The first time I watched Makoto Shinkai's Your Name, I was on a 13-hour flight from New York City to Tokyo. The plot, about two teens who embark on a journey to meet each other after they magically swap bodies, was intriguing enough. But the film was something else entirely — and even on a 6-inch screen covered in finger smudges, I was enraptured.
Visually, it's stunning. Shinkai's eye for detail is manifested in every frame. (As Vulture's Emily Yoshida put it in her review, "Nobody can draw a cell phone like Makoto Shinkai.") But what makes Your Name so compelling is the earnest way it treats its young characters.
On the surface, it's a classic body-swap movie. When Taki, a teen boy from downtown Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a teen girl from a rural town in the Hida Mountains, mysteriously start switching bodies on random days, they (rather reluctantly) begin communicating through a series of messages that they leave on each other's phones. This eventually leads to love, and the film spends much of its cosmic third act trying to bring the two together — against the odds.
But this Japanese anime, which is currently in select U.S. theaters after becoming the highest-grossing anime of all time, transcends the oft-comical body-swap genre by taking its teen characters seriously. It deeply considers their hopes, their fears, and their anxieties about adulthood.
The writer-director has said that he made the film for young Japanese people, so that "they can believe in their future." But that message is universal. It's why the film has resonated with audiences worldwide. It's hopeful at a time when everything feels so uncertain and sometimes downright terrifying.
In Japan, it's easy to see how much Your Name has connected with audiences and become a cultural phenomenon. In Tokyo, travel companies have organized walking tours of the film's metropolitan locations. Meanwhile, the soundtrack — specifically the film's catchy theme song, "Zen Zen Zense," courtesy of the Japanese band Radwimps — is widely requested in Tokyo clubs. (The pop-rock songs are so popular that the band even recorded them in English for the U.S. release.)
It was also the first song I heard when I walked into Tower Records in Shibuya at 10 a.m. looking to kill time. The music video, which features the three guitar-wielding members of the Radwimps standing in a grassy field, wearing their coziest linens, played on repeat at an endcap display. Again, I was transfixed.
Young people in Japan relate to the way Your Name threads the culture's old ideals and practices with the new, especially seeing as how rural towns in Japan are vanishing as young people move to larger cities. Shinkai addresses this in a very literal sense, with a young protagonist who's desperate to leave her small village — and her responsibilities to her family shrine — to "become a handsome Tokyo boy" in her next life. Mitsuha's frustrations are understandable, but Shinkai never lets her wallow in them. Instead, he puts her fate in her own hands — a reminder that the impossible is achievable.
"The story itself was universal and fundamental," Yojiro Noda, the lead vocalist and songwriter for the Radwimps, said over email. "The current era and this film crossed over at a perfect time. People were looking for this kind of story. It's not too far from their own lives."
Guitarist Akira Kuwahara added that "word of mouth" helped the film permeate pop culture. "Since the movie was so good, I had some confidence that it will be a hit," he said. "But I didn't think it would become this big."
A few weeks ago at my local Alamo Drafthouse, I watched as the guy behind the ticket counter explained Your Name to a young couple — and how it made him, a grown man, cry. "It made me believe in love," he said, completely earnestly. The couple bought tickets for the evening showing.
Shinkai's strength is his vision. Even when things take a turn for the metaphysical, Taki and Mitsuha remain fully realized teens — wonderfully earnest, empathetic, sarcastic, determined, and maddeningly flawed — tied together by a cosmic thread. Mitsuha's grandmother calls this musubi, the belief that two people are forever connected, regardless of place and time.
"They converge and take shape," she says, while explaining the ancient process of making a braided cord. "They twist, tangle, sometimes unravel, then connect again."
That unraveling, as uneasy and scary as it may be, is only temporary. If there's one lesson to take away from Your Name, it's that life goes on, full of surprises and disappointments, love and heartache. Even though the future may not look as idyllic as it did when you were a starry-eyed child, that doesn't mean you should give up hope. The future is what you make of it.