Your Name (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A pretty and sappy body swap romance

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Japanese animation film “Your Name” is as pretty and sappy as it can be as a fantasy romance tale. There are a number of beautiful moments to impress you with their colors and details, and then there are also several music montage sequences accompanied with mellow pop songs to entertain you. I was constantly aware of its numerous plot holes and contrivances during my viewing, but I will not deny that it works to some degrees.

The premise of the film is based on one time-honored storytelling device familiar to many of us. Although there is no apparent connection between them, Mitsuha (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi), a high school girl living in a rural town, and Taki (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki), a high school boy living in Tokyo, start to experience frequent body swap between them, and this mysterious happening certainly causes lots of confusion and bafflement. When Mitsuha’s friends tell her about how she looks and feels different during the previous day, Mistuha is confounded because she cannot remember anything about that day, and then she comes across a question written on her notebook by someone: “Who are you?”

Not long after that point, Mitsuha wakes up to find herself inside Taki’s body during one morning. She initially thinks it is merely a long, vivid dream, but it does not take much time for her as well as Taki to realize what is really going on between them. Using their smartphones and bodies, they begin indirect communication between them, and it looks like they can get things under control while helping each other a little. Taki makes Mitsuha more active and popular in her school, and Mitsuha has Taki get closer to an older girl who works with Taki at an Italian restaurant.

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Like many comedy films about body swap, the first act of “Your Name” generates a number of funny moments as Mitsuha and Taki cope with their extraordinary situation, but I must confess that some of them are a bit too broad for my taste. Maybe you will have some chuckles from a running gag involved with Taki getting accustomed to Mistuha’s bosoms, but then this gag eventually becomes tiresome although there is actually one moment which ignited a big laugh from the audiences around me. While the film has a fun with Mistuha’s understandable awkwardness with Taki’s body, it is curiously superficial about Taki’s experience in Mistuha’s body without presenting any notable challenge for him, and that is a rather disappointing waste of comic potential in my opinion.

The story goes into a more serious mode around its second act, and that is where the film demands a lot more suspension of disbelief from us than before. For instance, we have to accept and believe that 1) Mitsuha and Taki have never considered directly contacting each other although they have corresponded with each other for around one month, 2) Taki has never been curious about where exactly Mitsuha lives, and 3) a certain mythical place has been hidden from almost everyone for years although, as far as I could see from the screen, it is pretty big enough to be found on Google Earth (the background of the story is the 2010s, by the way).

This could be a mere minor problem if the film were equipped with solid story and characters, but the director/writer Makoto Shinkai’s screenplay frequently suffers from weak characterization and increasingly contrived narrative. While Mitsuha is allowed to show some personality, Taki feels rather bland in comparison beside looking handsome as demanded, and the film also does not utilize well most of its supporting characters. For example, Taki’s relationship with that older girl remains underdeveloped although she turns out to understand him better than expected, and the film also does not explain enough how Mitsuha’s friends come to believe her enough to help her during the climatic third act. In addition, it never explores enough Mitsuha’s strained relationship with her estranged father, and that is the major reason why a brief but crucial scene between them during the third act is not as dramatic as it is supposed to be.

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Nonetheless, I admire the gorgeous cell animation style of “Your Name”. I liked the aesthetic contrast between the busy urban landscapes of Tokyo and the quiet rural sceneries of Mitsuha’s town, and I enjoyed many painstaking details in the film including Taki’s pencil sketches of Mitsuha’s town and those traditional braids made by Mitsuha and her family. The scene where Taki and Mitsuha finally face each other in a way I still cannot explain well is filled with ethereal beauty, and the film does not disappoint the audiences when it eventually delivers its big visual climax as promised from the beginning.

Although I am not that familiar with most of Shinkai’s previous works, I remember well his short animation film “The Garden of Words” (2013). While that film is basically a naughty story about its young hero’s fetishistic infatuation with a beautiful and sophisticated woman he happens to encounter, the story is depicted with enough taste and romanticism via its lovely cell animation, and I was entertained and impressed enough by that.

“Your Name” is not as successful as “The Garden of Words”, but this is still a well-made animation film although I wish it could go further with more wit and imagination instead of resorting to sappy, platitudinous storytelling. Due to its shallow handling of story and characters, I cannot recommend it, but it has considerable charm and style anyway, and you will probably like it more than me if you are less critical of its flaws.

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