November 17, 2016

"Your Name" (not a review)

Yes, it's time to discuss movies I haven't seen yet! (And anime series I have.) But the subject fascinates me, so I can't resist talking about the film, though without speaking to its artistic merits. (Since it is a Makoto Shinkai film, I can promise you that it will look gorgeous.)

Until this year, Makoto Shinkai's oeuvre could be described as the "anime art house masterpiece." In my opinion, his only successful long-form film was Children Who Chase Lost Voices (also titled "Journey to Agartha"), based on the Izanagi and Izanami (Orpheus and Eurydice) myth.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters per Second certainly took us somewhere, but I'm not certain where, and I'm not convinced he knew either (though it was awfully pretty getting there).

His extraordinary skills as a cinematographer have never been in doubt. But Shinkai's talents as an auteur (wearing the producer, writer, and director hats) truly leap off the screen in his short work: She and Her Cat, Voices of a Distant Star, and The Garden of Words.

Rather, I still believe that it is Mamoru Hosoda's talent for accessible storytelling and his firm grasp of the structured cinematic narrative that places him more in the tradition of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

Until this year, that is. The caveat is necessary because over the summer (2016), Makoto Shinkai's latest animated film rocketed into the stratosphere, earning over $190 million in its home market (which is about a third the size of the U.S. market).

Your Name is currently the seventh highest-grossing film ever in Japan. The only animated films to earn more are Frozen and Studio Ghibli productions. The box office is strong enough that it is certain to reach second place at the $200 million mark.

(Among all movies ever released in Japan, Spirited Away occupies the top spot with almost $300 million, followed by Titanic, Frozen, and the first Harry Potter film. Then comes Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke.)

Of course, the big question is why.

As with Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai seems to do his best in the big-budget category when he's got another producer looking over his shoulder. In Your Name, he does everything but produce. It might be a good idea for him to keep on not producing his films.

Joe Konrath believes that artistic success has a lot to do with creating a deep backlist, working hard, and then counting on plain old luck. Makoto Shinkai put in the hours and built a fan base and an impressive catalog of work.

And then everything clicked: right place, right time, right subject matter.

Certainly the story he tells has a lot to do with it. The BBC does a pretty good job explaining "Why the story of body-swapping teenagers has gripped Japan."

The body-swapping plot device is hardly a unique one. The modern genre goes back to Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers, a 1882 comic novel by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and brought up to date with Freaky Friday in 1972. Disney has made and remade movies based on the book three times.

A better comparison is the anime Kokoro Connect, in which the seemingly random body-swapping (which turns out to be under the control of a "higher" power), also "touches on universal themes such as coming of age, adolescence, and the struggle to assert your identity in a confusing world."

Shinkai himself credits a poem by Ono no Komachi, one of the two Komachi poems that also inspired my novel, The Path of Dreams (the translation here is by Jane Hirshfield from The Ink Dark Moon):

Did he appear
       because I fell asleep
       thinking of him?
If only I'd known I was dreaming
I never would have wakened

In the Freaky Friday films and its descendants, the body-swapping plot device is played for laughs. There are humorous moment in Kokoro Connect, but as with Your Name, it is not primarily a comedy. For Shinkai, not primarily a comedy means there are still comedic elements.

To be sure, Shinkai doesn't make depressing films. But "upbeat" is not usually the word used to describe them. "Contemplative" and "introspective" might be more accurate adjectives, with an emphasis on interior melodrama.

Mamoru Hosoda has always been able to leaven the pathos with humor, while Shinkai can be fairly criticized for an often unrelentingly earnest approach. His lighter touch in Your Name undoubtedly accounts for its appeal, even while addressing a solemn subject.

The story's real-world antecedent, which he candidly admits to, is the Tohoku tsunami, that in March 2011 killed almost 16,000 people. In Your Name, Shinkai provides the necessary psychological distance by making the disaster a more exotic and less disastrous meteor strike.

But it is still a disaster whose worst aspect could have been avoided with the proper information. Hence the "time slip" denouement (knowing how a story ends ahead of time doesn't bother me).

Which prompts me to hypothesize that the focus of attention on the "body-swapping" business perhaps misses the point. This is far more about transmigration of the soul. In Kokoro Connect, these transmigrations are simply happening in real time without death getting in the way.

That makes it more of a reincarnation story, which brings to mind the quite similar ending in Angel Beats. Theologically, what we find here is a salvific view of reincarnation, that portrays rebirth as integral to the moral evolution of the individual, a second chance to get things right.

"To die with a peaceful mind will stimulate a virtuous seed and a fortunate rebirth." This is the theme of Angel Beats.

The consciousness in the newly born being is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream. Transmigration is influenced by a being's past karma.

By placing this "fortunate rebirth" in the context of the survival of an entire community, as opposed to the tribulations of a bunch of angsty teenagers, Shinkai has greatly expanded the scope and reach of the genre, and formed it into a national touchstone.

Your Name is slated for an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S. this fall. In any case, it is unlikely to gross even a tenth of its Japanese box office. Spirited Away pulled in $10 million, and, sadly, that's actually a respectable amount for a Japanese film.

Spirited Away presented an otherworldly cosmology to audiences used to fairy tales filtered through the Disney lens. Critical opinion aside, it will be interesting to see how well the transcendental message of Your Name communicates across cultures.

Related links

Makoto Shinkai
Mamoru Hosoda
Voices of a Distant Star
Angel Beats! (Yahoo CR)
Kokoro Connect (CR)

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