Japanese animators have good reason to hate the label “new Miyazaki,” meaning successor to animation genius Hayao Miyazaki, who retired from feature filmmaking in 2013. First, it saddles them with fan expectations that their films will resemble — or imitate — the master’s. Second, their box-office figures are compared to Miyazaki’s, which soared to stratospheric heights that few rivals or successors have ever approached.
So here’s a shout-out to Makoto Shinkai, among the most prominent of the “new Miyazakis,” whose latest feature “Your Name.” is distributed by Toho, the same company that handled all of Miyazaki’s biggest hits. However, its late-August release date is not quite the mid-July box-office sweet spot once regularly reserved for Miyazaki’s masterpieces.
Animated with a blend of gorgeous, realistic detail and emotionally grounded fantasy that make comparisons with Miyazaki not absurd, Shinkai’s films to date, including his 2007 break-through “5 Centimeters per Second” (“Byosoku 5 Senchimetoru”), display a sensibility more romantic than Miyazaki’s, with stories about young lovers instead of the maestro’s plucky young heroines on various sorts of quests.
“Your Name.,” whose title and story echo a famous postwar radio drama and film trilogy (1953-54) about star-crossed lovers, is the latest in this line. Based on Shinkai’s original script, the film focuses on two teenagers: Mitsuha (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi), a girl living unhappily in the countryside, and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Tokyo high school student who is something of an architecture buff.
To the surprise of no one who has ever seen a Japanese seishun eiga (youth drama), these two are fated to connect, but the film’s way of accomplishing this is unusual, to say the least: They switch bodies in their dreams. (Nobuhiko Obayashi’s similarly themed “I Are You, You Am Me” [“Tenkosei,” 1982] was a remarkably progressive look at gender bending for its time, but with no dreaming whatsoever.)
Shinkai’s movie also delivers — actually, over-delivers — the comedy of adolescent embarrassment and awkwardness, with Mitsuha, transformed into Taki, finding herself using the feminine “watashi” (“I”) to his pals’ surprise and fumbling for the gender-appropriate “ore.” These and other gags are cute enough, but so are similar ones in dozens of local TV sitcoms.
This film, however, also regards its gender-crossing pair with a tender seriousness that is uniquely Shinkai’s, as they struggle with their odd situations and unfamiliar yearnings. They leave each other notes and even quarrel. Of course, once things reach this stage, we know that love will bloom. But at the heart of the story’s mystery is a once-in-a-thousand year comet that appeared in the skies a month before the story begins. Did it portend doom for the budding relationship of our central pair?
The plot takes many twists, but stays focused on the respective fates of Taki and Mitsuha. Supporting characters, such as Miki (Masami Nagasawa), Taki’s sexy, worldly wise senior at the coffee shop where he works part-time, and Mitsuha’s old-school grandmother (Etsuko Ishihara) and no-nonsense kid sister (Kanon Tani), serve primarily to highlight the two principals’ personalities and dilemmas (including the dilemma posed by Taki’s awkward crush on Miki).
But as climax tops dramatic climax, with the heavens erupting in dazzling displays of color and light, “Your Name.” becomes like the dream almost everyone has from time to time, of the lover too perfect, the encounter too short and the ending too abrupt, with bliss dissolving into thin air as waking life takes hold.
Yet something remains — a memory, however faint, of paradise. “Your Name.” gets that something, a blend of aching pathos and glimmer of unearthly beauty, memorably right. Miyazaki would not have made this film, but Makoto Shinkai did. Hopefully, just maybe, he will lose the “new Miyazaki” tag forever.