Kimi no Na Wa is peak Makoto Shinkai, a gorgeously animated science fiction/fantasy romance that speaks to our most idealistic notions of love as transcending space and time, while mostly avoiding some of his more annoying directorial habits.
Some people call Makoto Shinkai the new Miyazaki, but I think that that comparison isn’t particularly apt. Shinkai and Miyazaki, despite sharing a superficial taste in genre and aesthetic, could not be more different. Miyazaki is a traditionalist, an auteur of the old guard, whose hand-animated films possess a naturalistic visual and narrative style that often strangely complements the fantastic creatures and vistas that he conjures.
Shinkai, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern – a director who embraces the contemporary stylistic and visual norms of anime, the tropes and the narrative shortcuts that act like a filmic shorthand to communicate layers of nuance to an audience trained in its subtleties. His character designs are distinctly moe, something Miyazaki would abhor, and the visuals, while striking and gorgeous, are over-the-top: striking wide-angle visuals and thoroughly surreal skies painted with wild colours. There’s even a frenetic J-rock number that opens the film like your regular anime OP.
If anything, Shinkai reminds me of another oft-feted director, Mamoru Hosoda, whose 2012 Wolf Children was a similarly moving masterpiece – a distinctly Japanese take on maternal love. Both directors are all about depicting the extremes of Japan – its distinctly pastoral hinterlands amidst mountains and moss, against its fractious and glistening metropolises, and both specialise in moving and exuberant tales of youthful adolescence taking on the world.
And Kimi no Na Wa is such a tale, featuring two teenaged protagonists, one from the city, one from the country – both striking it out and trying to determine their place in a place like Japan, where tradition runs thicker than water and community is everything. More than most anime of its genre, Kimi no Na Wa captures that sense of adolescent yearning for anything but here, and launches its protagonists on a surreal journey to experience life through the eyes of the other.
And in doing so, the protagonists come to love each other, in an achingly insuperable way that transcends memory and time. If Shinkai has a pet motif (like Miyazaki does with flight), it is surely in the depiction of star-crossed lovers wrenched apart by seemingly immutable gulfs of space and time. Usually, some science fiction or fantasy macguffin is the source of this unwanted estrangement. The Place Promised in our Early Days had the female protagonist in a parallel universe, while Voices of a Distant Star used time dilation. Kimi no Na Wa has a similar conceit: a boy (Taki) and a girl (Mitsuha) who know and love each other by living each other’s lives, the most intimate form of mutual awareness. But, paradoxically, they live each other’s lives as if in a dream, and the memory fades upon awakening. As macguffins go, it is particularly moving and poetic.
As they cross into each other’s worlds, they realise that their fates are tied to a larger cosmic threat, one that bears down on them and provides the stage for an exuberant foray into heroics that is entwined beautifully with the developing romance. Shinkai also adds a healthy dose of a very Shinto-esque sort of mysticism involving the image of braided cords to the mix as a mythological backdrop to the tale. This magic is an expression of the film’s thematic core: that there are cords of fate that link people together through gulfs of space and time, somewhat akin to the East Asian notion of the red string of fate.
There is something achingly magical and primal about these motifs and narrative beats – they represent our subconscious yearning for that transcendental love, that notion that someone out there knows you as intimately as you do yourself and accepts you for it: that somewhere, in some distant temporal brane, one’s soulmate walks. It is, to a large extent, paradoxical in its idealism – can any meaningful connection exist between people who have never really met? The fact that the bond between Taki and Mitsuha persists through time, memory and space is the film’s intoxicating affirmation of that romantic notion. It is heart-achingly cathartic, the sort of escapism that lingers with you long after you’ve exited the theatre, full of wistful longing for something that doesn’t exist in our banal reality. It’s the stuff of the best romances – and right now I can only think of Lyra and Will’s romance in The Amber Spyglass as an example of a similar love story that captures those feelings to the same degree. Which is high praise, indeed.
What Shinkai has accomplished with this film is to create a classic that will surely resonate in more ways than one, with both Japanese and Western audiences, and is undoubtedly his best work yet (of the ones I’ve seen, at least). It’s enough that I can forgive the few odd plotholes that emerge from a plot this dependent on mystical macguffins and a convoluted system of magic. How is it, for example, that Taki had so much trouble finding the name of the town that Mitsuha lived in? Surely he would have heard the name when spending time as her. Why is it that they forget crucial details of each other only when the plot required it?
And, of course, the Shinkai staple – long, rambling sequences, usually in the beginning, when characters do what I can only describe as a collaborative poem in which they just monologue past each other in highly abstract language, accompanied by flashing montage shots of Shinkai’s beautifully crafted vistas. The entirety of 5 Centimeters Per Second was punctuated with these odd visual poems, which are just ways for Shinkai to download his themes into you with the highest possible level of information density as possible – which is hardly the point of the filmic enterprise. Luckily, that annoying habit was constrained to the first five minutes or so of Kimi no Na Wa, and the rest of the film was just moving and epic and made me melancholic at the end of it. That melancholy is how I know I’ve stumbled upon a keeper.
I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 bottles of kuchikamizake