Monday, May 8, 2017

Star-cross'd lovers

(Kimi No Wa Na.)

Something this poorly-plotted shouldn't be nearly this great.  But here we are, and it is: breathtakingly beautiful and heartrendingly meaningful and so frustratingly, frustratingly imperfect.

2016 Japan/2017 USA
Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai
With Ryunosuke Kamiki (Taki) and Mone Kamishiraishi (Mitsuha)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I guess I wouldn't know, but from everything I've read or heard about him, Makoto Shinkai seems like a pretty good dude.  You see, when faced with what he'd unleashed upon the world—a box-office sensation that became the second highest-grossing native film to ever be released in Japan, after Spirited Away (and the fourth-highest overall, taking into account a pair of American productions, Frozen and, fittingly enough, Titanic, with which Shinkai's film shares, in some regards, a soul)—he declared it to be flawed, and "incomplete," and he even asked people to stop going to see it, or at least stop going going to see it so damn much, because he was sure it simply didn't hold up to the twenty-plus viewings its biggest fans were giving it.  So, yeah: whatever resemblance Your Name might bear to Titanic, it clearly stops when it comes to their respective directors.  Indeed, one hopes that James Cameron has noticed, and has lately given Shinkai a friendly call, to remind him of the importance of self-esteem.

The thing is, though, Shinkai's right.  The blockbuster he made, Your Name., is flawed, and extraordinarily so—starting with that annoying period at the end of its title.  (Rest assured, I won't be replicating it, going forward.)  But, then, the reason I find its flaws the tiniest bit infuriating is because Your Name has, in so many other respects, manifestly earned its mammoth success.  (Amongst its other statistics, Your Name is also, once you consider its still-growing international receipts, the single highest-grossing anime feature ever, including Spirited Away.)

It's full of images and whole sequences that, honestly, come off as perfect; whereas almost no individual moment within the film can even be rightfully called bad.  Rather, Your Name's flaws are, generally, buried deep, manifesting chronically rather than acutely, to a degree that you only really start dwelling upon them after it's already over.  Probably the sole exception to this rule is the opening credits montage that knifes in right after the teasing prologue, featuring a horrifically-jarring J-pop AMV by the self-styled RADWIMPS—who also composed the film's (far less-intrusive) score—and a heap of out-of-context imagery from the movie to come.  Upon witnessing it you have to stop and wonder if you might've actually paid good money to watch an unbearably shrill TV cartoon on the largest screen available.

You didn't, which is the good news; the bad news, however, is that you paid good money to screen two somewhat disconnected movies that, for whatever reason, our anime auteur thought needed to be smashed together into one single lumpy package that manages to cohere, as much as it does, by a minor miracle—purely because its emotional arc carries perfectly onward through both of them.

That brings us to what Your Name is about, then, which is the story of two teenagers, Mitsuha Miyamizu and Taki Tachibana, and the improbable event that brought them together.  One day, the two find themselves waking up in each other's bodies.  It only occurs after a night's sleep, and at first they're almost willing to call it an exceedingly strange dream, but as it becomes clear that they're losing time—and behaving strangely while they're "away"—they have to accept the reality of their situation, and start dealing with it.  And, as the weeks go on, they begin to impact each other's lives in positive ways, Mitsuha managing to get Taki to the point where his hopeless crush on a slightly-older, hot co-worker might net some real results, while Mitsuha winds up becoming a little less easy to push around, although frankly we don't actually see much of Taki-in-Mitsuha.  Thus bound together by this supernatural connection, they become as intimate with one another as two people could possibly be—and, in case it even needs to be mentioned, about 10% of the first part of this movie is indeed (surprisingly funny) comic self-groping, and despite both parties' later embarrassed protestations to the contrary, I don't think we're supposed to have many illusions about what they're doing with each other's bodies when they're in charge.  And so it's not the most shocking turn of events when they realize—however belatedly—that they've fallen love.

And then, one day, their body-swapping simply ends.  Taki is left to figure out why, which doesn't seem possible, but that's when that second movie I was talking about starts up, and Taki does—at length—discover what happened to cut the cord that once connected them.

At this juncture, some of the more inexplicable things we've seen start to make a little more sense—like the way the film begins with a bodacious astronomical display—but, unfortunately, it comes at the cost of everything else in the film becoming an insoluble narrative nightmare, almost more hole than plot.  I will attempt to refrain from direct spoilers—for Your Name is, I repeat, an enormously fine film, that I want you to see, and its surprises, while often tinged with bullshit, are admirably real—but do keep in mind that it's a movie with excruciatingly squishy and unsatisfying explanations for why its several "secrets" aren't immediately perceived by its own characters.  They just don't take, considering that all our heroes would have to do to unlock the first big reveal is to look at their phones (which they constantly do, using them to keep a diary for the other)—whereas to figure out the second, all they'd have to do is remember the location of the most stunning and scarring event to occur in this movie's fictional version of recent Japanese history.  (And that Your Name serves as a naked allegory for the most stunning and scarring event of actual recent Japanese history probably shouldn't be lost on any viewer, either.)

So the overarching sin of Your Name is also its most unique quality: its terrifically weird and awkwardly put-together two-part structure.  That first part, of course, is "just" a body-swap movie of no special innovation; but it's also one executed with substantial verve and commitment-to-the-bit, led by two great characters who (almost unfairly) express themselves as real human teenagers, filled to the brim with huge, new emotions, even though, if we're being objective, they're really only a pair of hidebound archetypes—the rural gal, frustrated with a life in the sticks spent adhering to her rigid social role and doing religious stuff that you'd doubtless think I was making up if I described it, because you're a racist; and the put-upon urban guy, whose comparatively big dreams permit him to actively delude himself into thinking his future won't be a dreary one.  That is to say, they're only scarcely more fully-sketched than the two similar characters who appear in the first verse of that famous Journey song.

