Director: Makoto Shinkai
12A | 1h 46min | Animation, Drama, Romance | 18 November 2016 (UK)
With the beloved Japanese animation factory Studio Ghibli now on (possibly) permanent hiatus, the already tiny dribble of anime films that make it over to UK cinemas risks drying up even further. Luckily, the release this month of Your Name, from acclaimed animation director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second, The Garden of Words), is a reminder that Ghibli and its fabled founder Hayao Miyazaki are not the only players in this field.
This accessible and beautifully animated sci-fi drama, like many other Shinkai films, focuses on young children and their inner struggles, with an emotional connection spanning both time and distance. The conceit has the flavor of body-swap films like Freaky Friday and Vice Versa, with a bit of time bending thrown in as well. Two teenagers’ lives are changed forever when, following a comet passing close to earth, they start swapping bodies when both are asleep.
The two teens - both immensely likeable, realistically complex and refreshingly non-irritating -are Mitsuha and Taki, and their contrasting home environments at opposite ends of modern Japan are richly drawn. Mitsuha lives in a rural area where the local population of her town respect tradition and ceremony, and she burns with the urge to leave. Taki lives in what Mitsuha considers the most exciting city on earth - Tokyo – but he is stuck waiting tables in a dead-end job whilst studying for a career he isn’t even certain he wants. Then, despite never having met, they both begin to exchange bodies and exist in parallel lives, each getting a few hours to look through the other’s eyes.
We are introduced to the two characters when this phenomenon has already been happening for at least a few days, with the pair both dismissing it as just dreams. Only after finding probing messages left for each other, and having various friends and family members constantly comment on their ‘changed’ behaviour, do they finally realise the body swapping is actually happening for real. Not being shown any clear explanation as to why this happened keeps our curiousity tickled for the revelation sure to come, but it’s a pleasure to spend time with Taku and Mitsuha while we wait, as they are so well-draw - in both senses of the word.
As this phenomenon continues, the two kids start communicating with each other via messages left on smartphones, which is a logical nod to how today’s teens function. Being at school and wary of peer pressure, the duo at times seem more concerned about the damage to their reputations with friends and classmates that acting ‘out of character’ could bring them, as opposed to being freaked out about the fact they are swapping bodies every couple of days with no explanation as to why this is happening. This kind of makes sense; if you go by the truism that children are in many ways better able to deal with crazy occurrences than more ‘rational’ adults. These double lives also result in a lot of genuinely funny scenarios, such as when Mitsuha takes liberties with the shy Taki (refreshing to see it is the male character in this story who is the withdrawn and insecure one) and starts setting him up on dates, with the poor kid only finding this out when returning to his body and checking his phone.
Experiencing each other’s lives changes their perspectives deeply over time, however, with both finding their curiosity to try to meet each other starting to become overpowering, even if the idea also scares them. You get the sense something deeply intimate is being exchanged between the two teens as a result of living each other's lives and sharing bodies, something beyond words that creates both fear and deep longing. Despite the fun, a dark journey does lie ahead for the characters, and an open mind is required when it comes to tackling the film’s mystical ‘explanations’ as to what exactly created the link between Taki and Mitsuha. By the conclusion however, Shinkai has done more than enough fully invest you in these two young characters. You’ll want them to close the distance even as the various ‘rules’ of this body swapping seem to work to frustrate it.