Your Name. and What Makes a Hit

Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Your Name. and 5cm Per Second.

Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. is without question a hit. It topped the box office in Japan for months, surpassed every Ghibli movie except Spirited Away, was wildly successful outside of Japan and has been discussed in the English-speaking anime community for months even without an official release. This begs the question: why has it been so successful compared to Shinkai’s other films. Shinkai’s hardly an unknown, but none of his other films have attained anything close to mainstream success. The easy answer is that Your Name. is a hit because it’s so good, which, while true, isn’t enough of an answer. Shinkai has made plenty of good movies before, even if none were as good as Your Name. and Your Name. has several aspects in common with his other films. Popularity also doesn’t necessarily mean something is good, and being good doesn’t mean something will be popular. Quality certainly helps, but that’s not the main reason it’s so popular. What I’ll be doing is looking at what differentiates Your Name. from everything else Shinkai’s done and what about that made it such a massive hit

In terms of basic ideas and themes, Your Name. is very similar to Shinkai’s other movies. It focuses on a romantic connection between people who for some reason can’t be together. Shinkai is excellent at capturing the sense of both loss and longing that those situations bring and seems to really understand those emotions. Even his weaker works like The Place Promised in our Early Days excel in that regard. What makes Your Name. so much more powerful is how it gets to the sad parts. Shinkai’s films generally have a thoughtful, melancholy tone from start to finish, which isn’t the case with Your Name. The first half doesn’t even feel like a Shinkai movie. The lighthearted comedy and upbeat tone make it seem more like a typical body-swap comedy than a serious drama. This could easily create a disconnect with the more serious second half, but ends up making it better than it would have been on its own. Most importantly, the humor makes it more accessible. The sense of fun it creates makes it much easier to get into the film than Shinkai’s usual somber tone. Humor is a great way to get an audience invested in your characters, which is exactly what happens in Your Name. When Taki finds out that Mitsuha had died three years ago when the comet struck her town, you feel the exact same shock and grief that he does. When he goes back to try and change it, you feel the same desperation for things to end well that he does. Shinkai’s other films generally create investment through the strength of the situation itself, which isn’t always going to work for everyone. Your Name. creates investment through a sense of fun that shifts into a more serious drama.

garden-of-words

Garden of Words has a lot shots like this.

The pacing in Your Name. is also radically different from most Shinkai movies. In keeping with the tone, Shinaki’s films tend to be slow paced, with a focus on building atmosphere through extended shots of the backgrounds that don’t do much to move the story along. I love that aspect of his films, but it’s hard for a film to appeal to a wider audience when it moves that slowly. Your Name. is paced much faster, with things happening every scene and an overall tighter plot. The story feels like it’s always moving, which distinguishes it from Shinkai’s earlier films. This makes it more appealing to a wide audience and also makes it highly rewatchable (I’ve seen it twice and plan on seeing it again).

Part of why Your Name. was so successful in Japan is likely because of how it portrayed natural disasters. Natural disasters are hardly a uniquely Japanese problem, but Japan has had several major earthquakes in recent years, especially the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. These quakes were recent enough that there’s still a strong cultural memory of all the losses, and Your Name. connects to that beautifully. I don’t want to speak for people who have gone through disasters like that, but Taki’s shock and grief is exactly how I imagine someone would feel at losing a loved one that way. What makes Your Name. special compared to other disaster movies is how Taki actually gets a chance to go back and try to save the town. Your Name. is fundamentally a happy story, and I can understand why it resonated so much with Japanese audiences.

your-name-comet

The final factor that makes it so different from Shinkai’s other work is the ending. Shinkai is a bit infamous for creating endings that are bittersweet at best. 5cm Per Second is well known for having a very realistic, if somewhat frustrating, outcome, with the central couple gradually growing apart and never getting back together. A happy ending isn’t necessary for a movie to be good, but most successful movies have one. A lot of people just aren’t as likely to go see a movie if the ending’s a downer and they’re definitely less likely to rewatch it. Your Name. very nearly ends like 5cm. Taki and Mitsuha walk past each other in the last scene, apparently having forgotten each other, before they both turn around and recognize each other. It’s amazingly intense for a scene that’s just two people walking past each other and amazingly rewarding when they recognize each other.

Rewarding is really the best way to describe Your Name. It’s a satisfying story that’s just as good (if not better) on rewatch. I never expected it to be this big of a hit when I first saw it at Anime Expo, but I understand why it’s become one. In addition to being a great movie, it has just the right blend of elements to attract a wider audience beyond the typical otaku demographic that most anime appeal to. I’m glad so many people have seen it, and I hope even more people get to once it gets a US release.

Your Name. will be in theaters starting on April 7, 2017.

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