Your Name, Love, and the Answers to Everything

Introduction

What is Your Name, Makoto Shinkai?

In my first ever post on my own website, I am going to examine the films of Makoto Shinkai, and more specifically, his two masterpieces: 5 Centimeters per Second and Your Name (Kimi no Na wa).

The main thing, though, is that I’ll be using them to extract and explore some ideas on the nature of romantic love. Mostly revolving around how bloody hard it is to figure out.

From that, in the kind of over-stretch which would be slightly disgusting if it weren’t for all the funny pictures I’m including, I’m going to turn it around to look at the other unanswerable questions and ultimate values in our lives. The idea is: if we can just get a handhold on True Love, maybe we’ll get some hints as to how to deal with justice, truth, and God.

Also, there will be lots and lots of pictures of train tracks and trees. Consider yourself warned.

So yeah. Hope you enjoy it.

Contents
Part 1 – Why most Shinkai films suck
Part 2 – Why 5cm per Second doesn’t suck
Part 3, Section 1 – Why Your Name doesn’t suck
Part 3, Section 2 – Why Your Name doesn’t suck… (only this time, actually getting to the point)

So, Makoto Shinkai is one of the most prominent contemporary Japanese directors of animated films, who has over the past decade or so created a sequence of short and feature movies of astonishing consistency, undeniable repetitiveness, and yet somehow also remarkable variation in quality. They all look and sound exactly the same, cover exactly the same topics from exactly the same angle… and are either utterly sublime or mind-numbingly ridiculous, with virtually nothing in between. This is a mystery I’ll be trying unspool as we go along.

All these films revolve around two themes:

  • The beauty of youthful romantic love
  • The melancholy of separation and distance (through space, time, imagination, and memory)

In other words, they’re all boy-meets-girl stories with the added wrinkle of being slightly more aware of bittersweet longing than normal.


There is a similar internal tension in the style he employs to make these films. The animation is exceptionally clean, precise, and yet also vibrant, with backgrounds of such photorealism you would think they were live-action if not for the diffuse (usually rose-tinted) glow which unmistakably marks it out as a work of deeply subjective human perception rather than straight depiction. He animates things as precisely as we see them, and at the same time, just as romanticized and aestheticized as we remember them.

He generally uses this hyper-sensitive eye to focus on very ordinary, domestic things.

Like train tracks.

train tracks

Or railroad crossings.

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Or abandoned train tracks, as the contrails which replaced them soar gallingly into the sky.

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Or rows of gossip magazines.

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Or interplanetary dreamscapes.

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You know. Normal stuff.


His storylines plot a similar trajectory between the realistic and the fantastical, the mysterious and the mundane. They’ll be about ordinary people with very ordinary concerns, often set against a backdrop of sci-fi-fantasy pomp. It’s not always the easiest balance to get right… as we can see in the contrast between his first three films.

Part One

Why most of his films are same-y shades of bubblegum-flavored shite

Makoto Shinkai initially came to prominence by creating a 25-minute short almost entirely by himself – writing, directing, animating, editing it… doing everything, basically, except the female voice-over and the soundtrack. As such, it would seem unfair to judge it as anything but a very impressive accomplishment relative to his inexperience and limited resources. Even without that context, though, it’s simply a very nice little film.

voices of a distant star

His distinctive look, tone, and themes are already apparent in full force here.

It’s about a girl and a boy embroiled in humanity’s war against an alien invader. The boy remains and resists the aliens on Earth, while the girl is sent off in a spaceship to fight them further afield. They correspond through text messages on their cell phones. As she goes faster and farther away, though, the time dilation means that the gaps between messages – still just days for her – become years for him. Thus, their fragile, skin-thin connection of youthful love gets stretched out across not only space, but time, until it is entirely engulfed by the cold, colorless abyss between them.

Like I said. Nice little story.


I’m afraid I can’t say the same, though, about his first feature film: The Place Promised in Our Early Days (in Japanese, Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho, or “Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place”).

place promised

There’s these two childhood friends, see.

They try to make a plane together.

Then she falls into a coma or something.

He finishes the plane and flies off into the new Tower of Babel which the Soviets are erecting so they can try to write over reality-as-we-know-it by replacing all the particles in the universe with proper, disciplined Stalinist ones which are presumably more willing to stick rigidly to the Standard Model, without doing all that weird quantum shit.

This wakes her up and saves the world and yay happy clappy times forever and ever.

And yeah, if that seemed like it went from 0 to 6000 real-quick, don’t worry — that’s how it feels like watching the film, too.

…alright, I’ll admit it’s been a decade since I’ve seen it, but there’s a method to the meanness here: the best way to capture the clichéd, overblown nature of the plot is precisely to sift it through the ten years’ dim disregard. The overwhelming impression I had as the film thudded predictably towards its sappy end was that it represented bog-standard, soppy, love-will-conquer-all storytelling, indistinguishable from any trite teen romance adventure you’d care to name. So it would be a disservice to my point to try and distinguish it any more here. Any further details I include would add to the letter of my description but take away from its spirit.

Its spirit being: Place Promised in Our Early Days is exactly the same film as Voices from a Distant Star, only lamer, longer, and yet somehow also more rushed.

