If you can imagine trying to explain the subtleties of string theory with animation, within the frame of a metaphysical love story, set against a backdrop of real world science, then you start to get an idea of what a distinctly Japanese worldview looks like.
And you also get this movie, Kimi no Na wa.
Coming in at a little under two hours, Kimi no Na wa is the story of the intersecting lives of two young people, separated by a seemingly unbridgeable gap of time and distance, told with the kind of efficiency and nostalgic wistfulness so characteristic of modern manga storytelling.
The Main Elements
Mitsuha, the female lead, is a high school student who lives with her grandmother and younger sister, in the fictional small lakeside town of Itomori, somewhere in the Gifu Prefecture. Mitsuha also serves as a Shrine Maiden at the Shinto shrine managed by their grandmother, where she makes a kind of saliva-fermented sake known as kuchikamizake and braided shinto cords.
Like Disney’s Belle, Mitsuha dreams of a life beyond the confines of sleepy little Itomori, wishing to be reborn someday as a boy in Tokyo. Which, coincidentally, is what the male lead – Taki – is: a high school boy living in the big city, with a talent for drawing landscapes and working part-time as a waiter in a fancy Italian restaurant.
While a close fly-by of a comet dominates the news in the background, the two start switching consciousnesses unpredictably, with each occasionally waking up in the other’s body. Once both learn to accept that they are not dreaming, they learn to coordinate their other-body experiences by leaving each other notes; Mitsuha leaving memos on Taki’s phone diary; Taki leaving hand-written notes in Mitsuha’s notebook.
This goes on for a while, with each getting more and more comfortable in the other’s body. Over time, their individual personalities – Taki’s confident swagger, and Mitsuha’s caring nature – leave a positive imprint on their respective social circles. This creates a sort of intimacy between the two so that, paradoxically, as they each become more liked by others, they also begin to withdraw into themselves, pre-occupied by the each other.
Things come to a head when Mitsuha arranges a date for Taki and, feeling twinges of regret as she awakes in her body and imagines Taki with another girl. Taki, on the other hand, is distant with his date and, as boys will do, ends up sending subtle signals of disinterest that his date picks up on.
After the failed date, the two stop switching places. Acutely feeling Mitsuha’s absence and realising that he would rather be with her, Taki packs a bag and heads off to find Itomori, only to discover that the town was obliterated by a meteor fragment from the comet fly-by three years before. In a moment of denial, Taki whips out his phone and finds to his horror that MItsuha’s memos to him disappearing one by one, even as his memories of her begin to fade.
Kami no Na wa – which received popular and critical acclaim, not to mention commercial success, when it was released last year – provides ample proof of the ability of cartoons (because yeah, that’s what they are – deal with it) to convey complex concepts and emotions.
The movie slowly reels you in with it’s non-linear story-telling, immersing you completely in the separate worlds of Mitsuha and Taki. The scenes portraying daily life in both Itomori and Tokyo amount to love-letters to these two locales, even as they underscore the different personalities that would emerge from such environments.
Significantly, although Mitsuha explicitly wishes for a boy’s life, it’s easy to see that her dissatisfaction with her own isn’t rooted in gender. She simply wants to be a life as different from a Shrine Maiden’s as she can imagine. The movie, in fact, subtly delivers the message that biology is fairly irrelevant to the creation and cultivation of relationships, as shown by the Taki-inhabited Mitsuha becoming the object of affection of females, and the Mitsuha-inhabited Taki finding success in getting a girlfriend. This is in stark contrast, of course, to the hyper-sexuality of hentai, further underscoring that particular genre as an outlier aspect of Japanese culture.
Hentai is NOT Japan, Kirsten Dunst notwithstanding.
As an aside, the non-linear storytelling is a joy to watch, echoing how the individual threads of braids may appear unconnected at first, but then eventually come together to form a beautiful pattern once the braid is completed – one of the core themes of the movie.
Apart from the reference to the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, there is very little hard science in Kimi no Na wa. However, what science was used was firmly rooted in theoretical physics and demonstrated (at least to the extent that movies can accurately mirror society) how comfortably science and traditional culture can co-exist.The movie not only uses cord braiding as a metaphor for some of the speculative physics associated with string theory, but it also draws on the etymology for the Japanese word for twilight as an apt stand-in for the concept of branes and overlapping dimensions. That it was able to use such an ordinarily dense scientific concept as a plot device only served to heighten my appreciation of this movie, and Kimi no Na wa, a movie well worth watching.