Poems in Motion: Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second

Those who care about spoilers should note that I’ll be discussing the endings and several plot points of both Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second. I generally don’t care about spoilers, but will say that Your Name is more enjoyable if you don’t know whether it has a happy ending or not (and remember, Shinkai Makoto isn’t afraid of downers) or the twist partway through. If you just want a recommendation, both are worth watching, 5cm especially.

There’s been a ton of hype over Shinkai Makoto’s most recent film, Your Name, ever since its release last year. I saw it a few days ago, and though I don’t think it lives up to the hype I enjoyed it well enough and would even say it’s Shinkai’s best movie since 5 Centimetres per Second. Thinking about the movie, though, I couldn’t help comparing it to 5cm. On the surface, they don’t seem very comparable; 5cm is a very grounded movie, and rather minimalist in its plot and characterisation, whereas Your Name falls firmly into the speculative fiction genre, and though the plot isn’t complex compared to many SF stories, 5cm could be adequately summarised in a few sentences whereas this needs quite a bit more space to explain.

Nonetheless, Shinkai is famous for always attempting to evoke a particular emotion in all of his movies. It’s difficult to describe, but “nostalgic melancholy” comes close, essentially the feeling many of us get when looking at certain memories and wondering how our lives would’ve been different if we’d made different choices – telling a secret crush how we feel, perhaps, joining this student organisation instead of that, or moving for this job instead of staying for that, and the like. This is certainly true for 5cm, The Place Promised in our Early Days, and Garden of Words; I haven’t seen Voices of a Distant Star or Children who Chase Lost Voices, though I’m told that it’s present in at least the former. Despite Your Name‘s more plot-heavy story, I have little doubt that Shinkai’s main goal was still emotional. He says in an interview included on Funimation’s home video release of the film that SF stories, by placing characters in extreme situations with difficult choices to make, can bring out and cause the audience to reflect on thoughts or feelings we wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Does this work in Your Name, particularly in comparison to 5cm? When I shared my first impressions of the movie on Twitter, my internet friend INTERNETFRIEND commented that Your Name‘s plot “is a bit distracting, at times, from what it’s overall trying to do.” At a glance that seems like a very strange thing to say about a movie. Almost like saying Alien is a good film, except for the alien part. It gets to the heart of the matter, though, and the best way to understand why is first to go through 5cm and look at why it worked, then compare to the newer film.

I once saw 5 Centimetres per Second described as a movie about two people who shouldn’t be together, and aren’t. That’s technically accurate, but uncharitable and sells the film short. The film starts with a boy and a girl, Takaki and Akari, both from families that move often and so have a hard time building lasting friendships. However, the two become quite close until the end of the school year (this is all taking place in sixth grade, if I recall correctly) when Akari learns that her family is moving soon. Later next year, Akari sends him a letter, and after corresponding for a while they agree to meet. So, our thirteen-year-old protagonist hops on a train but is delayed by heavy snow; when he arrives at the last station he finds that Akari has been waiting patiently for hours. They share a meal and spend the night in a shed, and during a first kiss it occurs to Takaki that they can’t be together forever, but will gradually drift apart.

Well, that’s all cute and a bit sad, but what’s so appealing about this tale of puppy love? First, though people often seem to think of movies as more-or-less novels in motion, 5cm is more like a poem in motion. In a poem, especially in a short form like a sonnet, there’s not room for a lot of plot and character development. Instead, we’re given just enough information, together with whatever poetic devices are needed, to convey an emotion. Similarly, 5cm doesn’t have all that much going on, but gives us just enough to make Takaki and Akari feel like real people, and for us to easily put ourselves in their shoes, perhaps thinking back to similar experiences.

In the second part, we jump ahead to high school. Interestingly, the film focuses on a second girl, Kanae, a classmate of Takaki’s who has a crush on the boy but can’t muster the courage to tell him how she feels. Takaki, meanwhile, is still thinking only of Akari and composing text messages that he never sends. As an adult it’s easy to scoff at Takaki for being such a coward, or to dismiss the whole film for dealing with such immature approaches to romance. Enjoying this movie requires leaving one’s cynicism at the door and remembering how such things, rather small in retrospect, seemed much bigger, more important, and higher stakes at the time. Kanae eventually realises that a relationship between her and Takaki won’t work out, because as kind as he is to her, he’s always looking past her, so to speak. Despite this understanding she thinks she won’t be able to move on, but it’s hard to say whether that’s true or not. She’s still only in high school, after all, but we never do see what becomes of her. Her purpose here is to present Takaki with his own chance to move on with his life. She also illustrates, like adult Takaki’s girlfriend in the next part, that his obsession doesn’t only affect himself but those around him.

