‘Your Name’ (2016) & Why Western Culture Doesn’t Get Animation

*Mild spoilers ahead* 

Source: Funimation.

I recently came across a film that absolutely blew me away. I feel a few years late to this party (as it was released in 2016), but better late than never. And really, I’m not that late, considering how little attention is given to Japanese anime (or actually, any Asian work) in mainstream American media. I point this out because understanding why I didn’t see this film at the time of release is vitally important to the larger comment I want to make with this essay, and how it all ties back to our current debate in pop culture: the remake revolution.

So ya, Your Name. It’s an anime film from director Makoto Shinkai. But we’ll get to all that in a minute.

Generally speaking, anime is looked down upon, laughed at, and considered lowly & infantile compared to western entertainment. I don’t think I ever truly believed this rhetoric, but I also knew nothing of the medium and hadn’t gone out of my way to understand it. The most experience I had with anime was 1) parody used in western animation, 2) Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is a western animated series that is stylistically based on Japanese anime, and 3) the Pokemon anime. Ya… to say I was unfamiliar would be gracious. I hadn’t even seen Naruto. Until this year I had never seen a Miyazaki film.

But then in February, something happened. It was announced that John Cho would lead the upcoming Cowboy Bebop remake at Netflix (which I later commented on here), and a frenzy of fans took to Twitter to weigh in. I noticed that the overwhelming response was somewhere in between “Hey, this might be somewhat watchable?” and “Please do not go through with this remake”. The undeniable dread from the fans felt through these comments really got me thinking, and in doing some research I discovered that it was because virtually every attempt at a live action remake of an anime series had failed spectacularly, some to the point of utterly disgracing the source material (looking at you, Death Note 2016). In order to better understand what was happening here, I took the first step on what would become my total anime binge (still ongoing), with Death Note. I am not exaggerating when I say this series changed my life — I genuinely feel like a different person with different interests because I watched this show (and later read the manga and prequel novel). My eyes were opened to a whole new world of entertainment.

Skip forward a few months and a handful of great anime series and we get to last week, when I stumbled upon the news that an anime film called Your Name was going to be remade in live action. Interestingly, I had vaguely heard of Your Name, but I knew nothing about it other than it was being hailed as the greatest anime film of all time, an animated masterpiece — this generation’s Spirited Away. That got my attention. I became immediately distrustful of a live action remake of a film I had never even seen, so then naturally I figured it was time to give it a watch.

And man did I immediately regret all the days I wasted not knowing this film, and all I years I spent in ignorance of Japanese animation.

Source: Funimation.

For those of you that don’t know what Your Name is, I will only say this: It’s a romance about two teenagers who randomly switch bodies one morning. Regardless of how this sounds, whether you think you would like that or not, go watch this movie. It is a masterpiece, truly.

Not only is this film a stunning piece of art with its striking colors, breathtaking landscapes, brilliant direction & editing, and uplifting score, but it is also a refreshingly innovative story. And perhaps part of what makes it so innovative is how it is at once a story we feel like we’ve seen before and something completely foreign to us at the same time — a sentiment which is reflected in both the theme and narrative of the film. Watching this movie feels like a memory from your childhood with its whimsy and magic and delight… and then suddenly, in a single instant, it asks you to grow up.

How does this film manage such an impressive emotional turn? Getting that moment to punch as hard as it does comes down to more than a simple plot twist — it requires a stylistic twist too, and this is exactly what Your Name accomplishes so well.

Director Makoto Shinkai said that he wanted to simply make a movie that was “entertaining,” and he was not concerned whether it was completely perfect in its narrative design. To me, this feels like the mark of anime specifically; you feel like a kid again when watching Your Name not because it is animated and animation is inherently childish or even because the protagonists are teenagers, but because the logic of the film does not care whether or not it makes perfect sense. It’s a magical movie about a magical event, and it concerns itself more with making sure the audience feels that magic than it does with explaining the magical process.

