In the charming and soulful Japanese anime Your Name, two teenagers who have never met wake up rattled to discover that they have switched bodies in their sleep, or more precisely their dreams. And it's not just their anatomies they've exchanged, or even the identities-in-progress each has managed to cobble together at such a tender age. Mitsuha, a spirited but restless small-town girl of Miyazaki-type vintage, and Taki, a Tokyo high school boy, have also swapped the country for the city, with all the psychic and cultural adjustments that will entail.
Soon it grows clear the two have also switched places in time as well, with potentially drastic consequences for at least one of them. Indeed Mitsuha's village of Itomori may be in terrible danger from the fallout of a beautifully rendered approaching comet. The kicker is that the fallout fell three years ago.
Your Name is a stirring tale of rescue with a boisterous edge of YA mischief. It's also a love story with a swoony romantic affinity for the age-old tussle between chance and fate. The movie -- which is released stateside in both dubbed and subtitled formats (for sheer atmospheric pleasure, the latter is overwhelmingly preferred) -- is not a Studio Ghibli project, but visually it might as well be.
The director of animation, Andou Masashi, is a longtime Ghibli artist who worked on the ravishing Spirited Away, and fans of Hayao Miyazaki will swoon over the small-town landscape with its pastel-washed skies and lakes and tile-roofed houses, its blow-ups of frying eggs and dripping taps. Itomori is the kind of place you wish you'd grown up in -- unless you happen to be sixteen years old, in which case the cityscapes may be more likely to thrill.
Your Name's young director, Makoto Shinkai, brings a frisky pop vibe (the soundtrack is by the Japanese rock band Radwimps) to the lively interplay between the rural idylls and metropolitan Tokyo, with its rush of trains and looming, angled skyscrapers and entitled young hipsters bellowing orders in the restaurant where Mitsuha, uncomfortably lodged in Taki's body, must learn to cope with urban folkways.
For all its twitchy city-kid appeal, Your Name often seems to cast its vote for history and rural tradition. Based on a classic Japanese poem, the story is shot through with reverence for ancient ritual, as spelled out by a prototypical granny-crone with an acerbic grasp of life's real business. In many ways this is an old-fashioned movie, exquisitely attuned to the dualism of mind and body, male and female, that strike deep roots in Japanese art and literature down the centuries. The plot does little more than glance incuriously at elements like cyborgs, hacking and gender fluidity.
As in Miyazaki, Shinkai's casual feminism gives us a boy who sews and a girl who spits, and its impulses are broadly humanistic rather than in-your-face challenging. Taki and Mitsuha's entertainingly rendered initial panic on discovering strange new body parts where flatness once prevailed soon gives way to an intense desire to connect. The action segues nimbly from one to the other as the teens, both motherless and both suffering from inattentive fathers, find ways to communicate across space and time via text message and, when that fails, by other creative means. As the comet closes in, both draft their friends to try and save the town -- and to get in sync with the mysterious Other who has invaded their dreams as well as their bodies.
With its gods and extra-real dimensions, its staccato beat of memory and forgetting that guide the journey, Your Name shimmers with the magic of a fairy tale, yet also has its feet firmly planted on the ground of Japan's past and present. Undeterred by constant setbacks, Taki and Mitsuha move uncertainly toward one another in a journey to adulthood that must be carried out alone and entail the shedding of long-cherished illusions as well as their alternate selves. When they finally meet, the encounter will bring several new meanings to "You had me at hello."