It's not hard to see why your name. has been called a masterwork. It's the most ambitious work Makoto Shinkai has directed thus far, and a huge step up from his last full-length feature, the lackluster Hayao Miyazaki clone Children Who Chase Lost Voices. your name. is easily as good or better than any other animated feature released in its year, and I won't be surprised to see it showing up routinely in best-of lists from here on out. It is absolutely worth seeing, but there was a lapse in its internal logic that held me back from my full enthusiasm for it — a flaw that felt like it was asking me to accept the wrong kinds of suspension of disbelief about its goings-on.
A walk-on part in the war, a lead role in a cage
your name. opens with what seems like a fairly standard setup: Mitsuha, a teenaged girl living in a backwater town somewhere in the heartland of Japan. She hates the place and has dreams about getting out of there altogether, maybe to Tokyo. That she has a position with the family shrine doesn't mean much — not when her own father, the town's mayor, also walked away from such things in favor of a career in local politics.
One day Mitsuha's friends comment on how weirdly she was behaving the other day. She doesn't know what to make of this, and shrugs it off. Same for the note she finds in her notebook that's not in her handwriting: WHO ARE YOU? Then the next day when she wakes up, she discovers she's not in her own body anymore — she's in the body of Taki, a teenaged boy living in metropolitan Tokyo. It's jarring at first, since she doesn't know anything about the details of this young man's life, but exhilarating too — if also disorienting for Taki's friends.
Taki, meanwhile, has been experiencing the same thing in reverse. He's been waking up inside Mitsuha's body, and making something of a mess of her day-to-day life as well. Hence the note he left for her. Soon they graduate to leaving each other angry do-this-not-that notes in his cellphone, as both of them try to get the hang of sharing half of each other's lives.
Neither one of them can remember much about the time they spend ghosting in each other's shells — it's described as being like a dream — but the notes they leave behind help fill in the gaps. It doesn't thrill Mitsuha to discover how Taki has been puppeteering her in a somewhat tomboyish fashion; Taki, likewise, is stupefied to discover how Mitsuha's feminine side helped "him" win over a female supervisor at his job as a waiter in an upscale restaurant.
This first third is funny and gorgeously presented. Shinkai has a knack for making special the mundane moments of life by showing them in a hyper-realistic way: the details of small-town life (especially the shrine where Mitsuha performs a ritual, mostly to placate her grandmother), the big-city bustle, the quiet moments in small, crowded rooms. It all feels like setup for a story where both of these characters will have a little of the vinegar drained out of their souls by being asked to take responsibility for the life of a stranger. Actually, that is what happens, but not remotely in a way we would expect from the setup.
At around the one-third mark, Mitsuha and Taki suddenly stop switching bodies. No explanation is given, and Taki can't raise her on his cell either. But Taki is haunted by what little he remembers, and he sets about performing some amateur detective work. What he finds is that he wasn't just trading places with Mitsuha, but times as well. All of her experiences were taking place three years in the past, right around the time a fragment from a comet passing close to Earth broke loose and wiped the town she was living in — and her along with it — right off the map.
What to do? Taki heads out to where the town used to be, and fits enough of the pieces together to somehow re-restablish a link with Mitsuha — to re-inhabit her body right before the comet strikes, to warn everyone around her who'll listen about the impending disaster, and to make one final bid to allow each of them to remember the other. What he finds is that Mitsuha, in her own time, was also looking for him, and that this previous connection was something he has been carrying this whole time as well — something that both of them will bear with them into whatever future is now waiting.
The missing piece in the middle
There are so many good things about your name. it feels almost wrong to speak ill of it. Shinkai has never made a bad-looking film, and this is as gorgeous as any he or anyone else has made. One sequence, where Taki slips back into Mitsuha's body for what may be the last time, is animated in a striking chalk-drawing style reminiscent of some of the mixed-media-style experiments that were in The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya or Belladonna Of Sadness. your name. also feels a lot fleeter of foot and confident in tone than Shinkai's earlier works. Now that I think about it, it feels more like a cousin to one of Mamoru Hosoda's productions (Summer Wars, The Boy And The Beast, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time).
My one issue with your name., though, is an issue I only realized in retrospect, itself a sign of the movie's skill. I don't have a problem with Mitsuha and Taki swapping bodies. But at no point do Mitsuha or Taki ever notice during their swaps that they are years out of their own timeframe — that they're either three years ahead of or behind where they were. There's never a moment when they do a double-take at a calendar or blink at the clock on their phone, let alone try to act on this information. Saying they're both too busy living their swapped lives to notice such a thing, or that their dream-state recollection of it would prevent it, doesn't cut it for me, especially not when both of them are using a cell phone with a diary application (a major plot element).
I think this is more a simple authorial oversight than a case where suspension of disbelief demands we ignore fundamentals of human behavior. But the problem is thrown into sharper relief by the way the movie cleans up other loose ends. When Taki actually tries to call Mitsuha, for instance, it's handled in an offhand way, without any definitive information about whether or not this is the first time they tried to do such a thing, etc. It's mean to cover one of the major bases about the mechanics of their interaction: they would, you assume, try at some point to call each other. In the heat of the movie's moment, the elision of exact details works, because the audience is too busy being emotionally wrapped up in the characters to notice such sleight-of-hand. But on a second viewing, or in retrospect (as was the case with me), such cracks show, and they widen enough that many of the joys of watching the movie are riven by them.
It's story manipulation that feels unworthy of a movie that gets so many other things right. Maybe I should say the wrong kind of manipulation, because every story is a construction designed to engineer feelings and reactions in an audience. But I kept thinking, rather than hand-wave or dance around the time displacement issue and all its attendant complications, why not confront it directly? Why not have the characters notice it early on, and build the story that much more around it? My guess is because Shinkai was wedded to the original outlines of his story, where the big reveal about the time difference between the two was part of his delivery mechanism for the movie's emotional salvo. For this he was willing not only to withhold information from his audience, but to force his characters to withhold information from themselves — something that amounts to risking making them seem not just like hotheaded kids (which is fine), but unobservant dolts (which is not). And given that everything we see about Taki and Mitsuha is that they're not unobservant dolts, it's dismaying.
The paradox of all this is, if Shinkai were a less talented filmmaker, it would be easier to write him off. I once heard a musician described as "a trivialist, but a trivialist of great ability." I was once prepared to describe Shinkai in those terms, but from all I've seen he's just slightly too big to fit in such a box. He has ambition, and his work is driven by overriding themes that demand ambition, the biggest being the re-establishment of broken links between people. Thing is, while it's true that many great artists return ceaselessly to the same obsessions, that doesn't mean such ceaseless return is itself a sign of genius. Less so when it means other things fall by the wayside, like basic logic about human behavior in a story that's ostensibly anchored in it and driven by it.
Most people will not notice anything is wrong, especially not on that first viewing that goes through the heart like a javelin. That's fine; most people aren't critics, and the movie does a splendid job of being entertaining and visually appealing. your name. makes emotional sense, and that is the kind of sense most people seek from an entertainment. Maybe in time I'll look back on the movie and say to myself, we can sweep all this under the rug in the light of everything else the movie accomplishes. But right now I feel, as lovely and heartfelt as the movie can be, as admirable its ambitions and fearless its realization of them, it glosses over things that deserved to be confronted and made part of its plan. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that has one piece printed upside down and backwards. The pieces do all fit together, and the whole picture is gorgeous. But there's one spot right in the middle that just looks weird.