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The dazzling anime epic that’s setting Japan alight

Makoto Shinkai’s mind-melting body-swap drama has seen him hailed as the new Hayao Miyazaki

Warning: The idea for Your Name came from a single image, which director Makoto Shinkai envisaged as the film’s ending. We don’t think revealing that image will spoil your enjoyment of the film, but if you’d rather not know, we’d advise you to watch the trailer instead.

Hollywood has built a billion-dollar industry out of chance encounters with strangers on the street. Your typical rom-com Joe is barely able to leave the house without bumping into the manic-pixie indie girl of his dreams – or, if he’s unlucky, Cameron Diaz – but in Makoto Shinkai’s mind-meltingly beautiful body-swap drama Your Name, our lovers don’t meet until the very last frame.

Proving the time-worn adage that every end is a beginning, the 43-year-old anime director set out to make a film whose teenage leads, disenchanted country-girl Mitsuha and city-kid Taki, inexplicably find themselves waking up in each others’ bodies. What starts as a comedy of adolescent manners quickly escalates with the appearance of a comet in the night sky, which seems to offer a clue as to their mysteriously connected fates. But Shinkai isn’t afraid to make us wait as the pair embark on an epic journey through space and time to find each other.

“I wanted to make a film where two people meet at the end,” says Shinkai, a mercurial talent who has long been whispered of as the new Hayao Miyazaki in anime-buff circles. “What we’re dealing with here is possibilities, because you never know who you might meet tomorrow. You might meet someone who will change your life entirely, and I think that possibility is very important to young people.” The feeling has certainly proved infectious in Japan, where the film has shattered box-office records to become the fifth highest-grossing anime of all time, and the biggest not to feature Miyazaki’s name in the credits. According to the Japan Times, young fans have begun flocking to the flight of stairs in Tokyo where our star-crossed lovers meet, perhaps in the hope of finding their own special someone. But for Shinkai, the payoff is less important than the yearning for connection that drives his characters.

“Teenagers have that giant ideal (about love) which is totally unrealistic, but I just want to give people hope,” he says. “I’m not trying to say there’s this great destiny or your dreams will come true. I’m just trying to say that there is tomorrow, so even if you think something might not come true, it’s worth trying because you don’t know. And by trying for a better tomorrow, you can make today better.”

The flipside of this longing is the sense of loneliness felt by Mitsuho and Taki, who both complain of a weird sense of loss for a person they haven’t yet encountered at the start of the film, and symbolised by the texts they start leaving each other to explain what they’ve been up to in each others’ bodies. For Shinkai, technology plays a part in exacerbating young people’s loneliness today, but those feelings of isolation are by no means unique to this generation: “It is an issue, and I think maybe teenagers might be feeling a bit more lonely because of social networks, where everybody’s always connected but not really. But I think fundamentally teenage problems are the same now as ten or 20 years ago. I think they tend to feel lonely and want to connect with people, and that feeling is the same throughout generations.”

One remarkable aspect of Your Name’s success is the fact that, despite the boy-meets-girl story at its heart, the execution is dazzlingly complex, with a virtuoso editing style that will leave viewers frequently having to remind themselves about whether characters are really ‘themselves’ at any given moment. Indeed, sci-fi nerd Shinkai says his work is inspired more by 2001 author Arthur C Clarke and the magic-realist novels of Haruki Murakami than the seishun ega (youth dramas) which Your Name superficially resembles. (Another film of Shinkai’s, the 2002 short “Voices of a Distant Star”, has been cited as a possible influence on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.)

“You might meet someone tomorrow who will change your life entirely. I think that possibility is very important to young people” Makoto Shinkai

Allied to this narrative trickery are the film’s eye-popping visuals, with Shinkai, who clearly shares his idol Miyazaki’s affinity for nature, giving his countryside scenes in particular a radiant, supernatural feel of almost suffocating beauty. The film basks in a feeling of nostalgia for Japanese rural tradition – the same tradition that Mitsuha, a miko (Shinto shrine maiden), longs to escape from – juxtaposing these scenes with no-less impressive tableaux of Tokyo’s gleaming metropolis. While acknowledging that nostalgia may have had a part to play in the film’s success, Shinkai says that another key aspect of the film, the comet-crash which destroys Mitsuha’s village and which Taki must try and find a way to undo, may have struck a chord with viewers back home.

“One element I really wanted to incorporate was the loss of where you live, loss of home,” he says. “Mitsuha loses her entire village, and the reason I wanted to (talk about that) was because we’re pretty much natural disaster-prone in Japan, we get earthquakes and we’ve had quite a lot of typhoons this year. So losing your home can happen tomorrow, and I think that makes this film a little bit different from others, because I’m dealing with a feeling that Japan is facing at the moment.”

But while Shinkai has more on his mind than just puppy-love with his cosmically charged romance, it’s a poignant feeling for the endless possibilities of youth that seems to haunt him most. “When you’re a teenager there are more things you don’t know than you know, and more people that you haven’t met than you have met,” he says. “I felt that way when I was a teenager, and I think maybe with my films I’m targeting grown-ups who remember that feeling.”

Your Name is in cinemas now