But I don’t think anybody could’ve anticipated just how massively ‘Your Name’ blew up. It is now one of the most successful Japanese movies of all time, second only to ‘Spirited Away’. In the Japanese Box Office it has surpassed the first Harry Potter movie and has ‘Frozen’ in its sights. It became No.1 in the Chinese box office - and for a Japanese film to become so popular in China is a big deal. But most incredibly, it made my 62-year-old, kickboxing, stoic as a stone father-in-law cry. And at the time of writing this, ‘Your Name’ is still doing business at the box office, and the records keep falling. Make no mistake, ‘Your Name’ has been a seismic event on the pop-culture landscape of Japan.
And yet…while ‘Your Name’ was certainly met with equally rave reviews from the western press, it didn’t seem to transcend into the general public. Oh sure, in dedicated circles of anime fans it has been raved about, but ‘Your Name’ snuck quietly into theatres and then promptly snuck back out again. Compare this to a Ghibli film which sees almost as much fanfare as a Disney movie.
What’s going on? Well, a clue is in the last sentence: Ghibli has the heft of Disney behind it, meaning they have the market know-how (and, let’s be frank here, the money), to get the Ghibli movies out to foreign markets and into foreign minds. ‘Your Name’ doesn’t have that kind of backing.
But I think there’s something else at play here. Something a little deeper than numbers on a spreadsheet: that of cultural differences. For while I have no doubt that a western audience with little to no knowledge can sit down and enjoy ‘Your Name’ for what it is, it will be missing something. Something that is richly weaved into every frame of the movie: Japanese culture.
“Now wait just a second there!” You might say, “Ghibli movies are dripping with references to Japanese culture and folklore, and they do just fine!” And you are correct. Look at ‘Spirited Away’, for example, with the onsen hot springs and Japanese spirits...that movie couldn’t be more Japanese if it tried. But Spirited Away became such an international success because of how it can work on two levels: Someone born and raised in Japan, who has been through the school system, has learned the history, knows the myths and legends of Japan, and is aware of the challenges his or her society face, will view ‘Spirited Away’ in a certain way. When Chihiro’s father talks about the white elephants built during the bubble era of the 80s, then turns into a pig while engorging himself on food. Now, to anyone this is a message about greed, but in Japan it works on another level.
Inside the hot spring itself, the uninitiated non-Japanese audience are enthralled by the strangeness of it all, while in Japan there is a social commentary here on the uneasy mix of Japanese culture and the the power of capitalism.
That’s the crux of it: Ghibli movies are internationally successful because of the many levels they work on: there’s the universal themes that we can all relate to, then there’s the social commentary of Japan, and then there’s the mystery factor for the uninitiated.
Now I’m not saying that ‘Your Name’ doesn’t work on multiple levels: it absolutely does. But it doesn’t wear its commentary on its sleeve: it seems more concerned with telling a cracking good story. And it does so by weaving in nods to Japanese life and culture, but unlike Ghibli which puts fantasy in the front and centre of its story, the world of ‘Your Name’ is modern, and...well, normal. To the uninitiated, ‘Your Name’ seems like a darn good anime movie, but not much more beyond that.
And that’s because the culture of Japan isn’t explicitly waving at you from the screen like an exhibit. It’s hidden, weaved into the finer details like the Miyamizu family’s intricate braids. For example, ask any Japanese person who has seen the movie what scene stuck with them, and the vast majority of them will instantly point to the scene where Taki flashbacks through Mitsuha’s life after drinking the ‘Kuchikamikaze’ in the cave. To you and me, that scene is simply a beautiful moment where Taki sees Mitsha being born and growing up. But to the Japanese, this is a pastiche rich with imagery that echoes on their shared experiences and lives. Look out for the moment you see a teardrop hit a map of Japan and the ripples spread out - that moment and indeed that whole disaster very deliberately mirrors the 2011 earthquake.
The red thread is also a constant throughout this scene and the whole movie, and while some western viewers may not think twice about it, to the Japanese that red string of fate has long been a part of East Asian legend as tying together two people with a shared destiny. Or how about when Mitsuha cuts her hair, which is seen as a sign of someone who has recently broken up with a boyfriend? Because of these things, ‘Your Name’ draws upon a symbolism that will ring deeper with a viewer who understands these elements than one who doesn’t. For me, this is a reason why ‘Your Name’ struck a chord with Chinese viewers as well, who share a lot of culture with Japan - though they’d never admit to it.
While this may all come across a little bit elitist, claiming that certain movies cannot be enjoyed without a proper understanding of where they came from, that is not what I stand by. Quite the opposite: it is a sign of the strength of ‘Your Name’ that those universal themes of destiny, star-crossed lovers, teenage angst, and the juxtaposition of old and new form the beating heart of the story, and will have an impact on anybody regardless of their upbringing. But it is fascinating nonetheless that cultural differences can alter your view on what you see, just as much as personal experiences can.
‘Your Name’ is a fantastic movie no matter what. But the addition of understanding the symbolic elements hewn into the fabric of the movie makes it a much richer experience, and then you see just why this movie has had such an effect on the Japanese population.