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Posted on 26 October, 2022

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Your Name is Japanese filmmaker, animator, and author Makoto Shinkai‘s fifth animated feature movie. Premiered at the 2016 Anime Expo, it quickly became the third highest-grossing anime movie, right behind Haruo Sotozaki‘s Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (2020) and Hayao Miyazaki‘s Spirited Away, thanks to immediate and massive critical and box office success.

Through narrating the myth of the quest for a soul mate, Shinkai brings to the screen the tension between modernity and tradition connected with the Japanese feeling of cultural loss and denationalization resulting from globalization.

The quest for a soul mate

Set in Japan, Your Name tells the story of Taki Tachibana (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki) and Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi), a high school boy and girl whose lives become inexplicably intertwined, resulting in a special bond that will defy time, space, and even natural disasters.

In 2013, Mitsuha is a girl living in the mountain town of Itomori. She longs to be a boy from the big city of Tokyo. One day, after a comet passes over Tokyo, she starts body-swapping with Taki, a 2016 boy who lives in the city and works part-time at a restaurant. They communicate with each other through messages and gradually build a stronger bond. After Taki, in Mitsuha’s body, performs the kuchikamizake ritual, the two will no longer be able to swap their bodies. In order not to lose each other and to save Itomori from being destroyed by the comet crash three years earlier, they will try to rescue the townspeople and protect the memories they have of each other, which are slowly fading.

The red thread of fate

The director depicts through the cinematic medium the legend of the red thread. It originated in East Asian culture from Chinese mythology. According to the Japanese version of the myth, an invisible and unbreakable red thread binds together the man’s thumb and the woman’s little finger. As such, it symbolizes that the two people are meant to be together.

The Western version of the soul mate myth comes from Plato‘s Symposium (ca. 385-370 BCE). The Greek philosopher writes that originally humans were androgynous beings united in pairs with four arms, legs, and a head with two faces. Later Zeus, fearing they would become too powerful, split them in two, thus separating the two bodies. As a result, every human being on earth has been trying to find their lost half ever since.

Complementing each other

Your Name draws on a series of binary elements, that is, the contrast between city and country and the concepts of yin and yang

The first binary opposition lies in the different social and geographical realities that the movie portrays. On the one hand, Mitsuha lives in Itomori, a small and quiet rural town where local traditions are still perpetuated and preserved and where everything seems unchanged by time. Here people live organized in Gemeinschaft, “community“, according to German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Mitsuha and her friends complain about the hardship of living in a place where there are no cafeterias or hints of progress or chances of finding a satisfying job. On the other side, Taki lives in industrialized Tokyo, amid magnificent buildings and skyscrapers, multinational foods and activities, and endless employment opportunities. Here people form a Gesellschaft, “society“, again according to Tönnies’ theory.

The idea of city-country juxtaposition has a rich history. This can be found in Charles DickensGreat Expectations. Here the author shows the contraposition between the city of London, a place of social and personal redemption, and the Kent countryside, which protagonist Pip associates with negativity and regrets.

The second binary opposition implies the Taoist notion of yin and yang. Two opposites complement each other, creating harmony. The two main characters in Your Name have opposite personalities and ways of living. This is because their growth reflects the different contexts in which they live. Eventually, after Taki and Mitsuha swap bodies and lives, these different traits complement each other, helping the two in their coming-of-age process. Thanks to Mitsuha’s interference, Taki, with an impulsive (yang) and bad temper, grows wiser and less superficial and embraces the importance of tradition. Mitsuha in turn, at first too calm and passive (yin), in her relationship with her father and schoolmates who tease her, thanks to Taki, finds the courage to speak up for herself.

Body swap

Your Name exploits the storytelling device of body swapping and enacts it between two lovers. This concept first appeared in John Locke‘s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Here the English philosopher asks the reader to imagine the soul of a prince entering and informing the body of a cobbler and vice versa. Over time, with the proliferation and evolution of narrative media, this ploy has found fertile ground in cinema in various forms. Just think of the many adaptations of Freaky Friday (1976) and the more recent Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).

