Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2017

Your Name.

Mirror, mirror

On disappearance and displacement, out-of-body experiences, and the cosmic depths of Your Name.

Your Name.
FUNimation Entertainment
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenplay: Makoto Shinkai, based on his novel
Starring: The voices of Mone Kamishiraishi, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Masami Nagasawa, Etsuko Ichihara, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki and Masaki Terasoma
Rated PG / 1 hour, 46 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release
(out of four)

If you're a teenager, it should probably go without saying that you're uncomfortable in your own skin. That you sometimes wish you could be someone else, and somewhere else, or maybe just be invisible. That, or you wish for the world to go away and just leave you alone for a while, make you the star of your own Twilight Zone episode. It might be a little lonely - no one looking, no one listening - but then again when does being a teenager not feel lonely. You think, maybe, if you can just escape the constant observation and scrutiny and the pressure to reveal yourself, you can finally just be yourself, or find out what that means. Disappearance can be a powerful tonic.

And so the inexplicable twist sprung upon Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) in the middle of their high-school years is both a dream (or, at least, a daydream) come true, and a cruel nightmare. Taki, a teenage boy living a reasonably comfortable life in Tokyo; and Mitsuha, a teenage girl living discontentedly in a small rural town far away from the big city she yearns for, find themselves in a body-switch scenario, bouncing back and forth between each other's bodies and lives from one day to the next. As if physical development isn't confusing enough already.

Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. - an adaptation of his own novel - embraces both the inherent comedy of his premise and its emotional, psychological and sexual thorniness. For his characters, it's not so much about a sudden physical alienation from themselves; Shinkai is wise enough to know alienation is par for the course already, even in their own bodies, so this occasional metamorphosis just requires a little getting used to. Rather, the filmmaker uses their awkwardness and confusion as a springboard to new inquiries and new understandings - a pretext for experimentation and performance in what amounts to a codependent coming-of-age story. And, ultimately, a lot more than that. The idealized futures and better selves that peak through during their seesawing out-of-body experiences are embossed with dreamy romantic undertones and apocalyptic fears and rescue fantasies and spiritual fates. In other words, your run-of-the-mill teenage disposition in one volatile nutshell. That young people are also uniquely adaptable is a truth the film takes to heart - and it's one of the key distinctions setting it apart from other movies built on the same scenario. Typically, the characters adapt only as a temporary survival mechanism. They buy time before this cosmic trick can be reversed or overturned. But Your Name. is not about any kind of attempt to "fix" the situation. Rather than go out of their way to get themselves switched back - permanently returned to their own bodies - Mitsuha and Taki take the opportunity (after some initial resistance, of course) to get to know each other, to push and challenge themselves (as each other). This body-switching thing? Just another growing pain, as it turns out. The two become a dual checks-and-balances system - serving as each other's coach and confidante, each other's mentor and protégé. If it took a village to raise them into adolescence, it's going to take two distinct selves to raise them both into adulthood.

One of Shinkai's smartest creative decisions is to begin when the wheels are already in motion - when the body-switching has already begun. Rather than being initially introduced to these two people as themselves, before springing the switch on them, we meet them both in various states of confusion and vague recollection. We get two contrasting versions of Mitsuha's typical day - one with Taki waking up in her body, the other with Mitsuha waking up in her own, being informed by everyone around her exactly how bizarrely she was behaving the previous day. There are hints that yesterday wasn't the first time she hasn't seemed like herself.

We spend most of this early section in the day-after, with Mitsuha hearing all about her previous misadventures and struggling to make heads or tails of it. Along the way we see more than a few glimpses of why she might very much like to escape her life, body or no body - there's no fancy restaurant here, no exciting culture, no nightlife. Just old traditions that bore her, and the expectations that come with them.

And when that day ends, we switch - and she wakes up as Taki, and suddenly she's surrounded by all the big-city excitement she's always dreamed of, except stuck in a boy's body in a school she doesn't recognize among people she's never met. "You're acting weird again." In the back of both characters' minds, there is more than a hint of déjà vu; by focusing on the aftermath of something that has already begun, Your Name. is able to really get into the heart of their bewildered physical displacement, as certain foggy memories and presumed dreams start to come into focus as actual realities. Finding out what happened to you when you were in someone else's control is scary ... but then again, the trade-off of getting to live certain days of your life in absolute anonymity (collateral damage notwithstanding) is exciting enough of a proposition to be worth it. They just have to establish rules is all.

The film gets to ask, and observe, and understand the way people might act when they're not in their own body - when they're freed, even temporarily, from the burden of being themselves. Trepidation turns to liberation. Self-consciousness turns to fearlessness. Among the film's most revelatory insights is that these characters are bolder in another body than they are in their own. We have such devotion to our own sovereignty and privacy - such a desire for control over how we're seen, who and what we're believed to be - that this situation can alternately feel like an emancipation and an out-of-body imprisonment. So it's a good thing Mitsuha and Taki get a system going that works for them both. The way they both, in different ways, get to see their youthful dreams realized or fears conquered is one step on a narrative path that gets more adult and more high-stakes as it goes along.

For Taki, it's learning how to talk to girls, or understand them better. Being in a girl's body half the time certainly helps matters (although he's certainly not above taking the opportunity to fondle his new breasts as often as possible, in one of the film's funniest running gags); but more importantly Mitsuha, in his body, is bolder and more sensitive in his/her pursuit of Taki's attractive older co-worker and crush, Ms. Okudera (Masami Nagasawa), whose own feelings get scrambled on a day-to-day basis by "Taki"'s shifting personas, in a way that - in much more innocent fashion - reminded me of similarly themed scenes from Dead Ringers and Fight Club. For Mitsuha, she even exasperatedly "wishes" to be a handsome teenage boy in Tokyo - to escape her monotonous life and the ancient familial traditions that follow her around; to be afforded the privileges of being male, the luxuries of being in the big city (the restaurants in particular; she's a burgeoning foodie stuck in a town with drastically few dining options). That the two come up with ways to communicate - keeping each other and themselves in check, making sure to fulfill the right obligations and avoid certain boundaries - is mutually beneficial, but it's also a signal that the film has more mature destinations in mind for these characters than the mere solving of a plot mechanism. The two learn to care about and respect each other - the romantic hints become obvious, but are kept unavoidably at a distance - which ultimately prepares them for what turn out to be unexpectedly serious reasons behind their situation, and the adult decisions ultimately resulting from it. Shinkai doesn't merely thrust his two leads into a comic scenario - he thrusts them into reality itself. Whether they're emotionally ready for it or not.

The director invokes the delicacy of their relationship with his use of light, which is given emphasis in various forms throughout the film. Foregrounded lamps and street lights, lens flares, rainbows, comets shooting spectacularly through his perpetually vivid skies ... light is expressed as both a powerful natural force and a faint ethereal illusion. A visual whisper. Simultaneously a uniting and a dividing presence. It's no coincidence that Your Name.'s pivotal moment takes place within the fleeting minutes of twilight - the film's emotional and narrative threads suddenly converge, that convergence destined and doomed to disappear almost instantly. (The motif is reflected in the film's various posters as well.)

As paradoxical tests of character and what-if scenarios go, this movie has more than its share, but it's the tenderness of Shinkai's treatment of them - embodied by the verve and elegance of his images - that allows the film to balance them all, even during its periodic wobbles. It's a film that evokes the wonder, fear and warmth of Big and the loneliness and hypnotic mood of When Marnie Was There. Everybody wants to escape themselves from time to time - be a different version of themselves, or someone else altogether. It's not a feeling that usually lasts; in its place, Your Name. delivers a more permanent impression.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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