serve up the perfect antidote to Japan’s biggest current conundrum. Japan is a very clean, safe country, but like every country, they have their own social issues which have been putting pressure on society. Two of the prominent ones which have been mounting over the past few years are: a) their disconnection from intimacy and b) their disconnection from leisure. Thankfully, Your Name. is able to address both of these issues in a concise little package, that is, if they’re willing to pull themselves away from their damn Nintendo Switches for a moment.
Your Name comes from the mind of writer/director Makoto Shinkai, which to everyone else translates as “not Miyazaki/Ghibli”. Shinkai has been working steadily over the past two decades, but his latest picture may be the one which launches him into international stardom. In Your Name, a young woman named Mitsuha and a young man named Taki inexplicably switch bodies with one another over the course of several nights after a fateful encounter. After a dizzying title sequence, which, in the time-honored anime tradition, spells out the entire plot of the film, we’re placed in the bedroom of Mitsuha, a young schoolgirl from the country. She wakes up, begins fondling herself, and lookd at herself in the mirror, at which point one is free to wonder whether it is a really unorthodox opening to an anime or some perverted filmmakers fetish. We quickly learn that it’s not Mitsuha in this body: it’s Taki, a young Tokyo schoolboy/waiter, who has no idea how he got there. But he chocks the whole thing up to being a bad dream and continues playing the role. The next day, Mitsuha returns with a foggy memory of any of the previous day’s events. Then we get to see things from from Taki’s perspective, where his body is also playing host to Mitsuha. After another obligatory “Woah! I have different private parts” moment, she also decides to explore the world her host inhabits. The two compliment each other in some near-eye-rolling ways: she’s a country bumpkin, he’s a city slicker; she’ s unapologetically effeminate, he’s a kind of dorky masculine; she has a lot of breathing room in her life, he’s constantly going from sun up to sundown. This plays for a fun set up as the two are forced to experience an environment which challenges and excites each of them. As they go on, they begin to understand what is happening and begin to communicate with each other through written notes, where they inevitably (and creepily) begin to develop feelings for one another.
Their fact that Shinkai is telling a love story with these two, albeit a complicated one, is really a hand extended to the Japanese youth. You see Japan is in an intimacy crisis. People aren’t interested in romance anymore. The Japanese are in such an intimacy crisis that they’re actually at risk of going into a severe population decline…which is really, really bad. Mitsuha and Taki’s strange relationship might lack the physical intimacy we might expect in a romance, but they make up for it in other ways. They actually spend time in the body of one another, physically experiencing the motions of each other’s lives and the effect that has on one another. Their Lake House–style relationship focuses on a key part of intimacy, getting to really know someone. In some ways, couples everywhere might benefit from this kind of obscure, disembodied bonding therapy. Just imagine: Knowing everything your partner is thinking and why!(?) But for the Japanese, this is an connection long overdue. Your Name provides them a chance to step into a real romance through some very animated characters. The Japanese youth that claims to be uninterested in intimacy? They’re not really being one hundred percent honest. It’s not that they don’t want intimacy, it’s that they’ve managed to find another outlet. Pornography, specifically animated pornography has been cited as a prominent reason for this lack of desire in sex. It’s not just that it’s around, it’s that it’s immersive. The Japanese have a serious virtual reality addiction and that seems to carry over into their pornographic habits as well. The reliance on the screen seems to be a crippling motif when it comes to human relationships in Japan, making it a bit ironic that a film like this could warrant the solution that they really need.
But the tech seems to be the go-to resource for the Japanese with whatever free time they can muster. As soon as they’re released from their long, strenuous days, they’re exhausted and, just as people plop themselves in front of the TV, the Japanese plop themselves in front of a much slicker, much more interactive TV. But this very present problem isn’t really mentioned in Your Name. The story does take place in a smartphone age and eventually their unbranded iPhones become the journals with which they record every action they take in the other’s body, but other than that, the story points to a more simple, more intimate use of their leisure time. Mitsuha, for instance, spends the vast majority of her time immersed in nature. She lives in a rural town where everyone generally seems to know everyone. Most of her free time is dedicated to this Shinto ritual performance, which is a feature of this festival that everybody in the town seems to have a role in. Her part, coordinated by her grandmother, is quite important. She and her sister dress up in traditional Japanese garb, perform a dance and spit out some sake. This ritual is a shout out to the Japan of the past, where ceremony was reveled in and time was cherished for it’s tranquility. It’s elegant, simple, clean – things everyone loves about the Japanese. It’s these self-reflective moments, which emphasize a connection to something deeper, that has made Japan such a historically attractive place. It’s the Zen in everyone’s life that they need. Japan hasn’t really had the time to relax lately, unfortunately. They are too busy working.
