Thursday, March 19, 2020

Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016), In This Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

Call me by Your Name

by Alex and Noel Vera

Watched Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name out of curiosity. Everyone hailed the movie like a messiah descended from heaven to unleash upon the world his holy greatness.

Is Your Name the work of a messiah?

Movie opens with a comet streaking across the mesosphere; the comet calves with a bright red chunk smashing into the Earth. Cue opening theme from RADWIMPS.

With Makoto Shinkai in the directing-and-writing chair you expect the standard-issue Shinkai plot -- teenage boy (Taki) and teenage girl (Mitsuha, but, really, you could swap in other names) are separated by distance; boy wants girl's love but struggles to express his feelings. Shinkai can’t resist adding a gimmick: body swapping.

I enjoyed the body swapping; I enjoy the experience of learning to walk in someone else's shoes, a trope as old as Freaky Friday (1972) or further back Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper--that the switch in Your Name involves the opposite sex adds a transgender frisson. To his credit, Shinkai weaves in a bit of Japanese folklore -- the musubi as metaphor for time, the red thread of fate tangling and unraveling like the main characters’ narratives. Complex stuff, until the comet impacts Itomori.

Cue the melodrama, any* humor hoovered away like so much dirt.

Leads me to wonder: why is this happening to Taki? What is his interest in Mitsuha except mashing her breasts? Why is Taki’s family background unexplored (A brief glimpse of his dad and that’s it?)? Why the spit-sake ritual? What's Mitsuha's exact relationship with her dad, and why does it feel so creepy*? 

*(This isn't the first time Shinkai has inspired uncomfortable shivers; the budding May-December affair in Garden of Words kept bringing up images of Mary Kay Letourneau--which makes one wonder if maybe Shinkai is not so much hopelessly romantic as he is tone deaf

By movie's end the plot, patched together with duct tape and positive thinking rather than steady skill, unravels like a clumsily stitched sweater. A town is endangered; Mitsuha must convince her father--the town mayor--that everyone must evacuate. Shinkai has daughter face father at the crucial dramatic moment and what happens (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie!)? Nothing--Shinkai cuts to the evacuation already in progress. 

Which tells us Shinkai's true priorities: not the body switching or musubi tying or spit-sake ritual, but the honeyed sentimentality clogging the narrative like mucus clogs a sore throat. Taki grows to love Mitsuha but since they don't occupy the same time or space he (and she) can only moon helplessly, in a state of vague yearning (so vague they don't even know what direction to yearn to). Shinkai throws everything at the audience plus the kitchen sink; he gives new meaning to the word ‘shameless’ -- at one point forcing Mitsuha to suspend her evacuation plans to run up a mountaintop for a sunset F2F with Taki. Why? For the melodrama. The feels. The chance to sell you a last glass of heavily sugared lemonade for that last dollar bill in your wallet.

Oh, and (Again, skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie!) do they meet again in the end? Does Shinkai want another hundred million in the boxoffice?

As for RADWIMPS -- even the name grates, suggesting the band is ‘rad’ when it regurgitates the same J-pop sorghum found in every other Japanese romcom. They don’t even sound like angry teens--more like geeks caterwauling their involuntary celibacy.

If you consider this Shinkai’s greatest take on romance, if you think Shinkai is at all skilled at romance, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

Later watched Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World -- another love story set mostly in wartime Japan. Young Suzu Urano’s hand is given in arranged marriage to court martial clerk Shusaku Houjo; she moves with him to his home in Kure, and attempts to adjust to life with her new family as the Pacific War rages far away.

The romance may sound stereotypical, a honey trap like Shinkai’s; Katabuchi derails expectations with an arranged marriage, the wedding more like a funeral than a celebration. Any affection groom and bride have for each other comes across as awkward, unnatural, love by fiat rather than feeling.

Suzu may be an amateur artist and dreamer, may at first glance resemble Shinkai’s syrupy idealists; Katabuchi makes it clear that she’s too much of a dreamer -- she first meets her future spouse as a child on a bridge, but reinterprets the meeting as a kidnapping by scary monster. They escape when she pastes stars on telescope lenses and tricks the monster into peeping; he falls to the ground fast asleep. That’s just one of her sillier fantasies, though as a result the boy she met grows up to become the husband she’s stuck with.

Childhood fantasy or implied psychological disorder aside, her life is too serene, too disconnected -- even as the war comes closer she and her in-laws seem above it all. If anything, the real conflict in the film is the conflict of distance: Suzu seems alienated from the Houjo family and Kure for much of the film. The Houjo household in turn doesn’t seem to care about the war; they bicker over who picks up rations, who cooks, who does laundry. There are town meetings and wartime lectures no one listens to; Suzu belatedly remembers something she heard at one point--about a delayed-timer bomb--but is too late to do anything effective about it.

Then come the air raids and firesticks, the anti-aircaft flak that Katabuchi depicts as bright paint spattering across a breathlessly blue sky. The innocence, the illusion of peace is shattered; war has arrived at the Houjo household and like a bad guest refuses to leave.

Katabuchi uses day month year to mark Suzu's growth from child to maiden to housewife, at the same time counting down to the summer of 1945 (Kure is next to Hiroshima). At first he skips years like a skipped stone, slowing when the Pacific war starts, slowing even further when the bombing raids begin; at a certain point the raids come so often that the nightly trudge to the nearest shelter has lost its urgency. And still the date of August 6th looms over the film like a cumulonimbus cloud, the sound of thunder like a distant but approaching threat. 

While the film ends on a hopeful note you can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s a touch of nihilism in the message. After all, the nation Suzu knows is gone -- the nation that nurtured her family and marriage, making way for the American occupation. Even the closing credits sketching scenes of a happy family are done by the hand lost in the war. Was it worth all the suffering?

One might compare Katabuchi’s film to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies -- but I submit that they are two entirely different creatures. Grave was released in 1988 at the end of the Showa era, for those who still remember the bomb; In This Corner is a film for a new generation with a feminist focus, the women having more prominent roles on the homefront.

Also different are the approach and overall idea -- Grave undermined the idea of military privilege and Japan’s invincibility simply, directly, with no holds barred. Corner focuses on the dreary task of survival, on the way dreariness eats away at people’s spirits at the same time celebrating their ability to persist. Grave showed us the horror of children dying of starvation; Corner shows us the pathos of adorably drawn anime characters struggling to accept their hardscrabble life. 

Shinkai stuns the eye with breathtaking photorealism, engaging audiences with fantasy romances, but all his movie ends with him on his knees begging for your tears; if anything Shinkai treats his characters--the women especially--like plot functions and cheap fanservice, jiggling breasts tight jeans bulging butts and all. Katabuchi paints a patient portrait of life in wartime Japan, from the mundane to the insane, never for a moment shying from the harder implications--perhaps my favorite film, anime or otherwise, about wartime Japan.

First posted in Businessworld 3.13.20

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