Maybe the early promise of Shinkai was an illusion, and he’s actually a one-trick pony with nothing more to say.


But then… three years later… in 2007… he dropped 5 Centimeters per Second.

And, well…

Jesus, folks.

Just… wow.

5cm, looking away and up

This film was so close to its predecessors… and yet somehow, so far – just like that 25-year-old soldier sending messages to his high school sweetheart a galaxy away.


The hour-long film was split into three even parts.

In the first, a young boy and a young girl who had been forced to move schools by their parents’ jobs throughout their childhoods land in the same school for a year. Inevitably, they grow close. When, just as inevitably, she moves to a small town a few hours north of Tokyo, he sets off on a perilous journey to visit her – one fraught with all the dangers of train timetables and unrealistic expectations.

5cm cherry blossoms

In the second part, the boy is now in high school, all the way at the southernmost, tropical islands of the Japanese archipelago. We do not know what has happened to the girl. We do not know very much about what happened to him either, because we only catch glimpses of him from the perspective of an earnest, unrushed girl who has a crush on him but dares not approach him too openly.

5cm text messages to yourself.jpg

In the third, his fingers pause for a moment at his work desk, and he gazes out the window to see a glorious Spring day. The cherry blossoms are in bloom; the sunlight shines brightly against Tokyo skyscrapers which might loom threateningly by night, but now shimmer with openness and promise. It’s just too nice a day to spend inside. And so, with the heroic freedom of a freelancer, he’s gently ushered out of his office by the breeze. He walks past familiar places and reminisces about his past few years in Tokyo — the empty, failed relationship and the successful, empty career —  as well as the girl he fell in love with as a child.

Passing by a railroad crossing, he thinks he sees her profile, and catches a hint of her aesthetic in the air. The barriers come down, and a train barrels past. We wait to see if we can ever see her again.

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This film has been perhaps the single most enduringly meaningful artistic depiction of romantic love in the library of my life.

It has captured my particular experience of love better than any other work of art, and in doing so, touched on some universal insights on the question which should hopefully extend beyond my own limited experience and into the limited experience of others.

But before we get into precisely why it was so good, and so meaningful to me, let us return to the current narrative thread: why Shinkai’s other films weren’t.

Because 5cm Per Second was followed, four years later, by Children Who Chase Lost Voices.


children chase lost voices

And, well…. meh.

What else can I tell you about this film, beyond a resounding sense of “ok, so this was technically a thing that happened”?

I mean, it definitely wasn’t terrible. It’s a perfectly serviceable adventure story for slightly morbid kids. And he really went to town on the landscape shots in this one, lemme tell ya.

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But it was just shockingly derivative. It was so obviously Hayao Miyazaki fan fiction that you wonder how Shinkai avoided getting nailed by the copyright claims of some trigger-happy lawyer.

Look, it’s not the worst way in the world to spend two hours. But if you want to save yourself the time: it’s 3 parts Laputa: Castle in the Sky, 3 parts Princess Mononoke, 3 parts Spirited Away, and 1 part the usual Shinkai thing about the distance between a boy and a girl (over space, time, death, and reality, in this case). Oh, and add just a tiny dash of Neon Genesis Evangelion, for the Gnostic-Illuminati-conspiracy-led-and-eventually-betrayed-by-the-protagonist’s-father-figure Cherry on Top.

For one thing, having seen something done a dozen times before puts a limit on how good it can be to watch it a 13th time, in a slightly inferior version.

But for another, because it’s so derivative, it doesn’t really tell very us much about Makoto Shinkai films, as much as it does about his ability to put in an acceptable turn as a Miyazaki impersonator at children’s parties.
And so, as well as not being of that much interest in general, it’s not of much interest for our purposes here. It tell us very little about Shinkai’s portrayal of love; and thus, it tells us very little about love, full stop.

children chase 2


At about this time, a theory formed:

The difference between a good Shinkai film and a bad one is all the grandiose sci-fi-fantasy bollocks. When he concentrates on telling a serious, subtle, human story, he nails it. But when he gets caught up in aliens and time travel and parallel dimensions, he loses touch with the real core that makes his films touching. These fantastical elements work, at best, as clumsy metaphors for the fundamental themes and dynamics of the actual story between two characters. But more often than not, in Shinkai’s films, they end up eclipsing that story, taking our gaze away from the characters and onto an overblown, over-excitable, totally predictable plot. Because there’s no question that the boy will eventually overcome the evil empire and get the girl, or that the girl will return from her mystical journey wiser for it, without anything objective having changed in the world. So why waste our time focusing on it at all? Instead, stick with what you’re good at. Let us live a little in their world, in their own surroundings, and at their own pace — not that of a helter-skelter ticking-time-bomb save-the-world action-movie plot.

…pretty good theory, huh? Seems like that should about cover it. We can pack it in with this essay and go home now. Moral of the story:

Fantasy? Boooo… Quiet romance? Hurray!!!

It’s been about 1500 words; pretty much the perfect college essay length! (…though if you count each picture as 1000, then, well…)

………the problem is… just two years after Children Who Chase Lost Voices… Shinkai released a 45-minute film called The Garden of Words, or Kotonoha no Niwa, which entirely blasted my theory out of the water by containing no fantastical elements whatsoever… and still being possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.

knn

Sure looks pretty though, huh?

