your name

30Mar17

It might seem a bit facetious to link Your Name (君の名は), the Japanese animated sensation of 2016, with the trauma and mourning of a documentary like Trace of Breath. Your Name, which I’m going to refer to as Kimi no Na wa from this point on (because it simply feels more natural) is a kind of romantic body-exchange time travel love story that involves one time line in which an entire city and its inhabitants are wiped out by the impact of a comet fragment. Because the main characters successfully learn to communicate with each other across time, this disaster is ultimately averted and the story has a classic happy ending: a story of unendurable loss has, through a couple of plot twists, been transformed into a story of true love.

It’s the alternative timeline that I’m most interested in because the destruction of Itomori, the town that the character Mitsuha is from, resonates so strongly with the sudden and radical destruction caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan. I’ve already written about how this destruction has been represented in Shin Godzilla, and the comet strike in Kimi no Na wa seems like another obvious example of the cinematic working through of the deep trauma related to the events of 3/11, though in this case it ultimately-ends up taking the form of wish fulfillment. Even so, the parallels with the tsunami that almost totally destroyed such towns as Ishinomaki and Minamisōma are impossible to dismiss. This becomes even more evident once it’s revealed that Itomori itself is built on the edge of an impact crater from a historically much earlier comet strike, a repetition that’s emphasized by its mythic representation as part of a mural on the walls of a shrine cavern that is itself located within the boundaries of yet another impact crater. The repetitive rhythm of disaster portrayed here is an all too familiar pattern within Japan where earthquakes and tsunami are simply considered part of the long-term natural cycle.

It’s not only raw destruction that’s at work here, however. In addition to the incredible loss of life represented by the comet strike, there’s also the loss of local traditions, customs, and history that is at stake — the disappearance of an entire way of being. This is figured in two ways in the film. In the first case, Mitsuha is given a strip of cloth by her grandmother that she wears in her hair as a ribbon. At one point in the film she hands this ribbon to Taki, the person who she exchanges bodies with in the film, and it is this act that ultimately allows them to meet up in Tokyo in the future timeline at the end of the movie. The ribbon here is obviously a metaphor for human connection – perhaps including the idea of being bound together by fate – but there’s something else going on as well. The ribbon is made using traditional techniques that have been handed down through the generations for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years. Mitsuha’s hometown of Itomori gets its name from the kanji 糸守, which can be translated as “thread protector.” In other words, the town itself is named for the traditional craft that ties people together not only in a metaphorical sense, but also in a very corporeal sense as the methods for making this cloth are passed down directly from parent to child through the generations. In the timeline where the city is destroyed by the comet, the craft of making this thread dies as well.

The second way in which the disappearance of locally grounded cultural practices is figured in the form of a ritual surrounding kuchikamizake that Mitsuha participates in. Mitsuha’s family is responsible for carrying on a sake-making ritual in which young girls (representing purity) chew rice in their mouths and spit it into a ceramic sake flask. This flask is later deposited in the shrine cave in the middle of the ancient impact crater where it will ferment and become sake. It is a ritualistic and repetitive gift to the gods that represents continuity. The ritual is held at night at the local shrine and Mitsuha’s school mates come to witness the ritual, but primarily in order to tease her about it in a classic “Eww! Gross!” kind of fashion. In the timeline where the comet strikes, this ritual obviously comes to an end; however, the lack of interest with which the ritual is viewed by Mitsuha’s schoolmates suggests that the ritual itself has already lost its place as a central form of meaning-making within the local community. This, of course, is indicative of the ongoing movement of population within Japan from rural to urban areas and the gradual disappearance of traditional rural folk festivals as the people responsible for carrying on these traditions either pass away or move away. In a Japan Times article that deals with the fading or rural folk tradition, Hideo Nagata of the Japanese Festival Network points out that the disappearance of traditional festivals also means the disappearance of local community. In Kimi no Na wa, Mitsuha longs to leave Itomori and move to Tokyo, which is precisely what she ends up doing in the final redemptive timeline of the movie. Though the city of Itomori is saved from destruction in this timeline, we’re left to wonder what will happen to the festival traditions and community practices of Itomori as the young people of the area relocate to Japan’s major urban centers.

Most of the critics who have concentrated on the body-switching that takes place between Mitsuha and Taki have focused on gender and what it means for one person to temporarily inhabit the body of someone of the opposite gender. In Kimi no Na wa, however, the meaning of gender and gender difference is only explored in a cursory fashion, and mostly in the interest of cheap laughs. I think the more interesting thing about body-switching in this movie is the way in which each of the characters becomes invested in what happens to the other, even though they’ve never actually met. At a level that’s not quite so directly corporeal, this is also what happens when film viewers invest in a character, or when readers of fiction imaginatively inhabit the people that are created in their minds via abstract marks on a page. The power of this kind of connection can be intense, sometimes so much so that these characters take on a quasi-real presence in our lives (you only need to surf a few online fan forums to discover how strong the sense of connection with fictional characters can be felt by some).

But this brings up another question. What if the people being encountered remotely through writing and film are actual people rather than fictional characters? When we meet a person like Sato Teiichi in a documentary such as Trace of Breath, how are we to respond to his ‘character,’ and to the traumatic aftermath of disasters like the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami? What is the responsibility of those who have remotely consumed the stories, sometimes deeply personal, of the survivors of the destruction in Tohoku? I think these are questions that Kimi no Na wa both asks and avoids at the same time, foreclosing the discomfort that arises in those who might not be directly affected by disaster by offering up a redemptive fantasy timeline in which that disaster never actually takes place. The actuality is, however, that in 2011 Ishinomaki and Minamisōma were almost completely destroyed by the tsunami that struck the coast, and there is no one who can ever alter that timeline. And the story of those who survived, and what will happen to the communities that were lost when the wave hit, is yet to fully unfold.

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