Sunday, February 12, 2017

Kimi no Na wa: A Long-Awaited Review

I, like countless others, have been hearing a fairly constant stream of praise and hype for Makoto Shinkai's supposed be-all-end-all of anime. I was never a huge Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fan, but seeing a movie about teenage romance (at least, so far as I was aware at the time) surpass it handily for the #1 spot on MAL was still a bit of a shock. After that, it was record and awards out the gates for months without so much as a glimmer of the actual product.

Now, finally, I've had the chance to watch it. I went into it obviously expecting it to not be the be-all-end-all of anime, half because I find the concept ridiculous and half because anything that appeals so well to such a wide audience is unlikely to strike a very specific chord with me in particular. It's just hard to be universal and personal at the same time, and that's just dandy. Kimi no Na wa is a blockbuster and a family movie first and foremost, which is a tricky enough task in and of itself. Getting an emotional reaction out of millions of people is no easy task! So, here I am, both to try to halt the hype train a little bit and to give the movie the recognition that it very much does deserve.

Let's start with the hard truth. This isn't the greatest anime, movie, or anime movie ever made. The hype surrounding this work is borderline poisonous, and anyone who actually believes it is bound to be disappointed. Even from a technical standpoint, it isn't perfect. I appreciated the pacing of its individual scenes, but it could've afforded to add up to 20 minutes of content to the first half to better establish the status quo and a few of the characters. Almost all of the animation is creative and immersive, with spinning shots and dynamic scenes, but because of this the few deadpan scrolls present felt woefully out of place, like they belonged to a Pokemon showdown. The main characters are fundamentally likable but not especially complex, and most of the side characters feel like they exist primarily to support the movie's thematic objectives. This movie might change your life, but it definitely isn't going to change everyone's life and it isn't going to go down in the halls of film history as a masterpiece. I know many people who haven't seen it probably already suspect as much, but here's confirmation: Kimi no Na wa is remarkable, but it isn't mind-blowing. The anime community has a tendency to overreact. It happens.

There, that's out of the way. Let's move on to the positive part.

Kimi no Na wa is, I believe, an extremely important film in this day and age. In a world where the only internationally and even domestically respected anime comes from Studio Ghibli, a studio who's iconic creator Hayao Myazaki is in his twilight years no matter how many times he comes out of retirement, having a new, widely-successful film made by a new studio and a new director is fantastic. Sure, those of us deep in the rabbit hole have seen the wonderful works of Masaaki Yuasa or Satoshi Kon, but none of those ever made big enough waves worldwide to cement their creators as household names. Beyond this though, all of the aforementioned directors work(ed) in ways that oftentimes seem to differentiate themselves from what many anime viewers would consider "anime". Outside of a love for fantasy and sci-fi, few of the tropes and traits that in many ways help to define anime as a genre are found in Myazaki's films, much less Yuasa or Kon. Which brings us to my central point, and what I believe to be Kimi no Na wa's greatest triumph:

Kimi no Na wa is anime.

It's the anime you know and love (or hate with a burning passion). It's got the tropes, the character types, the insert songs, the OP, the fantasy elements, the tried-and-true rom-com elements and sex jokes and blushing and high school and little sisters and tender emotional moments. It has all the usual, but it presents them in a way that is tasteful and cohesive and well-executed, taking so much of the stuff you'd find in your 20-a-season grab-bag of anime goodies and turning it into something that you can actually sit down to watch with your family. As I briefly mentioned already, Shinkai has a sense of pacing and comedic timing that most anime either lack or sacrifice for the sake of filling an episode, and it shows. Purely on a scene-to-scene basis the movie is enjoyable to watch, because it's fast and snappy and it never points at its own jokes. Kimi no Na wa also has all the bizarre-ness of an anime storyline. What starts out as a pretty simple Freaky Friday premise evolves into something much grander and unexpected. I've always strongly believed that a great way to keep a movie engaging is for it to have two parts: the premise, or what gives the audience something to hold onto, and the turn, a half-way shift that draws a new conflict out of the original set-up and puts what's already happened into perspective. For example Howl's Moving Castle begins with Sophie getting transformed into an old lady and embarking on a journey to reverse her curse, but as the movie goes on the focus turns to the horrific war that Sophie learns is destroying her country. Kimi no Na wa does an impeccable job at implementing this technique--just when I was beginning to fall into a rhythm and started subconsciously solving the rest of the events of the movie, it pulled on a new face and kept me on my toes until the very end. It's a film that, despite its Hollywood structure and execution, isn't afraid to get its nose out of the books when it comes to the actual content. It's not just what the story is, either: the presentation is delightful, jumping forward when it chooses and filling in the details of events later for impact, a tactic that is so very anime.

Shinkai's directing also does something important: we've all heard that the movie is drop-dead gorgeous, and it is, but even more important than that Shinkai demonstrates why this specific story should be an anime, and not live action. His repeated emphasis on closing doors, for example, is impactful due to the extreme exaggeration of the perspective. And his use of thought bubbles above character's heads, as if in a cartoon, is a choice afforded him only because of the medium. Shinkai also maximizes his use of human expressions, something that live footage cannot replicate due to the limitations of the human face. Because we often envision ourselves hyperbolically, watching characters make faces or strike poses that are legitimately impossible actually makes sense to us. Even the music is discernibly anime; a tag-team of touching instrumentals and empowering rock songs complement all the movie's significant moments, pulling on that fundamental hunger for fantastic animation set to catchy music that drives so many anime fans. And, as I mentioned earlier, there's even an OP, a la Rebellion style. Who doesn't love a good OP? There's nothing like vague plot-hints sowed together into a colorful two-minute music video to get me excited about what I'm about to watch, and I mean that with complete sincerity. And, if you weren't convinced by all of this, the movie even has the audacity to open with a boob gag. I haven't seen a move that bold since Bakemonogatari. Fortunately it actually managed to fit right into what the story was doing and not feel remotely voyeuristic, but the fact of the matter stands: only pure, unfiltered anime would open with a girl freaking out over her chest.

So why is it so important that Kimi no Na wa is anime? Well, regardless of its actual merits, I firmly believe that this movie marks a new era for the medium. Shinkai has shown that pure, well-crafted anime can turn heads internationally, and people across the world are seeing that perhaps anime has more to offer than just Disney-dubbed Myazaki movies. I see the film as a sort of bridge, a piece of work that enamors anime fans and average people alike without sacrificing any of the things that make anime what it is. I think it's also helping to remind a lot of people why they got into anime in the first place. In an era where people keep insisting that anime is dying, seeing the fundamentals executed so well in a brand-new way has to mean something. We may not get another End of Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell for a little while, but for me at least getting to watch two hours of the medium I fell in love with prove that it can produce something that is thoroughly and completely competent and enjoyable made me quite glad, and considering Shinkai's dismissal of his own work I find myself excited to see what he'll create next. An artist who's never content with that they create can go great places.

So yeah, at the end of it all, I'd say it's well-worth the watch. The movie is a spectacle, and you're unlikely to find yourself bored even if you don't find yourself particularly emotionally impacted (like myself.) I predict it will have a significant impact on the future of anime, I give it a hearty recommendation, and I hope that because of this review at least a few more people will go into with enough sensibility to fully enjoy it.