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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (5/22/17) 3:29pm - ... wherein Peter reviews Your Name with heavy spoilers.

Okay, here's the spoiler-heavy review of Your Name.

My executive summary: yay, somebody finally decided to make a full-length animé film version of "The Constant".

Some people might read that and think I'm dismissing Your Name. as unoriginal, or think that I'm saying a feature-length movie is no better than a grubby little TV episode.  But neither claim is true.  "The Constant" is one of my favorite television episodes of all time, and we live in an age where, artistically, the best of television gives the best of film a persistent run for its money.

You might also think, no, this has nothing to do with "The Constant", it's a completely different story.  And you'd be right, at least about the "different story" thing.  But hear me out.

First and foremost, they're both incredibly well-constructed.  Like, to an extent that makes me angry.  Time-travel stories are notoriously brutal to write -- not only do you have to establish the 'rules of magic' for time travel, but you have to ensure that all of this nonchronological storytelling slots together consistently.  So Your Name. introduces the hair-braid that Taki has and has had for a while and forgot where he got it and it turns out it's the same one that Mitsuha has but she won't give it to him until act III which is three years in the past and is set up such that Taki won't particularly remember it.  Oh, and they have to do all this time-travel tangoing clearly, so they don't wander off into baffling Primer territory.

Not easy.  Not easy at all.

And you have to do this on *top* of all the usual difficulties in structuring a screenplay.  And in both cases (with one exception -- see below) they absolutely kill it in terms of story construction.  Every piece of exposition we need in act three is deftly deployed in act one, usually in beats that also establish character.  (Say, the explosives that Katsuhiko has access to -- we learn about those in a scene that's really about his strained relationship to his father.)  And to my amazement, no character ever has to be an idiot to make the story work.  Even the plan the kids hatch to save the town seems like it should work -- it's a very clever way for them to do something very difficult with very limited resources -- and yet you can completely understand why the Mayor interferes and shuts it down.

And the heightening in this story is amazing.  I did not see the time-travel twist *or* the "comet destroys the town" twist coming at *all*.  This, in spite of the fact that they clearly laid out all that information right in front of me.  So those developments were delightfully unexpected and inevitable.  But more importantly, from a story-structure perspective, it's perfect.  It pivots the movie from "what is this crazy body-swap thing that's happening?" to "where did that girl I was body-swapping with go?" to "oh god is there any way to save her from a comet that killed her three years ago?"  Both the danger and the difficulty of the situation spike perfectly.

Second, both "The Constant" and Your Name. know exactly when to be mysterious.  I've read zillions of unproduced sci-fi scripts that are *too* mysterious -- they explain nothing, and it's just 90 pages of baffling weird nonsense happening.  And we can all cite examples of stories that explain too much (*ahem*midichlorians*ahem*).  But it's wonderful when a movie strikes the balance just right, explaining just enough and no more.

My favorite example is Groundhog Day -- we don't know *why* Phil Connors is repeating February 1st, but feels like a thing that *should* happen to him, and we slowly learn the rules that govern it.  Similarly, in "The Constant", we never completely know why Desmond has to find Penny, but it feels right, and the episode does a fine job of assuring us that the 'why' of it isn't the point.

So it is with Your Name.  We know that the body-swapping is happening.  We learn about the time-travel aspect of it.  And then they add more elements to it -- the ability to grab one more day via drinking the kuchikamizake, and the ability to meet each other right at twilight when they're both at the crater's edge.  And again, there aren't any real explanations of this -- though we do get some excellent hints that it's coming in the discussion of kataware-doki, which makes the 'new' rules feel like payoffs rather than cheats.  (Again, they do a beautiful job smoothly working in every element they need later on.)

And again, beyond those rules lies mystery.  And the story does a great job of assuring us that we're not supposed to be chasing down the explanation for that.

Finally, they both do a great job of binding this really complex and "fiddly" time-travel tale to an incredibly straightforward and heartfelt *emotional* arc.  And they do a fine job with keeping that emotional arc simple.  In act one, we know that Mitsuha wants to get to Tokyo, and we see a story where Mitsuha gets to achieve that dream.  We know that Taki is infatuated with Miki, and we see the story where Mitsuha makes that happen for him.  Those are simple, relatable stories, presented simply and clearly.

And then we segue from that to the two characters' confused longing for each other.  They have a deep and abiding friendship, and you want the two leads to get together, and then the woman is put in jeopardy.  Again, it's dirt simple, it's presented in bright, primary colors, and you can attach your empathy to that while the plot works through its complicated logistics.  And there are a *lot* of logistics, so a viewer needs that clear, emotional through-line to hold on to.

My only objection is to the ending, and honestly, that's only because I'm holding that ending up to the impossible standard that the rest of the movie sets.  When you've watched a story so impeccably arranged, where every little detail becomes a payoff later on, where they navigate three-act structure like it's barely a challenge, you expect the end to pay off.  And technically, it does: a few years later, the two leads get together.

There is a lovely grace note where they pay off the movie's title: Taki asks Mitsuha, "What is your name?" using a very intimate form of 'you'.[1]  But as far as I could tell, the plot finishes with coincidence: they happen to meet in the city, and then Taki catches up to Mitsuha at a train station, because "catching sight of your love at the train station" is Japanese for "running to the airport".  It doesn't ruin things, but you can tell that it's coasting on the strength of the story to that point rather than sticking the landing.[2]

I expect a lot of people think I'm looking at this all wrong.  "Peter, this is a powerfully affecting story!" says the voice in my head.  "I cried over these characters!  I had SO MANY FEELINGS!" it goes on, "but here you are talking about 'structure' this and 'setup' that.  What gives?"  But I think the emotional impact of Your Name. *comes from* its structure.  Frankly, I don't think the characters are really defined in that much detail.  And I think that's a *good* thing -- this is a very complicated whirligig of a story, and nuanced, ambivalent characterization would likely just gum up the works.  So we learn just enough to make the story go -- Mitsuha wants to escape her small town, and Taki is inexperienced and hopless w/r/t love -- and leave the rest blank, letting them function as audience surrogates.  And I don't think the relationship between them is very strongly defined, either.  We know *that* they long for each other, but we know little about what that longing is *like* -- we just know it exists.

But because the *story* is so strong, you stay engaged as hell with it.  You always want to know what happens next.  You're by turns confused, then amused, then concerned, then afraid, and you finally figure welp, this must have a dark ending, and you're relieved by the victory.  And all of that is story construction.  The lesson here is that I'll a well-constructed story with tepid characters over interesting characters in a bluh story any day of the week.

Don't get me wrong -- this film is exceptional, and its flaws are slight.  I haven't even gotten started on the lush, gorgeous landscapes, its clever integration of hand-drawn animation and CGI, the strong character animation, the score, and on and on and on.  They indulge in trippy animation for a dream sequence, and it lands perfectly.  The jokes are funny.  It's strange to look back through the film and see how many things it could have done badly, and how effortlessly it succeeded at all of them.

But at the core of it is that story.  They just nailed it, better than any movie I've seen in a long time.  Frankly, they could have screwed up a whole lot of stuff and the movie would still work.  As it is, they succeeded across the board, making a movie that's pretty damn great.

[1] ... which makes it kind of a bizarre sentence: in normal circumstances, you'd always know the name of someone you refer to as kimi.
[2] What's especially strange is that there's already a movie that solved a very similar narrative problem damn near perfectly: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with its wispy memory of "Montauk".

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