Friday 9 December 2016

Your Name (2016) - Movie Review
Makoto Shinkai is, in no uncertain terms, a genuine underdog story in the annals of anime history. Starting out by essentially going for broke in more ways than one, just to bring his first short film Voices Of A Distant Star into fruition, he has since gone on to become one of the most celebrated anime filmmakers of the modern era. That may not mean much to those outside of the fandom, but just to be clear, this guy’s work is so incredibly lauded that he has often drawn comparisons to Hayao friggin’ Miyazaki. Even if Makoto himself doesn’t take much credence to those comparisons, that’s pretty high praise and, even with the little of his work that I’ve seen thus far, I can’t help but feel that it is entirely warranted. Voices Of A Distant Star is easily one of the most emotionally potent works of fiction, let alone anime, ever conceived, and the fact that it’s only 25 minutes in length makes that feat even more astounding. And now, he has a new feature-length production out that is also gaining high praise. Time to dig in.

The plot: Rural high school girl Mitsuha (Stephanie Sheh [Yes, I went out and saw the dubbed version; sue me]), growing tired of her boring life, suddenly wakes up to find herself in the body of city boy Taki (Michael Sinterniklaas). It seems that, as they sleep, they swap bodies and have to carry out the rest of the day as each other. As their forced connection grows stronger, and a nearby comet continues its trajectory across the sky, it seems that things are only about to get weirder.

The animation quality here is strangely inconsistent, and no, that doesn’t equate to the usual budget-cut moments that most anime films end up running into. Instead, I mention this about the animation in reference to itself. When it comes to the character designs, it frequently goes into the realms of chicken-scratch with how lacking in detail they get. Sure, the close-ups are good in that they convey the appropriate emotions required, but once we get into shots from a farther perspective, especially if it involves more than one character, it can look rather jarring. As for the background details, this is exceptional in how much effort has been put into making the scenery feel as vibrant as it is. What’s more, this actually manages to incorporate CGI into the more traditional line drawings with remarkable smoothness, far better than any other animated film I’ve seen so far from this year. Add to this a good sense of camera movement and framing, even considering we’re looking at rendered drawings, and you have a very nice-looking film, to the point where even the relatively cheaper-looking characters don’t detract nearly enough from the overall quality.

Screwball farces involving two people ending up quite literally in each other’s bodies, and gender-mismatched bodies at that, is hardly anything new in this day and age, especially in Japanese storytelling. Now, even though I readily grew up watching both versions of Freaky Friday, I can’t help but feel definite cringe whenever I see a story like this. The whole idea of being forced to enact what is stereotypically considered ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, or even ‘juvenile’ and ‘mature’ mannerisms just doesn’t sit right with me, knowing how fabricated a lot of those mannerisms are in the first place. That said though, this film does a decent job at conveying that part of the story. Sheh and Sinterniklaas do well at not only showing their own characters’ emotions, but translating them to each other’s characters without anything feeling left out for convenience. Not only that, because of how the body-swapping itself is portrayed and how both characters end up learning and adapting to the situation with reasonable intelligence (if not the occasional spout of bickering), it actually ends up holding back on just enough of the cringe for the comedy of the situation to ring through.

Of course, by the time the comedy completely sets in and the tone is properly established, the film makes a very sudden turn. What was previously a pretty light and awkward mismatch distaff comedy ends up turning into a heart-wrenching romantic tragedy that is as stunning as it is slightly jarring. But then again, even with how sudden it can feel, it actually plays right into Makoto’s strengths as a filmmaker. Even when he was working with the most wallet-scraping of budgets, the man has always had a serious aptitude for tapping into emotions and making the audience feel them at their fullest. And sure enough, without delving too deeply into spoilers, that is precisely what happens here. Now, on the surface, this can come across as he is making a melodrama with how intense the emotions can get within a relatively small frame. But labelling this as ‘melodrama’ would imply that this aims solely for the heart and sends logic and real-world instincts to the wind, and Makoto is a lot more clever of a writer than to just settle for that. So, basically, this has all the magnitude of melodrama with the poignancy of legitimate drama.

In the past, I’ve brought up how certain romantic films can often feel like the filmmakers, and by extension us as the audience, are just counting down the minutes until our romantic leads eventually unite. This, however, might be one of the rare instances of that where not only does that style of story progression work, but succeeds at delivering pathos at an astounding rate. The emotional investment created once the big drama of the story makes itself known is among the most potent of the entire year, even considering how truly emotionally-crippling a lot of this year’s cinematic crop has turned out. It ends up creating a similar effect to Don Bluth’s An American Tail in how, by being constantly teased with the prospect of our main character eventually meeting the person he/she has been looking for, it makes the audience tense up in their seats. This is made even stronger by how Makoto makes it excruciatingly clear that he is capable of throwing his characters into seriously depressing situations, and therefore making the possibility of a downer ending actually feasible. There’s nothing worse than going through the usual fabricated notions of whether or not this will end up happily, when you know that it very easily might not.

All in all, this is yet another solid winner by Makoto Shinkai, starting out with a pretty ridiculous concept and then, over the course of the film, fleshing it out into the kind of drama that holds tightly onto the heart and refuses to let go until the narrative reaches its conclusion. The acting is stellar in how the leads juggle their respective gender portrayals, the animation and music give a grand backdrop to what is ultimately a very intimate story and the writing… holy shit, this is some of the most tear-jerking material I’ve seen in far too long, anime or otherwise, and it ensures that every single skipped heartbeat it causes in the viewer is deserved.

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