by Alex Valente
A quick preface to the following, which also serves as a way to convince myself that I am … allowed to write about this, rather than the Bologna protests, or the political mess in Rome, or the current turmoil on the Italian left-of-centre party PD, or the upcoming women’s general strike. Those are things at the front of my mind – but I will take this week to find a little glimmer of beauty in a sea of constantly rising anger, instead.
Enter then, one of the two films I saw this year that made me think about language, and how we use it, and how it is used in the media. The other is Arrival, and so much has been written about it already, I decided to focus on Makoto Shinkai’s gorgeous animated film 君の名は (‘Kimi no na wa’), released in English as Your Name.
The premise, and the lengthy first act, is a fairly staple one in certain types of Japanese media in particular: a boy from the big city (Tokyo) and a girl from a rural village (fictional Itomori, in the Hida region, Gifu prefecture) start swapping bodies, one day at a time. Every other day Taki Tachibana wakes to find himself in otherwise fairly shy Mitsuha Miyamizu’s body and life, living with her sister and grandmother in the village’s shrine, with her friends and school life. Mitsuha fulfills her dream of experiencing life in the capital, with its cafés, busy roads, and louder friends of Taki’s. They both think it’s a dream at first, and have no full recollection of what one does while living as the other for a day.
Sounds familiar right? They start leaving each other messages on their phones, writing on each other’s notebooks, belongings, even bodies, in order to try and understand what is happening, and eventually to figure out a plan to not overly step on each other’s (their own?) toes and mess up things entirely. And so, a festival, a couple of rude awakenings, a date (Taki with his boss, thank to Mitsuha’s more candid charm), and a mysterious but gorgeous comet later, the two decide to meet – and there we have the heartwrenching plot twist. Which I’ll leave to the audiences to enjoy, and say nothing about here.
find a little glimmer of beauty in a sea of constantly rising anger
What I want to focus on is the excellent work that Shinkai and the voice actors for Mitsuha and Taki – Mone Kamishiraishi and Ryunosuke Kamiki, respectively – have done, playing with expectations of gender and language in particular. A scene early on: Mitsuha is Taki for the first time and meets up with his friends; we are shown the struggle of her speech pattern in terms of her regional accent and more sensitive personality, but also her usage of grammatical and syntactic feminine gender forms in her speech, despite presenting as male, to the confusion of Shinta and Tsukasa. This happens within three, maybe four lines.
While we don’t get a similar example for Taki!Mitsuha, we do find the character being more popular in school – especially with female classmates, who all seem to develop overt crushes on the new, cool Mitsuha. Similarly, Taki’s friend Shinta and his boss Miki Okudera both develop feelings for Mitsuha!Taki, feelings which subside a little when the two are back in their own bodies. What is notable here is that where these situations are commented upon, they are teased as any other crush, where the expectation from the medium would be of a more unfortunate, homophobic slant. Tsukasa teases Shinta because he finds Mitsuha!Taki ‘cute’, not because a boy is the target of that crush.
Despite the heterocentric romance plot between Mitsuha and Taki, there is something refreshing about how gender and sexuality are not assumed for pretty much the entirety of the film, and how any can be attracted to absolutely anyone else without falling into trite, hurtful tropes or jokes.
Then you have the idiosyncracies and quirks of each characters’ way of speaking masterfully mirrored by each of the two actors, the way in which Mitsuha’s family are all named after numbers, the recurring theme of words and language (the ‘kataware-doki’ lesson is such good use of foreshadowing it’s almost ridiculous), and of course, the importance of names, as the title might suggest. It’s a skilfully crafted script, topped with no real loose ends, and a sob-worthy open ending. Plus an excellent soundtrack by RADWIMPS, whose Zenzenzense is still in the Japanese charts.
there is something refreshing about how gender and sexuality are not assumed for pretty much the entirety of the film
This is a film that became the highest grossing Japanese film in China since … ever. It was liked by Guardian critic Mark Kermode in the UK. It was shown three times in Italy due to popular request. It’s still running in Japan – it opened in August 2016. The film is visually, aurally, heartfully stunning, and if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you do (with subtitles if possible, and keep the original dub) at some point. I cried every time I watched it – three so far, two of which in public. It brings so much heartfelt sadness and joy, so much hope, so many emotions on such a magnificent backdrop, you deserve to treat yourself for 107 minutes, and watch it.
Featured image © CoMix Wave Films, Toho, Funimation