And that’s despite the fact – no, actually, precisely because of the fact – that the first half hour was so very, very promising.

It concerns the soft, quiet, drip-drop start of a relationship between a 15-year-old school boy who wants to be a shoemaker when he grows up, and a disaffected, 27-year-old teacher who’s finding the demands of adult life a little too much to bear. They meet – at first by chance and then by habit and ultimately out of ill-repressed affection – under a pavilion in Shinjuku Gyouen park on rainy mornings, skipping school.

And that’s it. They’re not reincarnated siblings from another dimension, and no aliens swoop in to demolish Tokyo (though by about 40 minutes in, you’re gonna wish they did). In fact, it’s just as subtle, sweet, and delicate a set-up as I could have hoped for. The 12-year age difference (though less sensitive than it would have been with inverted genders) still demands a calmness and evenness of tone which it would be basically impossible to combine with a bombastic, save-the-world-by-going-on-a-magical-journey plotline.

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Here, the distance between the two characters (which, remember, is the unnegotiable staple of every Shinkai film) is not due to Special Relativity or Alien Abduction. Instead, it’s a simple generational one, which social convention and a dash of ethics prevent us from bridging too easily.

Despite all that… well, come on. It’s a romance film. They’re the only characters in it. They’ve gotta make it happen. The distance must be bridged. (Or he’s gotta get his heart broken trying.)

So… how does it happen, you ask?

With him just straight up confessing his feelings to her, and her saying “oh no but I’m a teacher we can’t!”, and him running away like a child, and her chasing him like an idiot, and clutching him in the rain and saying she loves him too…

breakfast at tiffany's

Oh, woops, sorry — wrong film.

…all to the jangling, soppy chords of a lame-o, tone-deaf J-pop song blaring in the background.

Ugh. And I had been so confident about it that I actually watched it for the first (and only) time with people who didn’t like anime, insisting to them that this one would be different.

I ain’t gonna live that one down for, like, ever.

facepalm

Basically, it was the most crass, pulled-out-of-their-ass, cheap romance ending imaginable. All that carefully calibrated build-up and delicately handled distance? Trampled by a hyperactive elephant raised on an exclusive diet of cotton candy and fizzy drinks.

I mean, the shit they pull would be ridiculously immature if they were both twelve. And you expect me to believe that’s the way to make a relationship work with a woman twelve years older than you?

Apparently, it’s not just the sci-fi-fantasy stylings which make for a sub-par Shinkai film. Alright, so, time for a new theory:

Shinkai can’t do happy endings. His films are good so long as the boy doesn’t get the girl; so long as the distance is not breached; so long as everyone stays forever alone and no one suggests there might be an answer to our loneliness.

Now. Part of this might just be snobbery, preferring “depressing, artsy stuff” to “pleasurable entertainment”.

But honestly, I think most of this is just due to his style.

See, Makoto Shinkai, even more than other directors of anime or romance flicks, has an extremely… heightened approach.

Everything is effusive, saturated with sentiment, exploding with light into a hyper-sensitive eye. As I mentioned at the beginning, his every shot is a little turned-up-to-11. His pinks are pinker, his greens greener, his blues brighter with the remembered sun of every early-summer walk we took back from school as a child. He is, essentially, a much nicer, more sentimental version of Michael Bay: each of them go constantly full-throttle to achieve their end goals – respectively, mayhem (Bayhem) or melancholy (…Shinkailancholy?) – with every single shot. They seem to be fundamentally incapable of holding anything back, even if only to keep their point from being diluted.

He just doesn’t have a lower gear. Even the way his characters cut vegetables is animated like it’s the worthiest thing for your attention in the world.

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You know what… on second thought… maybe it really is. I mean, just look at how they each individually tumble down…

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Hhhnnngg…

And this tendency of his visual style is mirrored pretty much exactly in his tone and content as well. Everything is somehow magnified, such that even the tiniest event becomes humongous.

And magnifying things is great… when you’re looking at something small. But do the same thing to something that’s already big and, well…

Turning up the brightness on the sun is a sure-fire way to burn your eyes out. Making a Hollywood ending any more bombastic is a one-way ticket to Hiroshima. And making the thrill of successful first love any more intense than it already is… only succeeds in giving you full-on diabetes from the sugar rush.

Essentially, it seems to me that Shinkai’s style lends itself much better to taking a story or a sentiment that normally would be too subtle and small for us to notice, and blowing it back up to a size we’re more used to looking at. You usually only get to experience these emotions in very slow-paced art – the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the novels of Yasunari Kawabata – which most people think of as very boring and demanding. By taking these same liminal, archetypically Japanese emotions (melancholy, loneliness, longing, and an appreciation for the effects of the passage of time) and treating them with his signature hyper-sensitive over-attention, Shinkai makes them readily accessible in a more immediately engaging way.

However… make him show you a young couple’s first kiss, and it’s no wonder you end up with a run-away supernova. You don’t go up to an elephant with a microscope and expect to get much from it, ladies and gents.

