Imagine that you’re one of the most powerful people in the film business. The sun is just starting to set on another ominously hot September day, but everything looks beautiful and infinite through the floor-to-ceiling windows of your sleek Hollywood office. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that you’re living the dream, because even your wildest fantasies were never this good. The check you got to direct your second “Star Wars” movie had so many digits on it that it looked more like a business card, and the next check someone writes you is going to be blank. And then — pop! — it happens. You get another one of those magical Big Ideas that minted you as a modern titan: What the world truly needs right now is another live-action American remake of a phenomenally popular Japanese anime.
Perfect. A foolproof plan. Sure, Netflix wouldn’t tell you how many of their subscribers actually watched Adam Wingard’s “Death Note,” but your assistant saw a lot of chatter about it online. And yeah, “Ghost in the Shell” didn’t go over so great when it was released in theaters last March, but something about that franchise has always been lost in translation. No, this one is going to be different.
Last night, it was announced that J.J. Abrams is planning to produce an English-language remake of Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name,” the heartrending animated juggernaut that recently grossed more than $350 million worldwide (though only $5 million of its haul came from the U.S.). And judging by the reactions on social media, Americans haven’t been this excited about anything since the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill (how’s that going, by the way?). What the hell did Abrams think was going to happen? Has he spent so much time in a galaxy far, far away that he’s forgotten how to read the room? Or is reading the room just for chumps who aren’t strong enough to rearrange the furniture themselves?
Anime has found itself as an unlikely focal point of America’s ongoing identity crisis. At a time when brands have becoming bigger selling points than stars, Hollywood has decided that it would be more profitable to cannibalize pre-existing culture — any pre-existing culture — than to establish one of its own. And they’ve taken this plan worldwide. They’ve weathered the storms of digital upheaval by selling whiteness to international markets as a foreign commodity, making movies for Asian audiences at the expense of Asian-American ones.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, systemic prejudice has been forcefully dragged back into the discourse, and questions of race and representation are being asked to people who have never had to answer them before. So that’s not great timing; in fact, it’s such not great timing that it could be the subject of a story by Makoto Shinkai.
On the other hand, the idea of borrowing and building upon narratives from other nations is considerably older than the movies themselves, and — when done right — can be one of the most beautiful things about storytelling. We used to be pretty good at it, too, and the obvious examples of this cross-cultural exchange still hold up as the best ones (e.g. Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford, and then itself remade as “The Magnificent Seven”). There’s real value in transposing great stories to new contexts, but that context has to be something more complicated than just “white people.”
And with the “Your Name” remake, it really might be. Pardon the naïveté of thinking that out loud, but this project is a golden opportunity to prove that Hollywood can actually use anime as an instrument of progress. Based on Shinkai’s own novel of the same name and reframing his usual fixations through the lens of Japanese history, “Your Name” 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 (Japan’s tsunami) in the meantime. Mitsuha is a small-town girl who dreams of being a boy in the big city. Taki is a dweeby Tokyo kid who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. These two strangers may never have met each other, but a strange celestial event causes them to swap bodies. If only they could find each other and sort things out…
The original film is, at heart, a story about identity, transformation, and the fluidity of the human body; it’s a moving testament to the idea that disparate lives can resonate through one another. Yes, “Ghost in the Shell” played with similar themes, but the live-action version simply used them as an excuse to cast Scarlett Johansson, wrap her in latex, and watch her rappel down skyscrapers.
“Your Name,” in stark contrast, is very much set in the real world; as with a number of Shinkai’s films, its supernatural elements only serve to reinforce the story’s underlying humanity. It’s been at least a decade since Shinkai was first billed as the next Miyazaki, but there’s a good reason why this movie was so much more popular than his previous efforts: All of his intensely melancholic movies lament the distance that can form between people, but the specificity of this story — particularly in so far as it was inspired by real locations, and aches with the pain of Japan’s collective trauma — actually works to narrow it.
Simply transliterating Mitsuha and Taki’s star-crossed friendship into English, relocating it to the Pacific Northwest, and hoping for the best would be a disaster of its own. Not only would such a lazy strategy result in a remake that’s absent the original’s undercurrents of sadness and hope, it would also disrespect the people who made them possible.
And making all the major characters white… well, how could we believe in a fable about the power of individual identity if it were presented in a framework that inherently denies it? The movie couldn’t survive that degree of discordance. Even those viewers who couldn’t possibly care less about anime or any of the conversations it tends to inspire would feel shortchanged — you don’t have to know how deep a pool gets to recognize when you’re swimming in the shallow end.
But these are all bad-faith assumptions (however well founded they may be), because we’re still at the point where this projective could go down as a positive thing. For one thing, Abrams’ Bad Robot company was quick to introduce a diversity quota in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite debacle, and many of their recent hires have suggested they haven’t forgotten that promise.
For another, the decision to hire “Arrival” screenwriter Eric Heisserer — who pulled blood from a stone in order to transform Ted Chiang’s elliptical short story into a profoundly humanistic sci-fi story — suggests that Abrams isn’t interested in doing things the easy way (even if some people may have preferred a Japanese scribe to land the gig).
When the news broke, Shinkai was quick to make clear that “Your Name” was “created with the innate imaginations of a Japanese team and put together in a domestic medium.” He then added: “When such a work is imbued with Hollywood filmmaking, we may see new possibilities that we had been completely unaware of.” Heisserer, at the very least, is someone capable of envisioning what those new possibilities might be. It’s one thing to play with this premise in an animated form, where everything is vaguely unreal. It’s a very different matter to put real flesh to a film like this, as even the most innocuous scenes will be endowed with sensitive messaging (the first act alone is full of potentially major moments of trans visibility).
While anime adaptations have become synonymous with marginalization, this is a moonshot opportunity to move in the right direction. America is being pulled apart from the inside out, and those endemic problems have only been exacerbated by our own recent string of natural disasters. By unimpeachably confronting the specific things that are wedging us away from each other, “Your Name” could be a beautiful chance to fulfill the driving hope behind all of Shinkai’s films, trace the distance between us, and actually bring people closer together. Or it could be some more of the same old shit. Only time will tell.