Whereas so many movie romances begin with a charming meet-cute and progress from there, audiences can never be quite sure whether the central couple in “Your Name” could ever meet, even though they have a weird habit of waking up in one another’s bodies. An endearingly loopy mix of time-travel, body-swap, and disaster-movie ingredients that’s already a massive hit in its native Japan, this unconventional romance hails from the imagination of Makoto Shinkai, a talented up-and-coming animation director who launched his career with the ultra-indie “Voices of a Distant Star,” and who has dedicated himself to creating some of the country’s most stunning anime ever since. Not that Westerners even know his name. Now they will, thanks to this wildly inventive new feature, which began its international travels in competition at the San Sebastian film festival (following a way-below-the-radar premiere at Los Angeles’ Anime Expo last July).
Because neither Newton’s Laws nor traditional genre rules apply here, “Your Name’s” fantastical premise skips the usual love-at-first-sight cliché and introduces its would-be couple — big-city Tokyo teen Taki (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki) and provincial schoolgirl Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) — under far more intimate circumstances: Taki’s first impression of Mitsuha is how strange it is to suddenly awaken with boobs, and he can’t resist groping “himself” in what becomes a running joke. So, rather than worrying about all the things that could potentially come between them, as we normally would in a romantic drama, here, the suspense hinges on whether these two characters will succeed in figuring out who one another actually is — and from there, why the cosmos have seen fit to connect them in the first place.
Initially, Taki and Mitsuha can’t even be sure the body-swapping is actually happening, mistaking days spent in a complete stranger’s skin as vivid dreams — that is, until their friends’ and family’s reactions reveal that while they’ve each been away, someone else has been eating breakfast, riding the bus/subway, and going to school in their place. Of course, neither has any clue how to handle being thrust into the other’s life, surrounded by strangers in a city far removed from their own home. It takes a few such switches before they even learn to communicate, and longer still before they discover how to use the arrangement to their mutual advantage.
Imagine all the fun (and confusion) you could have if suddenly thrust into the same situation, and to his credit, Shinkai manages to playfully compress many of those ideas (some of them a little saucier than a teen-targeted live-action movie might permit) into a series of energetic early montages, each set to songs by Japanese rock band Radwimps. Taki has never been good with girls, for example, but makes progress relating to a sexy co-worker while Mitsuha is “visiting” — which complicates the long-distance crush Mitsuha seems to be developing on her host.
Sooner or later, this playful setup gives way to a far more elaborate supernatural scenario, one that exploits a feeling not unlike déjà vu, only stronger, as neither character can seem to hold onto the memory of what they did while out-of-body for long. Meanwhile, the puzzle becomes increasingly clear to us, the audience, as we gradually come to understand the significance of a gorgeous atmospheric condition teased in the film’s opening seconds.
Audiences would be hard-pressed to find any animator capable of rendering more beautiful skies, or landscapes, than Shinkai. Though much has been written in recent years about the fear that hand-drawn animation’s days may be numbered, especially with the retirement of Studio Ghibli greats Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Shinkai’s work just goes to show that the tradition of hand-drawn animation isn’t dead. His earlier film, “Journey to Agartha” or “Children Who Chase Lost Voices,” is the single most beautiful animated feature ever made — and an obvious tribute to Miyazaki’s oeuvre. Granted, no cels were harmed (or even so much as painted) in the making of “Your Name,” though the director and his team have found a way to keep the aesthetic alive — to heighten it, even — while doing all of their drawing on tablets and screens.
Among the innovations of Shinkai’s self-taught, all-digital approach are the director’s signature hyper-realistic backgrounds, which are more than mere paintings, but shimmer and change perspective in ways that the old cel-based techniques never allowed. In “Your Name,” that allows for the film’s most breathtaking moment: Like Richard Dreyfuss, carving Devil’s Rock out of his mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Taki has taken to sketching what looks like a giant round lake formed by the crater of a meteoric impact. For years, he hasn’t known what to make of these drawings, since physically speaking, he’s never so much as ventured beyond Tokyo. But once he finally musters the momentum to investigate his time spent as Mitsuha, the search leads him to the lake in question, which has dramatically changed shape since the last time he saw it.
Only then does he realize that his old body-swapping buddy may have been the victim of a long-ago comet strike, and through a series of time-travel paradoxes that never quite make sense, he spends the rest of the movie trying to save her so that one day they can be together — the tragedy being that even if he succeeds, there’s no guarantee he’ll even be able to remember anything about it, much less the name of the stranger with whom he shared this vicarious adventure. Meanwhile, this vividly realized and emotionally satisfying feature ought to make Shinkai a household name — certainly in Japan, and with any luck, in other countries as well.