How Your Name Became Japan’s Biggest Movie in Years

Makoto Shinkai’s animated film, newly released in North America, is a magical and ultimately optimistic coming-of-age story that taps into the country’s unique anxieties.

The Japanese anime director Makoto Shinkai poses for a photo in front of posters of his animated film Your Name in Tokyo, Japan, on November 16, 2016.  (Toru Hanai / Reuters)

A fact that will come up in nearly every review of the film Your Name as it opens in theaters across North America this weekend is how it was the highest-grossing film in Japan last year. Makoto Shinkai’s animated feature about two body-swapping teenagers has thus far pulled in over 24 billion yen (around $214 million), becoming the second highest-grossing movie in the country ever, trailing only the revered director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Spirited Away. It’s shattered records for Japanese films across Asia, and is now the most profitable picture from the country in China. Before even arriving stateside, it has nabbed the title of the top-grossing anime movie of all time, while also enjoying critical raves. (The Atlantic’s David Sims praised it as one of the best teen movies in years.)

Yet these numbers fail to capture just how big a pop-cultural force Your Name (Kimi no Na wa in Japanese) has become in its home country. Since arriving in movie theaters late last August, it has spawned limited-run cafes, dating events, and merchandise ranging from sake to a home planetarium. The film centers on a pair of adolescents, one living in Tokyo and the other in a town in the countryside of Gifu Prefecture. And so travel companies have organized walking tours of Your Name’s metropolitan locations, while a bus tour out to the rural areas that inspired Makoto proved popular (Gifu as a whole has seen a big economic boost in the film’s wake). Turn on the TV and many shows reference the film, while the songs from Your Name have become staples at karaoke and junior high schools across the archipelago. Traditional Japanese kumihimo (or threads) have become a trendy accessory on Instagram after playing a central role in the story.

All of which is to suggest that Your Name resonated with Japanese viewers deeply, and it appears set to become the defining film of the decade, not just financially but also in a more meaningful cultural sense. Your Name is a coming-of-age story—a common variety of Japanese cinema, give or take the switching-bodies-while-dreaming part—but woven into this familiar genre are issues weighing on the nation in the 2010s. Among other themes, Makoto touches on vanishing rural communities, trauma following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the ever-present unease around natural disasters that has followed.

Given Japan’s rapidly graying population and a lack of full-time employment, Your Name arrived at a time when prospects for the future look bleak for many in the country, especially those entering adulthood. And yet a youthful optimism has been reflected in some of the most popular cultural products of the past few years, ranging from viral songs to TV shows with huge ratings such as Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu. Your Name might be the most hopeful creation yet; Makoto himself has frequently said he made the movie for younger audiences, so that “they can believe in their future.”

The director, who has made animated features since 2004 (though never on a level close to Your Name), has been tagged by many as “the next Miyazaki,” referring to the Studio Ghibli co-founder and mind behind beloved films such as My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo. Though both weave traditional Japanese folklore into their work, comparisons of this sort may feed unfair expectations; they’re also somewhat inaccurate. Makoto’s work barely resembles Miyazaki’s fantastical, whimsical works, instead feeling closer to a seishun eiga, or “youth film.”

Though this genre has existed for quite some time, it really blossomed the decade following World War II thanks to so-called “sun tribe” youth movies (these featured teens interested in violence and sex, similar to America’s Rebel Without A Cause). In the decades since, seishun eiga have generally focused on the ups and downs of adolescence, particularly high schoolers. “Seishun eiga offer the sort of clear window into Japan’s national culture, society and psyche that other, more internationally popular, genres don’t. Most Japanese survived high school; relatively few joined yakuza gangs,” the Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling has written. Since these movies can be loaded with cliches and melodrama, the laziest iterations of this style are often deeply formulaic.

Your Name follows the basic beats of seishun eiga, as did pre-release advertising for it. The story centers on the relationship between two teens separated by great distances, and the hurdles they face to reach one another. The intimate details of high-school life likely appealed to many young viewers, and the film’s music comes from the rock band Radwimps, a teen-favorite outfit that gelled perfectly with the story. On top of these conventions, Makoto also adds in some magical realism; as the writer Eimi Ozawa noted in a special edition of the magazine EyesCream last October, Makoto was inspired by the author Haruki Murakami, whose work tends to explore the connections that happen in dreams.

Though its core narrative may feel familiar to Japanese audiences, Your Name is far from a generic film. It touches on so many nuanced and pressing issues that could only come from Japan in the 2010s that it essentially offers a snapshot of the decade, revealing itself to be much more ambitious than the typical seishun eiga. The female protagonist, Mitsuha Miyamizu, complains about how boring her country home is—but her words get at the reality of diminishing opportunities for youth in Japan’s rural areas, which are themselves fading. (The national broadcaster NHK’s Close Up Gendai found many viewers were drawn to the realistic representations of Tokyo and the countryside.) Your Name brings into sharp focus a broader fear that older Japanese traditions will vanish alongside smaller towns. Little touches, like scenes featuring “local mascots” and teens taking labored photos of pancakes, help bring this old-versus-new conflict to life onscreen.

Perhaps the greatest tension in the film, though, comes from nature itself: Looming over the more banal elements of the story is the threat of a mysterious comet. Makoto has said several times that Your Name was heavily influenced by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tōhoku region, primarily by a trip the director took to the area several months after the disaster. A TV special that aired on this year’s anniversary focused on Makoto returning to Tōhoku, and expanding on how deeply the events of 3/11—including the subsequent fear of natural disasters it sparked—shaped Your Name.

The anime is one of several Japanese films after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami to take on these ideas. The nation’s second highest-grossing film in 2016 is even more explicit in channeling the disaster: Shin Godzilla (Godzilla Resurgence in North America) is a reboot of the classic 1954 giant-monster movie, which itself was a response to the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the massive lizard’s latest origin story, Godzilla is a hybrid natural disaster and nuclear parable, and shots of flooding reference images that dominated news coverage on 3/11. The film also pokes at government officials, who were seen as more untrustworthy in the years after the disaster. But Makoto’s surprise hit touches on all those points too, while squeezing in looks at other modern issues—and, of course, also being a body-switching, time-bending adolescent love story (Japan’s Excite News reported that many people saw Your Name more than once because the first go around left them confused about what actually happened).

The biggest difference between Your Name and similar films comes in tone. Despite the anxiety lurking in so many corners of the plot, the movie ultimately takes a brighter view of the future. It’s an attitude that may seem at odds with doom and gloom news about Japan’s economy, aging population, and more, but some of the most popular songs of the last few years have been unflinchingly upbeat. Recent smash TV dramas have featured the sort of nothing-will-keep-us-apart romances that seemed out of fashion just a few years ago. Your Name goes all in on this optimism—just as Makoto intended—wrapping it up in a story that treats the teenage experience with life-or-death seriousness.

Perhaps what’s most impressive about Your Name’s success is how it reached a group Makoto didn’t have in mind at all. The director admits as much in the previously mentioned Close Up Gendai special while watching clips of middle-aged viewers seeing the film—many of them crying. Several moviegoers interviewed afterward described how familiar the story felt, and that it reminded them of the meetings and farewells they had experienced in their own lives. Though some of the cultural references in Your Name might slip by North American viewers, they may still be moved by the film’s more universal core—the joy and fear of coming of age in uncertain times.