The two stories are both strikingly similar, yet starkly different at the same time.
It is strange that being a fan extraordinaire, I was introduced to Shinkai not earlier than 2012. The first one of his works that I came across was Five Centimeters per Second (2007) that sent me into a spiraling, Murakami-esque, numbing silence. It is a simple tale of ‘their distances’, them being Akari Shinohara and her lost childhood friend Takaki Tono. Yet it is the simplicity that adds to the profound quality of the story narrated in three parts. With the passing years, I familiarized myself with the rest of his repertoire, Kotonoha no Niwa (The Garden of Words), Hoshi o Ou Kodomo (Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below) and many more.
Progressively, I was mesmerized by the depth of the stories and vividness of the graphic. The recent gem that has been added to the chest is Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name) (2016).
Also, a needful alert, do not read this article lest you have not watched the film, if you care for spoilers.
As one watches Kimi no Na Wa for the first time, if that person is already familiar with Shinkai’s works, certain themes and tropes might seem a little repetitive. But rather than calling it a repetition, I choose to see it as a culmination of ideas. Sentiments that went astray in the earlier find their way back to the rightful destination in this one. How that is being done, consciously or unconsciously by the anime maestro, is the issue under discussion here.
The two stories are both strikingly similar, yet starkly different at the same time. Akari and Takaki are estranged friends who never reunite, even though they are given half an opportunity in the end. Still, if anyone remembers, they pass each other by at the railway crossing gate without recognizing each other properly. When they have an inkling somewhere in the back of their memories; it is too late as two trains on two parallel tracks overlap each other as they run in opposite directions. Thus they lose their window of opportunity and the tale ends morosely, at least for Takaki. He is shown to be a somber young man, who types text messages to himself as he pretends to keep busy and remains aloof from emotional entanglements. Akari has an engagement ring on her finger. She has possibly moved on. The haunting quality of the story is in its reality; a reality that is so real it becomes surreal.
Shinkai loves cosmic long shots, whether a bird taking flight over a panoramic Tokyo night sky or a rocket being launched towards the endless firmament in the second part named ‘cosmonaut’.
On the other hand, the other story is clearly magic-real. It uses the trope of dream subconscious travel, para-psychological elements, and body switching.
The employment of Shinto traditions in the narrative adds a certain Miyazaki-esque quality to the story. The name or a spoken word is powerful in Shinto as they have latent energy vested in themselves. If someone has read CLAMP’s xxxHOLIC, they would remember Yuuko the witch referring to the same idea.
A similar thread can also be found in Hayao Miyazaki’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (2001). The idea of devoured food being an extension to oneself and thereby, the entire universe, is an idea that Shinkai had previously used in Hoshi o Ou Kodomo. That this time he uses sake that is made out of chewed rice spit out and offered to God is perhaps no coincidence.
Mitsuha, a small town girl from a clergy family battles against her father’s political ambitions and wishes to get away to a better life in Tokyo. Taki, a boy in Tokyo, through the aid of dreams, switches bodies with her and they each start occasionally living each others lives.
It is kind of boy-meets-cute-girl, but not on a tangible plane. They leave each other messages on their respective phones to familiarize each other with their lives. Otherwise, they are pretty much on the verge of shocking their friends who think they have developed split personalities! So much so that the awake and asleep states of the mind and body intermingle and the audience is taken for a ride on a magic real, time warping, memory altering roller-coaster.
It is depressing, in a manner of speaking, that the only time Taki meets Mitsuha while they remember each other through a window of the enchanting twilight, a time of the day considered magical in many cultures. It is as if that the hyper-reality that lead Takaki and Akari astray is somehow compensated through the magic real encounters in this one. The trope of crossing each others paths, the specific use of trains as a symbol is uncannily similar to the previous film. But while in the earlier one, the NASDA rocket goes up, in this one, a meteor shower comes down and creates havoc in the lives of many, especially Taki and Mitsuha.
The panoramic wide angles that is a signature of Shinkai, is present in this one as well. The film takes an initiated Shinkai fan to the edge of the seat in the last reel while he or she thinks unavoidably that like Akari and Takaki, Taki and Mitsuha’s bizarre love is doomed as well. After all, they do not even remember each other due to one reason or the other.
But in the last moment, even though they pass each other by, they take a step back, reintroduce themselves and proceed towards the culmination of the bond. While the trains were the separating barrier in the earlier film, it is a train ride that gives them the chance to meet again, for the first time in the same palpable reality when they are both adults.
Albeit in inexplicably strange yet touching ways, this story advocates happy endings in all aspects. In Five Centimeters, Kanae, the surfer girl’s, feelings for Tono in the second part of the story are never reciprocated. But herein, even Okudera, the girl initially interested in Taki in is not so surreptitiously shown to be betrothed to someone else, much like Akari in Five Centimeters. At their final meeting, she wishes him happiness, much like the one she has found.
Without breaking tradition, Shinkai’s attention to both visual and auditory details remains infallible. It is a complex yet feel-good story, tad similar to Kotonoha no Niwa in a sense. Devoted Shinkai fans, he has done it once again. The film is a treat for us all.