The greatest kinds of teen movies should feel utterly discombobulating—at once overwrought and humdrum, screamingly funny and deadly serious, with magic bleeding in around the edges. How else to properly capture the constant pulse of hormones, drama, and rhapsodic bouts of idealism that comes with adolescence? Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, a Japanese anime film arriving in U.S. theaters Friday after becoming an international box-office sensation, is one of the best teen movies I’ve seen in years. It’s a gorgeous mix of the fantastic and the mundane that blends time-travel, body-swapping, and an enchanted bottle of sake into a story that somehow never loses hold of its wonderfully rounded protagonists.
Shinkai is an emerging name in Japanese animation (he’s directed four popular, often floridly named features), and Your Name seems like his moment to cross over as masters of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, and Isao Takahata have before him. The film takes the well-worn concept of body-switching and uses it to dig into the differences between a girl growing up in rural Japan and a boy in Tokyo. Shinkai borrows from thousand-year-old lore (the movie’s premise is roughly inspired by an ancient poem) to produce a work that’s startlingly frank and modern, and should appeal to teenagers and devoted film nerds alike.
In Your Name, Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a teen boy attending high school in Tokyo and picking up shifts as a waiter; Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) lives in a fictional town in the mountains, where she maintains a family shrine and dreams of life in the big city. The film spends little to no time on Taki’s worries, which are the regular concerns of a teenager balancing work and home life (and nursing a crush on a co-worker). Mitsuha is, without a doubt, Your Name’s primary focus, representing the push and pull between tradition and modernity, and the burdens of adulthood for a young woman who’s expected to keep one foot in the past.
But Shinkai’s primary fascination is communication and empathy—the ways that we understand each other and the ways we cannot, even if we’re literally occupying another person’s mind. At first, Taki and Mitsuha can barely grasp what’s happening to them, thinking of their out-of-body experiences as dreams and shrugging when they’re told how strangely they were acting the day before. Eventually, they figure it out, and begin leaving each other notes in their phones (and, sometimes, written on their bodies) in an effort to coordinate their newly complicated lives.
Your Name has plenty of fun with this, like many a body-swap movie before it. Both Taki and Mitsuha offer helpful, new perspectives on each others’ lives (one even sets the other up on a date), while their own relationship with one another grows deeper. The mysterious force behind their connection is left vague, but the film delves into the specifics of how it works as the twists and turns of Taki and Mitsuha’s lives veer into epic melodrama.
The latter, plottier third of Your Name, which I won’t spoil, could be overly absurd—but it works, partly because Shinkai has made such an effort to have his film reflect the excitable, buzzing minds of teenagers throughout. Whenever things get overwrought, it feels part of a whole; we’re in the minds of teenagers, after all, who’ve been linked together by cosmic energies beyond our imagination. It’s hard not to get swept up in all the ridiculous romance of it. At its best, Your Name is a sort of mystical Before Sunset, a chance encounter between two people that eventually begins to feel seismic.
It helps that Shinkai’s film is beautiful, every pastoral landscape rendered with painterly detail; even the cellphone conversations look great. His characterizations of Taki and Mitsuha are finely realized and expressive enough to match the magical world around them. A fantasy sequence in the middle of the film in which they “meet” (in a manner of speaking) is the kind of grand impressionistic gesture that could fall flat. Instead, it soars. With its balance of grounded emotion and wondrous escapism, Your Name should firmly establish Shinkai as an auteur to follow for many years to come. But for now, just enjoy his first masterpiece.