Pictured: a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.

That second part, meanwhile, is a sci-fantasy mystery that only uses our leads' body-swapping as a jumping off point.  It's easy to imagine—frankly, easier to imagine than the Your Name we got—its two major premises being explored completely separately, each at a whole feature's length; even as it stands, it would've taken laughably minor script revisions to extract the one from the other, and give each a whole movie of its own.  At least, if that was what Shinkai was ever remotely inclined to do.

There are real and obvious advantages to the approach he actually used, though.  Above all is the fact that Your Name feels like it's positively bursting at the seams with all its cool ideas—certainly, there's never the slightest possibility you could get bored with it.  The downside, of course, is that its seams do burst—as the body-swap plot kicks into overdrive and half of it winds up related via endless montage, you can actually see the ideas spilling out of the giant holes they've ripped in the film's sides.  So if there was ever any movie made in this day and age that needed more runtime, you're looking at it.  The permutations of Mitsuha and Taki's initial predicament are endlessly interesting; yet it's not entirely clear, in the version of his film he committed to animation, that Shinkai himself ever really thought so.  The second half is therefore rendered the stronger of the two, but that's probably only because it's simply so much more fleshed-out.

In the watching, though, it doesn't matter, because Shinkai keeps the focus so tight upon the feelings that his successive weird scenarios have brought up for his characters, rather than upon his plot mechanics as such.  (On the other hand, he no doubt keeps it too tight: for rarely has any movie's supporting cast been more obviously conceived as nothing but props for the central characters to stand upon than here, reacting to their friends' apparent descents into sheer madness with a uniform, and nearly-inhuman, blitheness.)

But whatever: that focus upon Your Name's bloody-hearted young adult romantic melodrama, you know, is not only where this film shines; it's clear enough that it's the reason why this film made a zillion fucking yen.  So we reach its emotional crescendo—or, more accurately, one of its several emotional crescendos—about two-thirds of the way through, when these two kids, seemingly put together by destiny, finally meet face-to-face for the first time, albeit only through a thick veil of magical intervention.  And it is one of the most precisely-built pieces of cinema you'll ever see: a simple mirroring trick in the editing, that nevertheless perfectly captures how simultaneously close and far apart our would-be lovers are, and how much they yearn to be together, if only for this moment.  It's beautiful enough, that if it did take unforgiveable plot holes and a warped story structure to get to it, then they were all worth it.

And so Your Name really is a Makoto Shinkai film, which may or may not mean anything to you; and, if I'm willing to own up to my ignorance, it only means a little something to me.  Even so, I've seen it described, by those in the know, as a more-commercially-friendly remake of his hour-long short, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and while this is not entirely fair to Your Name—it is far better than 5 Centimeters—it is nonetheless awfully damn accurate.  That theme of love crumpling painfully against impossibility is right there—and that secondary theme, of how growing up too often means growing sadder, is right there too—though I'd aver that they wind up expressed with more nuance and, it must be said, a stronger sense of hope in Your Name than they were back then.

But then, maybe it's just a matter of presentation. 5 Centimeters, for all its genuine, handcrafted loveliness, was made years ago, and on a Yahoo! Japan budget; Your Name was emphatically not.  The ambitious lighting effects that Shinkai is famous for meet what must be their truest match here in one astonishingly sumptuous production, striking you like a sunrise after a long dark night just how much you've missed two-dimensional animation.  Sure, it could be that Your Name is the first 2-D film I've seen in a theater since The Road to El Dorado, seventeen years ago (an underrated flick, that); or, maybe, Your Name simply is that amazing.  It's a film that marries essentially perfect character animation (it's remarkable how easy it is to tell who's in whose body), neat visual gags that only a cartoon could pull off, flawless 2-D lighting effects, gorgeous CG-assisted camera moves that feel natural and (almost) never call attention to themselves, and (perhaps especially) some of the most exceptionally-detailed, expressive backgrounds that even the Japanese branch of this medium has ever produced.  (Another reason for Your Name to be longer: one might love to appreciate its immersive scenery porn for more than a few seconds at a time!)  Even old-school rotoscoping gets thrown into the mix; and while this technique perhaps announces itself a little too loudly, it serves its function ideally—granting a legitimate hyperreality to the liturgical dance that Mitsuha's been drafted into performing, at the behest of her grandmother.

It's not all just pretty pictures, either: as long as we're not talking about the RADWIMPS' vocal contributions, which are (at best) slightly cringe-inducing, their score is much better than just solid.  Driven mostly by melancholy piano notes (ETA: or I could just repeat "hey, it's a Makoto Shinkai movie"), their efforts suffuse Your Name from start to finish with a pensive atmosphere; well-suited to Shinkai's utterly transparent aim to keep you on the verge of tears for the whole back half of his picture.  Finally, it even has some exceptionally pleasant voice acting—for here's the part where I reveal myself as a heathen of the lowest order, and admit that while I don't always watch anime, when I do, I usually prefer dubs.  Yet I'm thinking that this might not be the case this time.

So: it's certainly an experience.  But God, once it's over, and that euphoria has subsided, you are left with a mess of literalist objections—it's the kind of film that compels you (or at least it compels me) to pick its narrative apart like the dysfunctional machine it frankly is.  It is fortunate, then, that the mechanism is hardly the most important thing about it—hell, it's not even the third or fourth most important thing about it—and thus a reviewer can rest easily enough declaring Your Name a masterpiece anyway, even if they might quietly (albeit earnestly) wish that this movie's right-brain weren't so much larger than its left.

Score:  10/10

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