In any case, we see in the third part that Akari, now an adult, has moved on. She’s engaged, and though we again don’t see much of her, Takaki is now working in an office and rather numb to the world. We see him receive a text from his girlfriend breaking up with him, because as long as they’ve been together they haven’t grown any closer at all. One wonders if, had he picked up on Kanae’s interest earlier, they would also have gone nowhere, or whether a new  relationship still fairly early in life would have snapped him out of his obsessive nostalgia. Both he and Akari think back on their meeting in the snow years before; for her, it was a sweet moment and a good memory, but that’s all. For him, it was apparently the high point in his life. If 5cm had been made several years later, Takaki would’ve been one of those guys posting “tfw no gf” on Twitter, feeling sorry for himself but never actually doing anything to improve his situation. He appears to be doing well professionally and, again, even had a girlfriend, but simply goes through the motions of life, seemingly content but miserable in an atomised existence.

Near the end, he walks by a woman who looks like Akari while going over a railroad crossing and thinks that if he looked back, she would too. He hesitates, and as he starts to turn a train goes between them. When it’s gone, he sees that the woman is, too.

It’s a movie where you either get it or you don’t, but for those prone to wondering “Do I dare? / And do I dare?” the movie can hit uncomfortably close to home. The film was well-received critically and fairly popular, though not a runaway hit, but it’s not hard to see why 5cm immediately gathered a dedicated fan base.

Now, what about Your Name? I’ll start with a few general remarks. Shinkai says in the aforementioned interview that he relies on the combination of music and imagery to convey emotions, and I think he succeeds both here and in 5cm. As visually appealing as 5cm is, though, Your Name makes it look somewhat primitive; this film is lavishly animated and almost every frame is gorgeous. It even includes camera movements, like rotating around a character, that are fairly common in live action films but unusual in animation because of how difficult they are to animate.

As for the story, when I heard that the premise involves a boy and girl swapping bodies I feared that the film would give in to clichés and cheap laughs. There is a lot more comedy than in any other Shinkai film, but the scenario is handled very well. Despite some embarrassing moments, the protagonists are intelligent enough to make the best of their situation and do a plausibly good job of making it work. The twist and time travel element were unexpected, but added some gravity to the film, though the first part of the movie was still too light for it to have the weight of 5cm. Whether that’s negative or not, I think, depends on what one wants from the movie, though I prefer 5cm in this respect. The bulk of the movie consists of the male protagonist trying to save the girl and her hometown, and spending a lot of time trying to meet with her, both before he learns of the disaster that destroyed her hometown and after saving the day, since he can’t remember her name and has no realistic way of learning what happened to her. Honestly, I don’t think the near-total amnesia that both characters experience regarding their adventure adds anything to the film, but feels like an artificial way to add drama and it may have been better without it.

In any case, the film’s ending works best if one has already seen 5cm. In most movies, we assume that there’s going to be a happy ending, but as we’ve seen, Shinkai may or may not do that. Remember the railroad crossing in 5cm? At the end of Your Name, our protagonists are adults who’ve long since lost contact, when they happen to walk past each other on a staircase. They hesitate and start to look around – and whereas Takaki saw no one in 5cm, here they see and recognise each other. It’s still not necessarily a clean ending, but the film ends on a joyful note.

This all leads us to an overwhelming question. Did Your Name‘s SF plot evoke emotions more fully than 5cm? No, it didn’t. We’ve all likely seen the definition of perfection as the state when nothing can either be added to or taken away from a work, and that applies quite well to 5cm. There’s just enough there to get the point across, and that’s it. Your Name has a lot more happening on paper, but all it’s doing, ultimately, is taking an emotional experience, roughly an inverse of 5cm, and adding more elements to it. We still have a pretty good SF story with a satisfying emotional experience, and I’d recommend the movie to almost anyone interested in animation. Despite receiving too much hype, it really is a solid movie. However, if Shinkai’s goal was to evoke an emotion similar to 5cm, then he fell short. I’ve never seen a concoction of emotional impact as concentrated as 5 Centimetres per Second, but that said, if Shinkai’s attempts to top himself give us more movies as good as Your Name, I’m perfectly happy to see him continue to try.

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