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This has very little to do with my argument. It’s basically just a really pretty tree.
Wish I could show you how it moved (spoiler alert: really prettily). But couldn’t find a good enough gif…

But there’s more to it than that. Without falling into easy snobbery, and demanding that every bit of light entertainment be high art… I think there’s a reason why it’s very difficult to make a successful film about a successful romance.

And the reason for that is well summed up in a quote by Michael Haneke, one of the greatest film directors working today.

“My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers. For clarifying distance in place of violating closeness. For provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”

Michael Haneke, “Film as Catharsis”

The key term here (for the purposes of this essay) is “false (because too quick) answers”. It introduces the notion that an answer may be made untrue simply by the offhandedness with which it is presented, rather than anything to do with its content. If it isn’t immediately clear why, take the following example:

Imagine you’re consoling a friend whose child has just died. Patting their shoulder, you say “well, there’s nothing you can do about it now. They’re already dead. Just get over it.”

…clearly, something has gone wrong in this scenario.

Now, the thing is, what you’re saying is basically right. There really isn’t anything they can do to about the situation at this point; being sad won’t bring their child back. And they will, eventually, indeed get over it, and be able to live a fulfilling, meaningful life again. (Or then again, maybe they won’t, and just waste away in empty half-life for the rest of their years.) But going right out and saying so, as quickly and as simply as that, only shows that you haven’t developed any appreciation for the stakes of the problem.

It’s like that with many things.

“I don’t see any purpose in my life.”

“I cannot establish the truth of my most fundamental beliefs.”

Sure, the answer to these basically boils down to “Stop worrying so much about it. You’re overcomplicating things.” But anyone who is capable of just out and saying that as soon as they’re confronted with the questions clearly hasn’t understood the depth of them.

And, for me, romantic love is just such a question. “How can anyone ever fall in love with anyone? And how could it possibly be reciprocated? And once reciprocated, how could it possibly lead into a successful relationship?” is a serious, deep, almost intractable philosophical, artistic, and psychological problem… one to which “there’s a perfect girl out there for you somewhere! Just try really hard and run up to her when you hear the violins reaching a crescendo and ride off into the sunset into perpetual happiness!” is an insultingly facile response.

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Just… ugh.

Maybe I just take things too seriously (scratch that: I for sure take things too seriously), but I haven’t even gotten to the bits which are usually supposed to be hard about love. How do you stick together once the passion’s gone? How do you keep the spark when you’re spending every evening filing your tax returns and wiping the poop off your baby’s butt? What about when your lover falls chronically ill, or becomes disfigured?

All difficult questions, I’m sure. But I’m still stuck at the beginning. Before wondering how to keep love from crashing down, I’m still genuinely puzzled as to how it can ever get off the ground in first place.

Part Two

Why 5cm per Second is verymuchnotshit

Which brings us back to what makes 5 Centimeters per Second so great, in my immodest opinion. It is one of the only romance stories – works of art centered primarily or exclusively on the question of romantic love – which clearly takes the basic, initial question seriously: how is love even possible? It takes it so seriously, in fact, that it basically refuses to give an answer.

Because in 5 Centimeters per Second…

(…I guess this is the moment we finally start entering proper spoiler territory, by the way…)

…the guy very much does not get the girl.

And it’s not because of trite, contingent plot reasons. It’s not that she can’t be with him because the star essence in her is fading and she has to return to her home nebula. It’s not because she just up and dies. And it’s not even because she just so happens to be totally indifferent towards him and is in love with another guy instead (that old chestnut…).

No. The guy doesn’t get the girl for the same reason he fails to get her pretty much every time in real life (and vice versa, of course).

And that’s because she doesn’t exist. At least, she doesn’t exist anywhere outside his idealized, romantic fantasies. She’s not a person – she’s a de-personalized, abstract, impossible, fundamentally faceless flight of fancy.

faceless

The real story of 5 Centimeters Per Second – to fill in the mere plot summary I gave you above – is that of a boy who falls in love with a kind, pretty girl when he was a child.

If she hadn’t moved away, there would have been no story. Either they would have gotten together and had a perfectly normal relationship and eventually died or broken up… or the crush would have passed and he would have moved on. Either way. No story. Or at least, not anything like this story.

Because she did move away… and he didn’t move on. All throughout his adolescence and young adult life, he kept on dreaming about this half-remembered, half-imagined, nostalgia-tinged, perfectly impossible and impossibly perfect love. It prevented him from noticing the feelings of the kind, pretty girl by his side in high school. It prevented him from making anything of the relationship he sunk three years of his life into when he was sucked into the soul-crushing routine of 9-to-9 office work. It prevented him from seeking out a realistic love elsewhere, or seeing love in anything beyond the drift of cherry blossoms in the Spring breeze, and in every glimpse of a girl with long brown hair he caught out of the corner of his eye indistinctly enough to imagine it was Her.

brown haired girl blur

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And that, friends, is exactly my position…

…except I didn’t even have that failed relationship to brag about (and my own brief brush with corporate alienation was much more cushy — a solid 10 to 6, with a 5-star cafeteria).

