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Your Name.

I’ve been out of the anime loop for way too long. Granted, my peak fandom days came back when I was a teenager, too stupid to know how much I didn’t know. Still, when a poster proudly claims that an anime film is from a “visionary director” named Makoto Shinkai, who’s previously made a whole bunch of stuff I’ve never even heard of, I can’t help flashing back to all those eons ago when I was collecting DVDs of “Outlaw Star” and “Cowboy Bebop” and other staples of Toonami. God, I feel old.

Anyway, Your Name. caught me entirely by surprise for many reasons. For an anime film to get a stateside theatrical release is rare enough, and for one to hit screens with subtitles instead of an English dub is practically unheard of. What’s more, it’s a movie with a “body swap” premise between two teenaged leads of opposite genders, which should be iffy for a whole bunch of reasons that I hope are self-evident. Yet this movie — with virtually no press and nobody in the cast or crew that anybody would’ve heard of — currently holds a near-perfect Tomatometer. Just what was I in for with this one?

A seriously goddamn great movie, as it turns out.

Our female lead (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi) is Mitsuha, a 16-year-old girl living in some podunk little town of maybe a couple hundred people. She lives with her grandma (Futaha, voiced by Sayaka Ohara) and her little sister (Yotsuha, voiced by Kanon Tani), as the three of them continue the family lineage of Shinto priestesses. By which I mean her deceased mother’s side of the family — her father (Toshiki, voiced by Masaki Terasoma) is the mayor of the town.

Our male lead (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki) is Taki, a 16-year-old boy living with his single father in Tokyo. He’s struggling to get through high school while working as a put-upon waiter. Taki also has a nonexistent love life, and he — along with all his coworkers — has an unrequited crush on his boss (Miki, voiced by Masami Nagasawa).

Then the two leads start trading bodies. How does that work? Well, a lot of details are unclear. What’s known is that it has something to do with a comet passing overhead for the first time in something like 1,400 years. There’s no perceptible pattern or way of knowing precisely when the body swap is going to happen, just that it happens something like two or three times a week. It only happens while the characters are asleep, and the characters have no memory of what happened during the body swap, so the whole thing is very much like a dream. Except that the characters then wake up and find the lingering effects of whatever the other person did that previous day.

So to make things easier, the two of them start leaving notes for each other. And of course they get information secondhand from their friends and family, who talk about how they were so much different/cooler/lamer/etc. just the day before. Of course it’s a tenuous relationship at first, but we gradually start to see how the two leads start helping each other and trading banter through their notes.

There’s very much a class distinction going on, as Taki gets to escape the stress of the city and Mitsuha gets to escape her sleepy little backwards town. Mitsuha also gets to escape her family pressures, while nurturing a love life for Taki to enjoy and develop. And while the pervier aspects of the “body swap” premise are addressed, they’re far less prominent than the issue of gender roles and stereotypes, which are of course overwhelmingly prominent in a high school setting.

The characters have all these different contrasts and comparisons, plus these shared experiences and correspondence, added to the fact that these two are literally sharing bodies. That’s more than enough to serve as a powerful foundation for a genuinely moving romance.

Attention is also due to the recurring motif of strings and threads. It’s a natural choice, as strings have been used to symbolize interpersonal connection since time immemorial. It’s also used as a recurring symbol for time, a device that goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece. The symbol is used beautifully from start to finish, particularly in how it’s used to express the theme of nostalgia.

Remember, this experience of body-swapping is very much like a dream. Upon waking, it’s blurry and half-remembered, and events that really did happen are sometimes mistaken for nighttime visions. So it is that Taki and Mitsuho only barely recall each other, no matter how much they struggle to even remember each other’s names (hence the significance of the title).

So it is that oftentimes, their relationship is like that of distant friends from many years ago. They may not remember their names or faces, and they may not even remember exactly what happened between them, but they can still vividly remember how they made each other feel. It’s the emotions that continue to last, even after everything else has faded. It’s a poignant and universal statement about memories and nostalgia, which further serves to make the central romance so powerful. After all, who hasn’t wondered about some half-forgotten grade school crush and where they are now?

Of course, it also helps that we’ve got quite a few neat twists in the back half of the film. There’s no way I’m spoiling anything here, so I’ll just say that it does a thrilling job of raising the stakes and building toward an epic climax without throwing everything completely off the rails (see: The Boy and the Beast).

So are there any drawbacks? Well, the fantastic nature of the premise occasionally slips out of control and opens up a niggling plot hole. Also, while our two main leads are superbly developed, I found the supporting cast to be rather flat and uninteresting by comparison. I must further note the distracting nature of the film’s soundtrack, particularly where the placement and meaning of lyrics are concerned.

This brings me to the inescapable fact that this is indeed an anime. I know there are some poor sods out there who can’t stand Japanese animation or Japanese pop music, and this probably won’t be the film to convert them. Moreover, a shift in cultures always takes some getting used to, and this movie is a prominent example. Different Japanese dialects, specific aspects of the Japanese language, religious references, and differing cultural expectations between genders are all hard-wired directly into the premise; and some of them are going to translate more easily than others.

All told, I had no problem overlooking the little nitpicks of Your Name. to see a genuinely brilliant film. The story twists are beautifully creative, the central romance arc is deeply heartfelt, the two main characters are well-crafted, the whole story is compelling from start to finish, the visuals are all gorgeous, and the themes are masterfully used as they are poignant.

This one absolutely took my breath away, and it’s well worth the effort of tracking down. I have no problem giving it a full recommendation.

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