Makoto Shinkai, the rising Japanese animator whose heartbreaking, hyper-saturated films marry the delicate beauty of Hayao Miyazaki with the workaday wistfulness of Yasujirō Ozu, has always gravitated towards stories that take place in the space between people.
His breathtaking 22-minute breakthrough, a homemade project called “Voices of a Distant Star,” lucidly illustrated Shinkai’s preoccupation with distance and how the immediacy of modern communication has had the perverse effect of clarifying our isolation from one another. Effectively a more compelling (and much more compact) anime precursor to “Interstellar,” the 2002 short traces a high school crush as it’s stretched across the length of an intergalactic war — the boy stays on Earth and the girl goes off to fight aliens in the farthest reaches of space, but their feelings for one another are soon contorted by the cruelty of relative time.
That short didn’t just launch Shinkai’s career, it also anticipated the obsessions that would define it. Whether drawing lovestruck teenagers who move to opposite sides of Japan (“5 Centimeters Per Second”) or a girl who embarks on a journey into the land of the dead (“Children Who Chase Lost Voices”), each of the half-dozen films that Shinkai has made in the 14 years since has focused on young people who are consumed by the ache of separation. Young people like Mitsuha, the small-town schoolgirl at the heart of “Your Name,” who’s yet to sleep with anyone but already sees the world as something of a shared dream.
The scale of Shinkai’s work may have increased a bit since he made “Voices of a Distant Star” on a Power Mac G4 in his house — in addition to the Oscar buzz that followed its Los Angeles Film Critics Association prize as the year’s best animated film, “Your Name” is on its way towards becoming highest-grossing anime film of all time — but he’s still searching for a way to fill the gaps between his characters, diminishing returns be damned.
This is Shinkai’s largest film to date (less epic than some of his others, but more expansive), and while very few animators in the world are capable of making anything so smart or emotionally vivid, a bigger canvas seldom makes it easier to find what you’re looking for. Based on Shinkai’s own novel of the same name and reframing his usual fixations through the lens of Japanese history, “Your Name” is an unclassifiable experience that starts like a hormonal riff on “Freaky Friday,” morphs into an apocalyptic version of “Portrait of Jennie,” and somehow manages to layer a gender-swapping 12th century tale over the ongoing trauma of 3/11 in the meantime. If only it weren’t every bit as messy as it sounds.
Tired of her life the sun-kissed, lakeside town of Itomori, Mitsuha wishes that she could be a handsome Tokyo boy instead (that the movie doesn’t question this is one of its charms). Taki is a boy, and he lives in Tokyo, but it’s hard to gauge the handsomeness of an animated teenager who seems defined more by his awkwardness than anything else. One day, in the aftermath of a celestial event, the two strangers temporarily swap bodies — lots of blushing self-examination naturally ensues.
As this phenomenon continues to happen and the two distant high schoolers soon figure out what’s going on, they begin to leave messages for one another (by writing on their arms) and meddling in each other’s love lives. It’s only a matter of time before Taki and Mitsuha think to meet up, but they always seem to miss each other as though through an error of depth-perception. Silly but lined with sadness, Shinkai’s uncharacteristically frivolous yarn is braided like the kumihimo cords at Itomori’s Shinto shrine until, without warning, Taki is dumped back into his body, and left to wonder what happened to the one girl who knew him inside and out.
“Your Name” hinges on a series of seismic revelations, but they don’t twist the plot so much as the depressurize it. Suddenly, all of the melancholy that Shinkai had been keeping to the periphery rushes towards the center, like water bursting in through a shattered porthole. After an elegantly structured first half that weaves together disparate voiceovers and uses any number of clever visual devices to illustrate the ways in which disparate lives can resonate through one another, the literalness of the film’s final hour proves too constricting for Shinkai’s ideas (and it doesn’t help that he strands with the less interesting of his teenage leads).
Not that your eyes will mind. While the broad character animations feel like a concession compared to the colder designs of Shinkai’s previous work, there’s still more to gawk at in any single frame of this film than there is in the entirety of “Frozen.” And “Your Name” only gets more beautiful as it grows more grandiose, as every lonely train ride and periwinkle sunset glistens with the bittersweet glow of regret. Like all of Shinkai’s films, the richness of the light coats everything it touches with such an evocative hue of nostalgia that the plot only puts a damper on things (and there’s a lot of plot here). Watching these colors bleed between Taki and Mitsuha’s divergent lives is all you need to appreciate the beauty of being in this world together, and the tragedy of how that same beauty always seems to slip through our fingers. Even Shinkai has struggled to hold on to it, but it’s always at least a little stunning to watch him try.
Funimation will release “Your Name” in 2017.