Here I am, at 28, without ever having had a girlfriend, nor anything but the merest hint of the hope of one. It’s just been a litany of broken friendships and painfully awkward one night stands. Meanwhile, everyone around me has moved on – all the hold-outs falling to the inevitability of happy (or at least habitual) monogamy – while I still watch romantic comedies as if they were trying to tell me something, thinking to myself: “what is the answer? What is it you’re trying to say? Where is the way? No, but really… how in all the seven fucking hells is this supposed to work?”

…but even if you’re not as faulty and defective a factory reject as I, you can at least identify with the basic problem: that the reality of love does not correspond to the stories they tell of love in the movies and the songs, and the stories you write about love in the confessional or iron maiden of your own mind (or should I say, your heart… though the two, incidentally, are translated the same in Japanese: kokoro).

And if that’s not the case… if you don’t at least identify with the problem… then you really are all zombies.

all you zombies2


It’s here that I’m reminded of just how fascinating the specific English word “romance” is.

It means “love”, basically, or a story about love.
But it also refers to a medieval tale of chivalry, like the ones Don Quijote reads in Don Quijote.
Or an early-Modern fantasy story (e.g. “historical romance”; think Ivanhoe, or the Romance of Three Kingdoms), like the kind Madame Bovary reads in Madame Bovary.

Basically, “romance” doesn’t just mean “passionate love”. It means, essentially, fantastical fiction.

And the implication there is too neat not to draw. The essential move of the greatest modernist fiction – like Don Quijote and Madame Bovary (as well as my other favorite work of art on love: the short story Araby, by James Joyce) – is to warn us of the danger of these idealized depictions of love, the past, and ourselves.
See, post-modernism invented virtually nothing. It is the very height and heart of modernism to draw attention to the fictitiousness of our fictions.


And 5 Centimeters per Second does just that… but “just” in the sense of “precisely that”, not “only that”. (You’ll see what I mean in a second.)

Because what I talked about just now is, essentially, a very conservative vision of love. And when I say conservative, I actually mean conservative. If you take a course in Political Theory 101, or leaf through the first chapter of any textbook on the subject, you’ll come across the following definition of the two great Western modern political ideologies.

Liberalism makes claims based on abstract, eternal absolutes. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. Human rights. All given their purest enunciation in the French revolution.

Conservatism, as a coherent political theory, is birthed as a reaction to this, in the work of English politician Edmund Burke (or, if you want to be a stickler for the first proper use of the term, Chateaubriand during the Bourbon Restoration). And it says: beware these abstract, eternal absolutes. They’re dangerous. They’re false idols, based on particular situations but hubristically elevated to universal status. What’s more, they distract from and betray the particular situations that gave rise to them, leading us to actions which appear beautiful on paper, but inevitably end up in horror and in terror (cf. The Terror).

And it could be just so with love. Any idealized, absolute, eternal depiction of true and perfect love is false and evil. We should not pursue it. We should, instead, bump uglies with one or two perfectly normal hairless apes, like our forefathers (by definition) did before us.

But there is an alternative to these two ideologies: Marxism, in its many forms; or really, any form of radical emancipatory political ideology. At first glance, it shares many of the conservative critiques of liberalism. Human rights are really just the favorite ideas of a particular ruling class in a particular moment in time, which generally only serve to protect their interests, and which they enshrine as some false universal.

However, the answer isn’t to just shut up, toss these ideas out, and accept to do things the old-fashioned way and be content with our sorry lot. You do not throw out the attempt to construct a new (if inevitably painful and perennially contested) universal which extends beyond the scope of the status quo of our everyday ideas of life. You still reach for it, even if you know you will always fall short.

And before I bring this back to 5 Centimeters per Second and romantic love (bear with me… I promise it’s coming), I’d like to open it out to another parallel issue, if I may. Because the maneuver I’ve deployed is basically the following one: take a transcendent, higher, perfect, ultimately idealized version of something… and call it into question. Really, properly call it into question. And only then can you try reaching for it again.

And this same maneuver underlies my idea of a transcendent, higher, ultimately idealized version of Understanding, Meaning, Purpose, and Power: in other words, God.

Basically, people who just assert God in an unreflective, overly enthusiastic way are giving false (because too quick) answers. This includes almost every believer of almost every established religion, which tend to devolve theologically into the spiritual equivalent of a romcom (it puts bums on seats, after all). But the answer, if it’s there, can’t be as easy as almost all of you are making it sound.

So first, you have to pass through a proper, thorough-going nihilism. You must really believe that God is dead, that he remains dead, because we have killed him. Jesus must have died on the cross… and not yet been resurrected. God must have exhorted us to a monstrosity which could only prove he is worse than non-existent… and not yet told us to stay our hand from slicing our son’s throat. There must be no truth in human thought and action, and nirvana must ultimately be a mere extinguishing without promise or reminder of compassion. The dark night of the soul must be long, long, long. And, crucially, the glimmers of the dawn must be grey and indistinct, if we can even see them at all.

Because the point is this. We should not give up on questing towards some answer. Even if it appears there is no God, and even if we cannot be entirely certain of the way to make a better society, we must absolutely not give up the task of trying to reach both. And even though the kind of love we see in love stories is false, and harmful, and distracts us from the real affection of real people… even so, we must not give it up. We would be barbarous to give it up. We would give up that which is best in us, were we to give Love up.


