Around 16 years ago, Spirited Away became the most successful film in Japanese history. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the only hand drawn animated and Japanese animated film to do that. This year it was named the second “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far” by the New York Times. When Spirited Away hit, little 8-year-old me thought that movies like it, anime, would finally become mainstream. I thought we would see them everywhere. I was wrong.
To be fair, Anime (Japanese cartoons) can have a high barrier of entry. Something like Spirited Away is so deeply entrenched in Japanese folklore that it can be impenetrable to international audiences. The fans don’t help either, almost speaking a separate language with coded language like “Otaku (anime fans), “Waifu” (a fictional girl you’d like to marry), “Best Girl” (your favorite fictional girl which is apparently different), and “Kawaii” (cool). They turn their noses up at anime voiced in English (called a dub) in favor of the original Japanese voices with subtitles. Most importantly, however, they can be very unwelcoming of outsiders into their fandom’s safe space. They call those “filthy casuals”.
Yet most people who grew up in the 80s and onward are already deeply familiar with one anime or another. Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and Sailor Moon are all anime that your mother could potentially name. Since my mom reads this blog I know she’ll at least recognize the first of those. In the United States we treat anime as kids stuff along with all other cartoons, except for comedy cartoons aimed for adults. But animation isn’t a genre. It’s a style.
Anime is special because of it’s ability to depict spectacle. The creators use insane cost saving efforts so they can go all out on specific scenes and blow their audience away. This can be in your typical tale of a superhero clash…
… a gripping science fiction western…
… sports stories as good as any movie…
… and romance as far as the eye can see.
But none of the spectacle or smooth animation in these anime hold a candle to last year’s breakout film Your Name.
Your Name has become the 4th-highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, won the 2016 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and has been tapped for a live action adaptation by JJ Abrams. But beyond that the film is so visually stunning that just about any frame could be taken and framed as a work of art.
It’s the story of two teenagers, Mitsuha who lives in a small rural town and Taki who lives in Tokyo. They start switching bodies seemingly by chance, each taking a day in the other’s shoes then coming back to their own body to deal with what the other did. They form an odd bond by leaving each other notes scribbled on their bodies and eventually fall for each other.
If only it were that simple.
The spectacle is beyond anything televised anime can produce, obviously it has a greater budget. This movie impresses with it’s lighting, it’s music is perfectly synced to it’s visuals, and most importantly there is no barrier for entry on Your Name. Everyone I know who loves anime adores this movie, but more impressively people who actively hate anime like this movie. This movie is so appealing, so entrancing, that again my mother (hi mom!) could probably sit down and enjoy watching it. If this movie got a wide release in American theaters it would have killed.
The movie isn’t perfect. The lead characters are archetypal teenagers. It has a running boob joke that somehow becomes a major moment of emotional catharsis by the end. There are serious plot holes when you get down to the specifics of the plot. Yet for Your Name none of that really matters.
There’s some kind of magic in the presentation of Your Name. The way everything is so much prettier here than in real life. It looks like how memories feel. It brings to mind the carefree days of being a teenager. In Japan that involves local festivals, part time jobs, and going to cafes after school, all major aspects of their culture. For someone in the US it may elicit thoughts of summer vacation. Late nights with nowhere to be in the morning. A summer job. Exhaustion from doing everything you possibly could in a day. And of course, your crush from a very long time ago you only half remember.
Unfortunately Your Name only got a small and limited release in the States. It is now out on Blu-Ray and, presumably, On Demand services. I sincerely hope everyone watches it. In the mean time we should all keep an eye on the writer director Makoto Shinkai who seems poised to be the next Miyazaki.
I’ve got that feeling from 16 years ago again.
PS, the live action adaptation is not inherently a bad thing. No adaptation is (and I could do a whole other piece on that). Worst case scenario, it’s not good but drives more eyes toward the original like what happened with Ghost in the Shell.