Contemplating a Foreign Culture through its Film

Recently, I watched a film called Your Name. You probably haven’t heard of it yet. Released in 2016, it has become one of the most commercially successful anime films in Japan’s history grossing more worldwide than any other anime film ever. Only Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away has made more at the domestic box office. Unsurprisingly then Your Name’s writer and director, Makoto Shinkai, has been touted, perhaps with a pinch of hyperbole, as Japan’s next Hayao Miyazaki – Ghibli’s figurative Godfather.

Over the last year or so there have been several incredible anime’s that I’ve seen and heard of through the grapevine each with their own talented teams of storytellers and artists helping anime to continue blossoming out beyond Japan, especially with fan bases multiplying online. However, what has always held anime back is the underlying tendency to assume teenagers and children to be the target audience. If you’ve watched Attack on Titan, Akira or Death Note, for example, you’ll notice that this is not exactly accurate. Mature themes and elegant displays of artistic skill pervade through Japanese anime and can only truly be appreciated once you’ve past those teenage years. It’s a bit like Disney animations that you enjoy at a young age but conjure more complex emotions and new meanings when you watch them again many years later. (I do not advise letting youngens watch Attack on Titan though. Jesus!)

Ironically then, Your Name tells the story of a high school girl, Mitsuha, daughter of the mayor of a rural village and Taki, a high school boy living and working in Tokyo who together begin to frequently swap bodies. What seems like a simple premise unfolds into a truly mind-bending film but also, incidentally, a culturally insightful one due to each character’s contrasting rural and urban setting.

your name
The Japanese countryside where Mitsuha lives

I have visited Japan before and it’s no lie that they have a totally unique lifestyle and cultural identity and I love it for that very reason. Those I have met who have travelled the world all agree that even if you had been to every other country, Japan would still be a world away from anything you’d expect or had seen before. My point here is whether this experience can be captured by those who have not travelled the world but instead, like me, watch the occasional anime.

In the film Mitsuha’s small rural village is a close-knit community with old traditions, deep-rooted respect for their elders and little technological presence. An entire sequence entails Mitsuha and her younger sister performing an old Japanese dance as Mikos and the entire thing is animated. Clearly the director had a keen interest in Japanese native dances which shines through in the sequence’s atmospheric beauty. It shows the refined tradition of a country on the other side of the world and some of the particular expectations that can be placed on those coming of age.

Taki’s life, on the other hand, is in the bustling city of Tokyo with its incredibly high population density, tiny apartments and a Western influence of fashionable tech and café culture. There is, however, a common serenity and peaceful atmosphere in both characters’ homes; the wooden floors and ‘no shoes indoors’ etiquette, a simple habit simply used to keep the house clean, creates a quiet space to retreat from daily life. Even the sound-mixing backs this up with the creaking wood, breezy wind, singing birds and ambient sound of the suburbs.

There are subtler differences too. As in many other anime’s there is a reverence for nature and the almost magical qualities of it – one of the prominent themes of Princess Mononoke. Anime’s often have interludes or cutaways in-between the action where there is just a few seconds of a silent leafy lane, bubbling stream or the velvety texture of a field of grass. A moment of calm to let information sink in while focusing on a particular detail and splendour of the environment which, on top of that, lends itself to greater control of pacing. Clearly an effective cinematic technique that also shows Japan’s predilection for its landscape.

your name 2
The urban jungle of Tokyo where Taki lives

Taking a different perspective, there is the unexpectedly honest portrayal of these two young teenagers going through puberty. There seems to be an acceptability in briefly exploring their sexuality. The way the initial surprise and curiosity of swapping bodies to another gender is given a realistic sense of inquisitiveness and panic would be an unlikely sight in Hollywood. However, it should be noted that there is a wholly darker side to Japan explored in this rather unsettling programme that aired recently on BBC Three and should be watched if anything to raise awareness.

Moving swiftly on there is the fantastical side to this wonderful film. Anime’s rarely, if ever, are completely grounded in reality.  There is a very strong spiritual side to Japan’s culture with magical creatures, spirits and village gods having been a part of its history for hundreds of years. The belief of greater powers, in this case the influence of fate, has given Japanese Film and TV one of its traits of transcendental epicness. Narratives often lead to circumstances that are out of the lead characters’ control, raising the size of their obstacles significantly but then (hopefully) leading to an eventual triumph that is all the more satisfying. It’s a well-trodden plot structure but makes for powerful and exemplary screenwriting. On a side note, if you ever watch Grave of the Fireflies or From Up on Poppy Hill make sure you prepare yourself emotionally because anime like these can unexpectedly be the most emotionally unforgiving you have ever seen. There’s no polishing or lighthearted relief to give the audience breathing space as in many Hollywood films. Topics are tackled head-on with only the bewitching art to accompany the tragic tale.

I feel obliged then to acknowledge just how bloody good the art of anime is and Your Name is no exception. Vivid colours, sweeping landscapes and fluid elegance in every frame is always a sight to behold. It allows you to directly see the effort put in by the artist. This strong bond with art can be seen throughout Japan’s cultural history; from Shibui to Miyabi, Japan has a profound connection with beauty, simplicity and aesthetics. In fact, there was a period of Japan’s history around the 17th century where it was economically and physically isolated from the rest of the world allowing the higher social classes to thrive. Consequently many showed off their cultured selves by only ever writing anything in poetic prose, including all their letters. What a world we live in!


Thanks for reading,

The Man Without A Plan


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