And this is what is so lovely about 5 Centimeters per Second’s conclusion. This is why it goes one crucial half-step farther than James Joyce’s Araby, I feel, and does not remain a purely conservative portrayal of romantic love. Because it admits that the protagonist’s love is an illusion…… and it basically says, “so what?”

so what

It may be false… but it’s fucking beautiful. It may mean he’ll be forever unhappy… but dammit, he’s better than happy. He’s got good taste!

And, more to the point of the conservative critique – he’s fine. There’s no Reign of Terror which ensues – everything doesn’t go to hell in a handbasket because he keeps an idealized version of love. He doesn’t become a serial killer and make all his prostitutes wear that brown wig and then toss them out in bin bags beside the picturesque landscapes Shinkai so excels at drawing.

No.

When the train passes and the barrier lifts and we see there’s no one there on the other side… the main character doesn’t break down in tears.

He frowns at first, it’s true…

distress

But then… in the next moment… he smiles.

wistfulness

It is a sweet, wistful smile, to be sure.

But it’s a real smile nonetheless.

Then he continues on his walk, and will presumably go back to his nice, bright office, and continue with his work – doing independent, creative labor, like God or Marx intended!

So, like I said… he’s better than happy… he’s an artist!

He’s an artist, and this film is art. Because 5 Centimeters per Second, at the end of the day, cannot escape its own aesthetics: it is a picture-perfect example of the very idealized love it describes. It cannot hold itself aloof and claim the position of an entirely self-distanced, critical commentary on love. It, after all, is what created this half-remembered, half-imagined, nostalgia-tinged, perfectly impossible and impossibly perfect love – which we identify with from our own delusions, but ultimately, which it itself conjured up.

two faceless

For this reason, it understands where we’re coming from. It’s not some puritanical, cold asshole telling you to stop idealizing. It’s a fellow idealist, wistfully observing our plight by our side, without any harsh judgement or injunction to fix it. It really understands me. And I hope that I may claim that it really understands us.

Like all my favorite works of art, it provides no false-because-too-quick-answers. Indeed, like most of my favorite works of art, it provides no answers at all: just a very calm, beautiful posing of the question. Just a heightened, aestheticized, hyper-sharp study in alienation.

Just like the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes, which show me the distance from God.

Just like Osamu Dazai and Inio Asano, who show me the distance from other people.

Just like Dostoyevsky and Kafka, who show me the distance from myself.

Makoto Shinkai, in his masterpiece 5 Centimeters per Second, shows the distance between me and anything remotely resembling romantic love.

…….

…………………

…but, if you’ll recall all the way back at the beginning, over 5000 words ago… I said this was an essay about his two masterpieces.

For it did come to pass that, in the summer of 2016, Makoto Shinkai released his latest picture: Your Name, or Kimi no Na wa.

I was very reluctant to watch it, having been burned before. What’s more, the trailer… wasn’t promising. Trailers generally aren’t, to be fair… but with this one, I smelled the Hollywood ending from a hundred miles off. And that meant that, following my theory that Makoto Shinkai can’t do happy endings, this one was most likely going to be pretty weak sauce. Or pretty soft stool, as a clinician might say.

I held out for a year, almost, before finally succumbing to a friend’s insistence in May.

He was pretty clever about it, too. No “you’ve got to watch it; it’s amazing!” Just… “I really want to hear your thoughts.

I’m just a sucker for that, blow-hard that I am.

And so I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and slapped it up on a projector one evening.

Spoiler alert: it has a happy ending.

News flash: it also, somehow, wasn’t entirely shite.

It was about twenty minutes in that it hit me.

“Hey, I’m enjoying this. Well, I always thought I would enjoy the beginning, but… dare I say it? I think… this might actually be going somewhere!”

Hopefully, by now, you’re able to guess what that means.

If there could be a Makoto Shinkai film with a happy ending that was actually good… then it might not merely pose the question of love beautifully… but actually provide us with some answers.

Actual answers?

In a David Leon essay?

Yup.

You read that right.

Get hype.

Because 5cm per Second leaves us in a pretty standard position, despite its self-forgiveness at the end. We’re in a state of aporia. Just pure doubt. And just because we’re calmer about it now doesn’t mean we can stop looking for answers entirely.

The position it leaves us in is something like this:

You’re not allowed to give up the quest for an ideal and perfect Love… but you have absolutely no reason to believe it’s anything except entirely hopeless.
Just like with God. You’re not allowed to give up on the idea wholesale, or else you’ll flirt dangerously close to becoming an insufferable, nitpicky, borderline autistic militant atheist. But neither are you allowed to have a single positive belief about God. He has to remain eternally and entirely distant, aloof, utterly alien and incomprehensible from the human standpoint with not a shade of contact or revelation.
At its worst (and I don’t think I ever dropped this low), this position can extend to politics as well. You’re not allowed to stop striving for a better society on this Earth. But never can you advance a claim for what that would look like — let alone such a robust position as “it’s a society based on the active participation of the whole of humanity on all important political, social, and economic decisions, adding {the workers’ control of the means of production} onto {the subjects’ control of the means of political decision-making} and {the people’s control of the creation of social norms}”.

