Monday, June 26, 2017

Who Am I When I Am You?

Makoto Shinkai, your name.

Mitsuha Miyamizu attends high-school in Japan’s rural uplands. After school, she’s an acolyte in her grandmother’s Shinto shrine, but she dreams of sleek, modern Tokyo lifestyles. Taki Tachibana attends high school in Tokyo, has a part-time restaurant job, and, though a talented artist, has no leisure time to practice. One day, they spontaneously wake up in one another’s bodies. This begins an adventure veering from madcap to remarkably poignant.

Japanese film critics have hailed Makoto Shinkai as the true successor to legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki. Audience reactions to his latest movie, your name., certainly validate this claim. It’s broken Japanese box-office records, and created momentum that carries wholesale to American markets. According to his afterword, this novel isn’t an adaptation; rather, he created book and movie together, and they represent two halves of the same whole.

After overcoming denial, Mitsuha and Taki begin delving into living one another’s lives. Taki’s adolescent male anger helps turn Mitsuha assertive, bold, and popular. Mitsuha unlocks Taki’s buried feminine side, helping him snag a date with a pretty older co-worker. Without meaning to, the mismatched pair gradually coaxes one another to become the persons they’re meant to be. Despite their inability to communicate directly, they sense a growing spark.

If I hadn’t read high-browed reviews for Shinkai’s anime, I would’ve expected this premise to yield low comedy. Japanese gender-bending entertainments, like Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma ½, generally use gender flips as opportunities for mild bawdry. And in fairness, Shinkai does have Taki occasionally feel up his newly-acquired female form. But these interludes stay brief; Shinkai is more interested in themes of identity, social role, and how others shape us.

Makoto Shinkai
Taki has no particular spiritual inclinations, until Mitsuha’s reverent grandmother begins teaching him how Shinto philosophy ties reality together. He shows developing interest in transcendent topics, and begins slowing his lifestyle to commune with the universe. Meanwhile, Mitsuha, accustomed to relaxing into society’s tides and simply going along, learns to assert herself, beginning to consider her own dreams worthwhile. They both grow.

Then, suddenly as they began, the body-flips stop.

The book’s second half veers into more esoteric territory. Desperate to reconnect with Mitsuha, Taki begins researching everything he remembers about her, but facts slip away like half-remembered dreams. He uncovers secrets he never expected, most of them quite dark. Chief among those is Mitsuha’s connection to a disaster so abrupt and unexpected, it almost brought Japan to a screeching halt several years ago, and which could happen again.

Here’s where I, the reviewer, risk becoming excessively pointy-headed. I cannot say what Shinkai intended in creating this story, but his narrative reflects themes found in several important critics. Mircea Eliade’s theory of the Eternal Return; Joseph Campbell’s myth of the circular journey; Umberto Eco’s hypothesis that priesthoods of story keep reality alive after exact facts fade from memory. Shinkai’s themes suddenly become profuse with deeper possibility.

Audiences unaccustomed to anime conventions may find Shinkai’s sudden thematic shifts confusing. Japanese pop storytelling doesn’t demand narrative through-lines like Western literature does; English-speaking audiences may feel like this story’s two halves belong in completely different books. Even I, a sometime anime connoisseur, find the transition jarring. Reading along, I felt Shinkai hadn’t finished the first half’s themes before the second half went a completely different direction.

On consideration, this raises a second critique: readers expecting something deep and literary, like Haruki Murakami or Kenzaburō Ōe, may consider this book under-written. Shinkai introduces momentous themes, but doesn’t investigate them. Remember, this is the companion volume to an animated feature film, not a novel in its own right. You must read this book within its own genre, even when it ventures into deeper territory.

So, readers must understand this novel within these stipulations. Considered that way, I find it remarkably sophisticated, a pop entertainment that exceeds its genre stereotypes. Shinkai introduces his characters, not by describing them, but by dropping them into deep water and showing us how they survive. And if he doesn’t resolve every theme he raises, he at least does them justice, keeping us thinking after we close the book.

Dedicated audiences and veteran anime fans can finish this compact book, under 175 pages, in one caffeine-fueled Saturday. But, like with many other similarly brief novels, you’ll wish it was longer. The final page is as unexpected as it is poignant. Like waking from an intense dream, one of Shinkai’s themes, you’ll remember a strikingly realized world that’s now gone, and you’ll wish you could go back.

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