It was the Oscars last night as I’m writing this. It looked like a fun evening and, despite all the drama and controversy, everyone deserves congratulations no matter who we think should have won in any specific category, and whether we still think the same way in a few years’ time. In the morning i went through my twitter timeline and saw all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s selfies, I realise that all the subjects seem as excited to be there as he is. I realise the fundamental inaccessibility of our idols.
I didn’t watch the Oscars, I live in the UK, I ain’t staying up for that. I watched a film that the Academy slept on, my favourite film of 2016, after I promised myself, yet again, that I’d just catch a few minutes. Almost two hours later I went to bed. Right now, as I’m writing, I am desperately trying to stave off the urge to start it again because I know if I do then I’ll be losing another two hours, I wouldn’t even be mad.
Last night I watched Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name.
It’s hard for me to put out a reasoned argument, there’s so many worthy films came out last year, I’m trying to actually be serious about my film watching too so I saw a whole bunch of them. Why would a teen bodyswap comedy anime be my favourite film? Maybe I could wriggle on out of it, say it might be my favourite but that don’t mean it the best, but that bullshit. I say something is my favourite because worked the best on me, and it worked its best in me, and wrung the most out of me. I ain’t gonna have the gall to say it ain’t the best.
I guess I was hoping there’d be some legitimacy lent its way by the faceless voters who decide exactly what films get nominated for these awards, just our dumb luck that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli produced the terrifyingly beautiful The Red Turtle. Alongside Kubo and the Two Strings and Ma vie de Courgette it was a pretty good year for trad animation forms as far as The American Academy were concerned. The British Academy had a far weaker list of nominations but I can stand by Kubo as a winner. I was just looking for recognition I guess.
Now I done a whole lot of writing here and ain’t even started on the movie. Feels like I’ve too much to say and none of the words to say it with. My chest is so full of this film. Let’s start with its use of the body swap: this is the first film I think I’ve ever seen which chooses to address the very specifically queer subtext of the form. Especially when it’s looking at two people of opposing genders.
Like, the film and the characters spend very little time obsessed by the strangeness that’s going on, they just sorta accept that these things are happening in their lives and get on with it. Structurally too the film does not portray these characters of fish out of water when it comes to their gender presentation, jokes relating to masculine women and feminine men get very little look in, the film preferring to explore how these characters adopt gender presentation that they enjoy and which they feels empowers them.
I’d go as far as to say this is a great modern filmic representation of genderfluidity, or taking a more inclusionary tone, an examination of non-cisgender identities that seeks to highlight the flaws in the myth of the gender binary. The characters too express this, at the beginning of the film in frustration Mitsuha wishes she were a boy living in Tokyo, you don’t get proper cis people making those kind of wishes. The film plays close attention to the physicality of their experience in each other’s bodies, and their enjoyment of it. There’s even the suggestion that these characters are, in some regards, more functional operating outside of their traditionally assigned gender, and when it suggests that it ain’t even joking.
Even when it stops, as it eventually must, the film don’t treat it as a good thing by any means. It is only ever a negative that this quality that essentially queers these two characters is gone. There is nothing to be gained from limiting our perspective on the world
You don’t see that in films. I just don’t see myself in films.
It is a film which understands the horror of being trapped in yourself.
Which brings Shinkai’s celestial themes into clearer focus. I mean, the guys has often used the notion of the cosmic as a juxtaposition to the human drama of his stories. There’s this reminder of our insignificance as compared to the grand nature of the universe. Look at how in 5 Centimeters Per Second the dissolution of a relationship is played as foreground to the launch of a rocket, the occurance of which immediately diminishes the human drama on the ground.
Here the appearance of a rare comet in the sky, one which orbits the sun every 140 years or so, allows the plot a greater opportunity to grapple with the cosmic and its possible relationship to the personal. Completing the three pillars of this flick then is tradition. There was some talk among some people when this came out about how Shinkai is basically the new Miyazaki. They had better words, but that was the brunt of it (irrelevant now of course Miyazaki’s come out of retirement again, I suspect he and Ken Loach have a bet on.)
One of the clear differences though is how Miyazaki and Shinkai interpret the fantastic differently. Miyazaki’s fantastic is an extension of nature Totoro, Mononoke, Spirited Away, even the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake is portrayed as a spitting monster devouring the Earth in the otherwise quite naturalistic The Wind Rises.
Shinkai’s interpretation of the fantastic, however, is one that is derived from culture, from tradition, used to counterpoint the happenings of the film. The suggestion is that these traditions and culture humanity can align itself with the cosmic, Mitsuha’s grandmother makes reference to how the meaning behind tradition can be lost to time, however the traditions themselves take on symbolic meaning purely in their ability to connect us through the ages.
I’m trying not to spoil things too bad now, so Imma step away from thematics here and just talk about one of the elements of pure filmmaking that Shinkai and the film have a rock solid grasp on. Pacing. You analyse how this film works and its super weird, it spends way too much time in places it shouldn’t, places where the plot is just put on hold for a while, whole other sections are super abbreviated. There’s no way it should work, but it does. Because the film knows what we need to see, what must be conveyed to the audience in order to move them to where they need to be.
I see criticism of Shinkai that he’s simply adept at constructing melodrama. As if that’s somehow sinful. And yes, his stories do rely heavily on emotion, but he’s not a hack slotting names into a template, analyse why he’s constructing his stories the way he does and you’ll see someone who just has this internal knowledge of when and how to deliver on the different aspects of a compelling story. Even if that means stopping for a bit and relaxing into it.
After all, there gotta be some reason I cry every time I see this damn film.
Your Name is getting a wider release in America later this year, if it is playing anywhere, anywhere, near you try to give it a look.