And this position of aporia — of unrelenting doubt — is great. I don’t think enough people spend enough time there.

But it is still limited. We do want something more.

And if Makoto Shinkai can do that for us on Love… then there’s still hope we can do that with everything else.


Watching the rest of the film was just excruciating.

“Come on, Makoto ma boy. Don’t drop the ball on this one. Don’t you dare fuck this one up…”

I can only get revenge for what he made me go through by inflicting some of that same suspense on you.

So… here. Have some filler. Filler, filler.

Here. Have some pretty pictures.

Here’s a picture of Tokyo.

makoto-shinkai-the-garden-of-words.png

Pretty, huh?

Well, do you have any more room on your plate for train tracks?

Of course you do. There’s always more room for train tracks.

VnsharingnetAnime-RG5Centimeters-7

These even have a train on them, of all things! …oh, and there’s a mountain with some clouds too, if you’re into that.

La dee da dee da.

……are you sufficiently pissed off at me yet?

Good. Now you know what watching the film was like for me.

So now we can move on.

(If you want to take a break, though, and come back later… now’s possibly the time.)

Part Three

How Kimi no Na Wa is the answer to all my questions

By being tolerable. By being basically alright. By – and I know I’ve been using this phrasing as a demure euphemism for “really good” throughout this essay, but I mean it quite straightforwardly here – not being shit.

I’m not messing with you this time. You see, with such a difficult question, even a small success is a significant one.

When Yitang Zhang announced his proof that there were infinitely many pairs of prime numbers that are less than 70,000,000 integers apart from each other… no one went like “ugh, you doofus, that’s super far apart!” No. They realized right off that this constituted the first time anyone had ever set an upper bound on the possible gap past which there were less than infinite pairs of prime numbers, and swiftly gave him a MacArthur Fellowship and a slew of other prizes. And THEN people started hacking away at the problem: 70,000,000 dropped to 600 (thanks James Maynard), which dropped to 246 (thanks, Polymath Project 8!).

Basically, as long as someone puts a crack into a hard problem – no matter how thin – it’s a cause for celebration.

So why was Your Name crucially not-shit?

For basically two reasons.

The first is that it was sufficiently well done to keep a cynic on board. This is important because, in order to prove that something’s possible, you don’t need to explain exactly how it’s possible. You just have to show someone one example of it actually happening. So then the trick becomes getting them to sit still long enough for you to show them. And that’s quite a difficult trick to pull off.

The second is because the vision of romantic love it provides at the end — though, in truth, paper-thin — is a good one, I think. Thin it may be, but the paper is of good enough quality for us to start to write on. And if we can write on it, we can build on it. We can add another page — another film, another go at flirting with someone we find attractive — until we stack it up into a thick, substantive book. We can get a start — and with a start, we can continue on until we come to a satisfying understanding of how to fall in love. And if we can figure out how to fall in love, we can start to figure out how to understand Justice, God, and all that good stuff.

Part Three, Section 1

How Kimi no Na wa keeps our attention, and why that’s important

A quick note before we continue.

No matter how advanced and subtle Shinkai’s craft, what I’m talking about in this section will only work for you on one condition: that you are at least amenable to getting on board.

By this I mean, if you really really don’t like anime, or really really don’t like romcoms… none of this will apply. Even if you do like some anime, and do like some romcoms, it’s possible that it still will not apply.

And that’s simply down to taste. Doesn’t matter how intricately and inventively Meshuggah does metal if you hate the sound of chugging, distorted guitars.

So if this is not your bag, it’s not your bag. Don’t worry… and (crucially) don’t let that distract you from the points I’m making through this film. Cus I think the points are general enough to apply to other things.

Maybe for you, it won’t be Kimi no Na wa. Maybe for you, it won’t even be a love story. But the basic insights into how to go about getting some grip, some purchase, on these transcendent ideals (love, God, justice, etc.) should hopefully still work. And if they don’t… well then, please, at THAT point flood the comment section with angry complaints about wasting your time. They’d be totally justified in that case.


Anyway. That out of the way, onto how KnNw works — how it keeps your doubts and inner critic in check for long enough to demonstrate what falling in love could look like.

It works because it’s really, really tight.

It hit me with so much information so quickly that I wasn’t able to stop and question everything. And it does that without throwing up lines of dialogue lame enough to clothesline me, or plot holes I could pitfall into and lose myself in.

And as long as you can keep the mind occupied long enough to stop it from questioning, and scrabbling away trying to formulate answers, you can allow the heart to feel those answers out.

So now: what exactly do I mean by “tight”, and how did it accomplish that?


There’s a problem you face when trying to write something good. Make it too simple – keeping the characters and motifs and sequence of events too rudimentary, and making the structure of everything too clear –  and it risks coming across as trite and uninteresting. No one cares about how to get from A to B if it literally just comes down to “start at A, go forward, and arrive at B”. If we take the example of music, it becomes too sing-songy.

On the other hand, if you make something entirely structureless, and have the elements mingle inconsistently and without any apparent rhyme or reason, it becomes opaque and too difficult to understand. It comes across as so much noise.

