This Anime Movie Is What Dreams (And Ill-Advised Adaptations) Are Made Of

The blissful supernatural romance Your Name is already the biggest anime hit of all time. It’s made more money abroad than previous record holder Spirited Away did worldwide in 2001 — and that film was from god of the medium, Hayao Miyazaki. Your Name finally arrives in the US this week, opening in 286 theaters — not bad for an animated feature that isn’t intended for young kids, though a fraction of the 3,440 theaters in which live-action anime remake Ghost in the Shell played when it flopped over the past weekend.

Anime is currently at the center of a blistering ongoing conversation about erasure and appropriation in Hollywood adaptations. Like most imported fare, Japanese animation itself occupies a passionate but niche market in the US. Aside from sporadic children’s breakthroughs like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Studio Ghibli, big-screen anime releases have barely registered at the box office here. The US exports franchise films like they’re going out of style (which, you could argue, they are, given how much TV has muscled its way to the front of the cultural conversation). Hollywood produces tentpole movies so expensive that turning a profit is wholly dependent on performance overseas.

But when international blockbusters make their way here, we’re confounded. Foreign films get treated like arthouse films, even when they’re not. We don’t really have a model for something as expansively mainstream as Your Name, which will be playing in both subtitled and dubbed versions around the country. And that’s maddening, because Your Name is the kind of wonderful that should be seen by the widest possible audiences.

It’s a teen romance with a huge, tearful heart and a touch of magic. Two high school students — small-town girl Mitsuha, who lives with her sister and grandmother in rural Itomori, and Tokyo-bred Taki, who shares an apartment in the city with his father — are strangers living hours apart who start randomly waking up in each other’s bodies, as much an embarrassing annoyance as it is a mystery. They fumble through unfamiliar daily routines, then wake up back in their own beds having to figure out what havoc the other person may have wreaked on their lives in a day.

While their shifts in behavior bewilder and sometimes sexually fluster their classmates (“Why is a girl in love with me?!” Mitsuha asks Taki in one of the messages the two start leaving for each other on their smartphones), they soon settle into a teasing rhythm that exemplifies how skillfully Your Name combines the uncanny with the down-to-earth details of teenage life.

The why of the scenario is not nearly as interesting to them as the how: how it’s going, and how it ups the stakes of their existing day-to-day dramas. Taki grumbles about Mitsuha, who’s delighted by the access to new culinary treats, spending all his money on cafés, while Mitsuha scolds Taki about not knowing how to sit in a skirt. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, has more success with Taki’s crush than he ever did.

Each finds that their body-swapping experiences have the tendency to fade like dreams when they return to their normal existences. When the phenomenon suddenly stops, Your Name shifts into something grander about the nature of the pair’s connection, which involves a comet that makes a once-every-1,200-years flyby of the Earth and a braided cord that represents both a tradition and the red string of fate.

Taki and Mitsuha’s worlds are filled in so vividly by the movie that we fall in love with and right alongside them. Their social spheres have an in medias res messiness — especially in the case of Mitsuha, caught between obligations to family traditions and her desire for a more cosmopolitan life, with the added scrutiny that comes with being the estranged daughter of a local politician. “Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” she yells in frustration early on, not having cottoned onto the fact yet that she’s already been afforded the opportunity.

Your Name is written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, who’s been heralded as the next Miyazaki (to his discomfort), though it doesn’t feel like a Miyazaki movie at all — its sensibility is more pop and more abundantly romantic, filled with yearning that seems to inform the radiant beauty onscreen. Its Tokyo is a bustling but overwhelming cityscape; its Itomori a scenic if stifling backwater winding up a mountainside; and its central celestial event, the comet, is rendered from multiple points of view in breathtaking fashion, streaking across the sky with a prismatic loveliness that underscores the incident’s importance before we ever understand it. It’s a teen movie not just in terms of its characters, but in the way it summons the feeling of every emotion brimming over.

It’s also, being a Japanese movie, often very Japanese. Elements like a shrine and its guardian god; the kuchikamizake Mitsuha and her sister make as part of a ceremony; the obvious influence of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami; and the joke involving the misuse of a gendered word for “I.” That doesn’t make the movie less easily understood or its ending less tear-drenchingly effective. But these details do emphasize how tricky converting a movie like Your Name into a Hollywood production would be, now that American studios have become a black hole of content, pulling in intellectual property from all over the place to be reworked into hoped-for hits.

There’s so much cultural specificity here to be contended with, either somehow carried over or translated, and those are responsibilities US companies have proven depressingly indifferent toward — making off with the bones of a property while leaving behind its soul. Maybe Your Name will meet that same destiny, or maybe it’ll be treated better. Maybe it won’t be remade at all. Whatever happens, it’s here now, and you should take the chance to see it in all of its animated, swoony majesty on the big screen.

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