When I tried to describe Japan to people after returning from a brief stint there in 2015, I always found myself using the word “frenetic.” I couldn’t think of a better way to describe a place that seemed so reconciled to industrialization but also committed to its traditional culture. Sometimes, the disjunct was a little obvious: in Tokyo, people would go out of their way to help when they saw me struggling to buy a train pass, or if me and a friend wanted a goofy picture with our heads poking out of an anime maid standee. While in Wakayama, the proprietor at a cool sounding Archery Bar took one look at our very white, very touristy faces and closed the door on us. But, ultimately, this difference, and the way that convention and newness somehow find a hectic way to grow together is something that felt unique, and that I loved about Japan.
Your Name is not really about any of this. But it also kind of is.
It is first and foremost a love story. Mitsuha is a girl living in the Hida region, not content with her rural life, and Taki is a high school boy from Tokyo. Occasionally, they inhabit one another’s bodies and live each other’s lives when they dream. The film uses its Freaky Friday concept well, and despite being so simple and to the point, manages to be greatly emotionally affecting. It messes with the established body switching formula in one slight way that results in an unexpected raising of the stakes. At first, I thought, “I don’t know if this is actually that believable. I’m not as emotional as I expected.” I wasn’t prepared for how it picks up, and to have my face squishing up under the weight of brimming tears. “When did this happen?” I asked myself. Which is always a good sign.
This is obviously the main draw, and it is exactly what most critics are saying: an emotionally satisfying experience. But occasionally I found myself thinking about other things. I wondered about what the setting offers, having these characters split between the rural and urban areas of Japan. It isn’t the main emphasis, but at the same time, the sheer beauty of the painted backgrounds creates a kind of reverence for this place. Hints of Shintoism and spirits are alive and well in the story, as are Tokyo cafes with decadent desserts. The hectic nature of Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, the soundtrack with it’s somber tones and energetic guitar licks, all of it conjured a familiar feeling. The weird coming together of these two people captured something about that thing I loved about Japan, but it did it with such delicacy.
Your Name has become the highest grossing anime film of all time, and I wonder if it’s initial popularity in Japan didn’t have a little something to do with this thing I was feeling as I watched the characters eat ramen in Takayama as I once had, the scene awash with sunlight. I wonder if this film might have captured something about this place for others, maybe even for the people who live there.
Whether or not this element of contrasting and complimentary beauty is apparent to anyone else, or if the love story really is that affecting, I’m confident in saying that Your Name delivers on one key thing: yearning. It’s one of those films where you go, and you yearn for the stuff of beauty, only for the film to take your hand and assure you everything will be okay.