[NOTE: This past Sunday I happened to catch two Japanese-related films: one, an anime adaptation of a novel; the other, a live-action American adaptation of a critically-acclaimed anime.]
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (1897)
It’s a shame that “traditional” (ie. hand-drawn) animation has all-but-vanished here in the States. Since the proliferation of CG in the early-2000s, American animation has lost something unique and graceful from its stories. I’m hardly the first to say this – and I won’t be the last – countless hours put into hundreds of hand-drawn frames brings with it a magic that CG can’t replicate. The former showcases the work of painstaking detail; the latter reeks of a few keystrokes. The noticeable effort makes a difference.
Not only has CG practically killed hand-drawn US films, it’s also limited the types of stories to be told through animation. In this country, “animation” = “children”, so every animated film is expected to gear towards the toy aisle (Food Fight notwithstanding). That’s why our mainstream is so surprised when other countries produce stories like $9.99 (Australia), Bellville Rendevous (aka The Triplets of Belleville, France), or Tokyo Godfathers (Japan). You see, the rest of the world operates under the crazy notion that animation is just another film-making tool, not an automatic signal that your story is for kids. It can tell drama, romance, horror, comedy, and even adventure. That’s why they get The Secret of Kells whilst we have to enjoy what few Bob’s Burgers or King of the Hills we get.
Makoto Shinkai’s novel Kimi no Na wa (Your Name) is sort of story that an American film studio would never animate; not without destroying its core. The story of a teenage boy and girl swapping bodies would be played for broad comedy with a trite message of personal acceptance at the end. Fortunately, Shinkai (who wrote and directed the film) has no such pandering in mind. Yes, the first half of the film has a lot of comedy, but the film is less Freaky Friday and more the sort of story Nicholas Sparks would write if he knew how to write.
And, in case you’re curious, no there’s no mention of transgender identity. I’d imagine the author stayed away because he knew nothing of the subject (which is better than making a half-assed stab at it). But it’s more likely because he wanted to tell a story that was actually a tragedy with the subterfuge of a teen fantasy comedy. Your Name follows in the tradition of great Japanese stories – even Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – about how one’s identity is inextricably tied into their name. If you take it away, does the person exist at all? Did they ever? Shinkai doesn’t talk down to his audience when he asks this question, and we’re all the better for it.
And yes, the film is beautifully animated. The style is actually quite reminiscent of Miyazaki. Aside from a few instances of digitally compositing visual effects, every brush stroke is captured wonderfully on screen. There’s a traditional dance sequence early in the film that I assume must have been rotoscoped. This gorgeous scene shows that even a technique employed by the Fleischer Brothers nearly 100 years ago outshines and motion-capture of today.
The film is having a limited run in the US and Canada, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. One of the best film I’ve seen so far this year.
“The larger part of the debate has to do with the ‘whitewashing’ of Asian and Asian Americans in film. Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it. Protest seems to be the only solution- we just want more representative images of ourselves in film. TV is getting better in terms of diversity but film is lagging behind.”
– Margaret Cho, in an e-mail exchange with Tilda Swinton regarding the latter’s casting in Doctor Strange (May 2016)
We meet again, White privilege.
It’s not enough for you to put the Orange Menace in the White House and then claim you’re the victim, no you won’t be satisfied until you’ve bleached every PoC story to fit your milquetoast conformity.
And the funny thing is that even if you took out all of the whitewashing from this flick, you’d still be left with a movie that’s painfully dull. Rupert Sanders seems to be aping from the Zack Snyder school of adaptation: ignore the lessons of the source material; add in a moustace-twirling villain; and shoot as many sequences as you can in slo-mo to pad the running time. The major difference is that at least a hack like Snyder would add graphic violence and nudity (Why are those things in a movie with Batman and Superman?); Sanders goes for bloodless violence and nipple-free nudity.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. It’s never explained why so many White people are in futuristic South-east Asia, let alone why they’re all the central characters. But what’s even worse is that the whitewashed casting was actually written into the script. Yes, really. The whole idea of one being “improved” by being replaced by a Caucasian version – something I’m sure they stole from 007’s Die Another Day (and it was a bad idea then, too) – was part of the screenplay. You can tell that it was added to specifically address the inevitable casting controversy. It comes off as a “Fuck you” to anyone who raises the question.
And that’s what the whole movie feels like: a big, fat “Fuck you” to fans of the manga, the anime, diversity, or even just good stories. The only reason I don’t give this as “F” is because the visuals actually are cool. Other than that, stay away.