Moreover, Your Name stands out as original in enacting the body swap through mimesis, rarely seen in movies. It also occurs in another animated movie, Soul, where the protagonist Joe ends up in the body of a cat while 22 inhabits Joe’s body. The body/identity swap can occur also in other different ways: through disguise as in Scooby-Doo (2002); possession as in The Exorcist (1973) or Meet Joe Black (1998); symbiosis as in Venom (2018); and finally age transformation as occurs in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).

In the end, the body swap helps convey the characters’ maturing as they experience the empathy caused by stepping into each other’s shoes, thereby becoming more aware of themselves and the outside world.

The comet

The most meaningful symbol in Your Name is certainly the comet. It appears at crucial moments in the movie, connecting Taki and Mitsuha, beginning and end, past and present, life and death. In particular, the movie takes up the tradition of the comet as a symbol of future nefarious events, as Hindus believed they came from demons. Comets have this connotation in other movies such as the post-apocalyptic Don’t Look Up (2021) or Armageddon (1998).

According to Japanese tradition, the remnants of fallen stars build Shinto shrines, such as the one found at Itomori, home of the deities associated with the other world, a place that in Your Name allows Taki and Mitsuha to be reunited together. 

In contrast, in its Western counterpart, the comet has a more positive connotation and has a strong connection with the Star of Bethlehem. Following the story narrated in the Gospel of Matthew, the comet led the Magi to the place where the Messiah was born to offer him their gifts.

The power of tradition

Traditions are central in Your Name as they establish the connection between the two main characters. In specific, they relate to the village of Itomori, which preserves them over time. Shinkai shows the kuchikamizake ritual, handed down by the Miyamizu family. It is an ancient Shinto ceremony in which a virgin offers rice-based alcohol fermented with her saliva to the shrine. This holds a close connection to the production of sake. This beverage represented half of its person and carries magical connotations. Indeed, only after drinking Mitsuha’s kuchikamizake is Taki able to swap their bodies again.

One more concept included in the movie is kawataredoki, a Japanese term used in reference to twilight/dawn. According to Japanese tradition, supernatural things can take place during this “magic hour”. And it is actually during dawn that Taki and Mitsuha finally meet each other physically.

The multiverse: infinite realities

Your Name also explores the possibilities of moving between parallel universes. Indeed, Mitsuha lives three years before Taki when the body swap occurs. Also, the place at the top of the mountains where they meet at dawn stands for a kind of another dimension that transcends the present time.

The concept of the multiverse was theorized in physics in 1950 by American physicist Hugh Everett III. Later, it became a prolific storytelling device in cinema, music, and literature. One example is the song Multiverso by Italian rapper Murubutu. It tells the story of a love so strong that in any parallel universe that might exist the two lovers would always meet.

The theme of soul mates meeting in different, parallel timelines is also central in Alejandro Agresti‘s The Lake House (2006) with which Your Name has some similarities. Both characters in the movies are connected to each other through places and objects that have magical connotations (such as the mailbox in the lake house). What’s more, the symbol of the lake with supernatural powers appears in Your Name as well. Indeed, the fictional Itomori stands on a lake that lies in the middle of the town. A place that allows the first physical encounter between Taki and Mitsuha at dawn.

A universal theme

For the screenplay, Shinkai drew inspiration from a waka poem by Japanese poet Ono no Komachi. One passage reads: “I fell asleep thinking of you and saw you in my dream, and if I’d known it was a dream, I wouldn’t have woken up”, a concept repeated at the beginning of the movie by the voices of Taki and Mitsuha:

Once in a while, when I wake up, I find myself crying. The dream I must have had, I can never recall. But the sensation that I’ve lost something lingers for a long time after I wake up. I’m always searching for something, for someone. This feeling has possessed me… I think from that day… That day when the stars came falling. It was almost as if… as if a scene from a dream.

From the opening scene of Your Name

In conclusion, Your Name is all about the possibility of finding “that person who might change your life entirely. There’s always that possibility, and while you’re not necessarily actively seeking it, you have that desire deep down”, to use the director’s words. Furthermore, all these recurring central themes in the movie – the contrast between country and city; the comet foreshadowing the cataclysmic event; and the value of handing down the traditions – show Shinkai’s attempt to transcend the particular condition of the love story by inserting and linking it to a broader world and history in which the lovers must actively struggle.

Indeed, what makes Your Name stand out is how it is a message of love related to the need to pass on and preserve traditions. As these are essential for human beings to connect with both the divine and life.

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