Many classic anime films, especially those by Miyazaki, work this way. The characters (often children) do not question the magic, and real world rules don’t apply — and why would they? This isn’t the real world.

This is not at all how western culture approaches filmmaking or storytelling. We always need perfect answers for everything. I’m not saying that one approach is better than the other, and both kinds have yielded really incredible results. But then it comes time for Hollywood companies to adapt these properties, a fundamental misunderstanding of them leads to the terrible remake time we live in right now.

The issue is that, in Hollywood, animation is treated like a genre, and specifically one that is “for kids” (we even have to specify when an animated show is “adult”). This leads to the assumption that the property has been “fixed” in some way to compensate for the adult audiences they hope to pull — for example, Disney thought that more backstory was needed to understand the curse on the Beast’s castle in Beauty & the Beast, because magic was not an answer enough.

But that’s a simply ignorant way of looking at animated films and shows. Animation is a style of storytelling that helps to enhance the emotional relationship viewers have with that text. It can elevate a relatively simple story to a master work of imagination (like the original Lion King), or it can frame a wacky premise as something people can readily buy into (like a young girl’s journey through a strange bathhouse filled with spirits of all shapes and sizes).

So how does this relate to remakes & Your Name? Well, compared to some other films that have been or will be remade into live action by Disney, the narrative of Your Name doesn’t actually feature a whole lot of magic or highly specific effects. Like Death Note, its supernatural elements are limited, meaning it is material that would make for a nice live action adaptation. In theory. In. Theory.

Source: Funimation.

For some reason, making things live action is synonymous with making things “realistic,” but realism is not the point of Your Name. The film features themes that can be found in reality, but that’s not what it’s really going for. It wants to make you feel something.

All of the animated films/shows that Disney and Netflix have remade in live action wanted to make you feel something, and they were hugely successful in doing so. The live action counterparts? Not so much. Most of them are so devoid of soul they barely resemble the work they are meant to be based on.

I don’t believe that the live action Your Name will inevitably fail — in fact, there are some impressive names attached to the project: Marc Webb, who directed (500) Days of Summer, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who wrote Arrival (that’s actually extremely fitting, and Arrival is one of my favorite films of all time), as well as the support of Shinkai himself. The movie may very well succeed, but I think it must remain true to the emotional weight the animated film had due to its presentation as a lighthearted teen romance. If marketed any other way, or more “grown up” the midpoint twist will fail.

Not to mention a huge part of Your Name is the Japanese-specific spiritual lore, which the live action is reportedly taking out to “Americanize” it. So like they did with the live action Death Note, they will move the story to America rather than Japan… nothing should ever be done like the live action Death Note.

All of this is to say that Your Name works so well because it uses that childlike whimsy & bright colors & upbeat score to trick the audience into a false sense of security, so that when the twist comes in, no one is ready. Many of the Disney animated films are like this as well. Seeing them for the first time, you were probably shocked and emotionally effected by how dark the plot got because you weren’t expecting it. The perceived “imperfections” of Shinkai’s film played all the more into the feeling of being young and confused and emotional and making mistakes. Those are not errors that need to be improved with a remake.

Your Name was wildly successful in Japan and has since gathered a massive following of fans who adore it. It’s a beautifully constructed film with a great story, and yet despite its many award wins and universal acclaim, it was not considered for an Oscar in 2016, because on top of already misunderstanding animation, western culture really misunderstands anime.

Western culture and Hollywood today seem to have forgotten the purpose of animation — to evoke an emotional response. How do you make a scene of a teenager writing in a notebook feel like an intense, aggressive action while not feeling ridiculous? You animate it! How do you make a landscape so lush and tranquil and inviting that the audience wants to reach out and touch it? You animate it! How do you make a magical ability so beautiful and yet so intimidating at the same time? You animate it! I think you get my point…

It’s not that animation is not serious enough for us. It’s that we don’t take animation seriously enough.

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