While the wage debate has cycled in and out of the media here in the US, the less referenced factor is the time. Americans work a lot. They work a lot more than they were expected to at this point. In fact, it was as early as the 1930’s that they predicted that the workweek would be shortened to only fifteen hours and what the hell would people do with all that time off? Well that ended up being less than true, with a ever-increasing competitiveness in corporate culture adding hours week by week. Americans work a lot more than just about every other country on earth, but when it comes to the perception of the “worker bee”, there’s one country that takes the cake: Japan. The Japanese are serious worker bees. You can consult just about any Japanese movie or television show referencing Japan and you’ll find imagery of the cubicle worker pounding away at their keyboard, eyes fixated on a scrolling monitor. It’s really hard to keep up in such an intense work environment. In some cases, it’s common for office lights to be on well into the night as lower-level workers are expected to stay until their workaholic boss leaves. Weekend work and the idea of taking your work home with you is pretty much standard as well. But it’s hard to compete with their results! Their economy is thriving, their productivity is maximized and their people are slowly breaking. Work-related suicide is so prevalent in Japan that it has been given it’s own name: Karoshi. This is just another symptom of a much bigger problem that will have long-term effects for the entire country. In Your Name, Taki is living the big city life with all of the big city responsibilities which follow. Not only does he have to go to school and cook for his father, but he has to work until late in the evening as well! By the time he get’s home, he’s clocked in a sixteen hour day with little time for interactivity. On top of that, he’s nearing the end of his schooling, which means increased pressure to find a job and find his place in the working world. One notable scene has him sitting at a cafe with his friends (yay, socially interacting) while they talk about how many job offers each one has. It’s a status symbol out for them. The work that they do is more important than the people they spend time with or anything they do in their extracurricular time. When we see Taki, he’s pretty much focused on school and work and little else. He shows light interest in a relationship with his coworker, but even that situation fails to be catalyzed without the help of Mitsuha, Shinkai’s answer to this problem.
On her day off, Mitsuha is tasked with helping her sister and her grandmother prepare for the big ceremony. This involves the three of them going on a lengthy day hike, with Mitsuha doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the form of her grandmother, as is custom per the unspoken anime rule. By the time they come to the top, they reach this ancient shrine, which becomes pivotal for the spoiler-ridden parts of the film. But it’s there that they place the sake to allow it to properly ferment. Their entire journey is so remote from civilization, it really removes the characters from their place in time. In doing so, the hectic, breakneck world of Tokyo seems like a galaxy away. It’s leisure time used well and constructively to connect with the earth around you. One of the biggest draws for buddhism when it came to Japan was the important connection it promoted with nature. That has since been lost, but the small sojourn these three share addresses the importance of leisure time. It’s a time to spend with people, family especially. The only person missing from Mitsuha’s family was, naturally, her workaholic father who’s considered too focused on his political career to pay her any mind. And he’s another way Shinkai criticizes the way a focus on work and productivity has caused strain on the way people relate to one another.
Taki and Mitsuha are both used as Shinkai’s tools for addressing a number of issues in Japan and they’re great ambassadors for the cause, not just because they represent two opposing sects of society, but also because they’re young. Japan’s population is getting older and quite disproportionally so. Part of this is because the Japanese take care of themselves too damn well and part of this is cause the youth would rather send themselves into a spiraling depression Office Space style and have virtual girlfriends than seek any type of human interaction. But if they can take a minute to put their waterproof smartphones down, they might also see Your Name acts as an appeal to youth. As these social issues continue to mount for the Japanese, it’s going to be up to the younger generation to solve them. They’re the ones who have to find a way to balance work and life, find meaning with other human beings, and begin to normalize intimacy. And they just might if someone can actually get the message across to them. Problem is their primary communication medium comes through a screen. Now, enter Shinkai and Your Name and we have something coming out off a screen that sheds light on these exact issues.
US Marketing had not been strong for Your Name. I honestly stumbled across it at the theater when deciding between two completely different movies, but it ended up being quite the treat (and significantly better than the other two films). We aren’t exactly in the same population crisis here and our teenagers seem just as interested in sex as generations past, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese’s cultural problems don’t have their place in the US. This film, to me, signaled a new hope in Japanese cinema. It was part Miyazaki, part Ozu, and amounted to it’s own little masterpiece entirely. After leaving the theater, I eavesdropped on all the small-talk that crowded the hallways afterwards. The general consensus (which came from an audience that was 90% fanime) was, “It was great. It wasn’t Spirited Away, but it was great.” Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece is still kind of seen as the high bar for Japanese cinema in America, perhaps to a fault. Ghibli practically has an Apple-like cult of personality surrounding it, with fans lining up for the next film like it’s a new iPhone and it’s limiting. I mean, the man can only come out of retirement for so long. I think Shinkai has managed to carve his own space in Japanese cinema, as evident from their box office returns. People are listening to his message and it’s one that everyone can benefit from. Your Name addresses the many problems facing Japan, but no matter where you live, the importance of the human connection seems to be something slowly eroding from our day-to-day rituals. So even though the characters are cartoons, and even though it’s Japan, Shinkai invites you to step into the shoes of someone else and look at the duality of modern life through the eyes of two hormonal teenagers. And who knows? A little perspective might just be the cure the world needs right now.