One excellent way to thread this needle is the basic Bach approach.

bach

Touch me like you tinkle them ivories, baby…

What you do is take a line that, by itself, might seem simplistic or sing-songy. La la la, tra tra tra.

Then you take another (or a third… or a fifth…), and you overlay it on top of the first, according to a certain rule of correspondence.

Before you know it, you get something like this.

counterpoint

Point and counter-point, baby…

And if that’s still too predictable and trite… you just iterate it. You add more layers, with a less intuitive way of connecting them. You play them backwards, or switch the order, or do anything you like to add complexity in a systematic, ordered way.

What you get here, if you can do this right, is the comprehensibility and coherence of the simple, with the mystery and wonder of the complex.

All the individual pieces make sense. The way they interrelate makes sense. But taken together, they’re too intricate for the human mind to parse at once, and generate the illusion of boundlessness and formlessness, upon which we can project grandeur and transcendence.

Slow it down, break it apart, and every cog and sprocket holds no mysteries. But put it all back together, and voilà – you have the music of the spheres.

Listening to Bach (especially played at speed), you can access the same headspace as when you sit and listen to the roaring of a waterfall.

You can, of course, go even farther than Bach with that complexity. Rather than combining the layers any more intricately and ingeniously (which would be a tall, tall order), you simply add way more layers than people can parse — or, crucially, you allow yourself to do different things to each layer. So, rather than just having them interact in terms of melody and harmony, you give yourself the scope to modify the tone, timbre, and texture of the layers. At that point, you get the soundscapes of Xenakis or (excuse me for a moment while I clean up the mess I just made in my pants) Ligeti.

ligeti

OK, this time, it isn’t just me making it sound sexy by appending “baby” at the end, right?
He’s actually just pouting sexily at us… right?

And basically, in his films, Shinkai takes the Bach approach of limited layers interacting intricately – more so than almost any other director I’ve watched besides, perhaps, Kurosawa.

I say this not because he is by any means more skillful than the masters of cinematic history, but because he works with the peculiar advantages and challenges of animation. This gives him a level of control which the Kubricks of the world would kill for, on an instrument as delimited as Bach’s harpsichord.

Because, with animation, there are fewer parts at play, each of which you entirely determine.

You want a shot of exactly this, at exactly this angle, with exactly this shade and texture? No problem. You just draw it that way.

But you want to have a thousand unpredictable and arbitrary things happening in it — crowds moving, swallows swirling, water gushing? Uuuggghhh… you’re gonna have to draw it that way…

This means you’ll get a precision and a cleanliness in animation which it’s almost impossible to get in live action. Even taking cinema to extremes of minimalism, whether through Tarkovsky or Wes Anderson, you’ll never quite get the exactitude Shinkai can access not through effort, but by default.

And unless you’re willing to enslave a nation of animators for a decade to produce one film, by God you’re not going to get the individually moving crowds of a D.W. Griffiths or Cecil B. DeMille in animation.

Obviously, you can paint something like this:

griffiths

Or this:

de mille

Hieronymus Bosch and dozens of Neoclassical and Romantic painters made their careers off it.

But imagine having to draw thousands of those, each subtly different from each other, to convey a sense of movement.

Dear me.


This is most obvious when you think about the visual content of single shots. But it also affects the timing and the flow of the film too. Because all that has to be decided beforehand: you can’t just let the camera roll for another few seconds and have the actors and the landscape pick up the slack. Every single second in an animation only exists if you draw it into existence. What this means is that, for better or for worse, the director of animation has a totalizing control of every single fragment of the film in a way that even the most insane control freaks of live action will never have.

All that to say: Shinkai’s films are like a Bach fugue. He’ll have four or five things going on, which he pre-determined at the very outset. Each of them is quite simple, but then he’ll layer and thread them until the whole is quite intricately complex. And he’ll do this with a dizzying precision.


Oh yeah. I forgot to mention.

I kinda lied.

I’m not actually going to give you an actual example of how this works in Kimi no Na wa. By the very nature of its intricacy, that’d take a long-ass time (…imagine this thing getting any longer…), and be really boring.

So instead, I’m going to present you with a simplified version of what Shinkai does, that’s based on but doesn’t exactly correspond to any specific scene in the film.

…but the lie isn’t done yet. Because I’m not actually going to do this for Kimi no Na wa. I’m going to do it for the middle section of 5 Centimeters per Second.

That’s cus I’ve watched it more times, so it’s easier for me. And because 5cm is (fittingly) much shorter, more compact, and thus easier to summarize.

But basically, the same exact process is used in Kimi no Na wa, to greater or lesser success. (If you prefer 5cm, then you’ll say Kimi no Na wa is flabby and inefficient, and therefore less perfect. If you prefer KnNw, you’ll say it’s grander, more epic, and thus more impactful.)

Anyway. As I was saying. Shinkai will have a couple dozen things he’ll be doing in the film, four or five of which will be going on in any given scene. Virtually every single line, and every single shot, will refer to or push forward one of these layers.

These “things” vary in scale and style, from a simple visual motif to a full-on subplot. After having seen Your Name, the only possible name for them is “threads”, which he weaves together to make the tapestry of the film.

Now, I’m going to present a simplified version of how a scene in the middle of 5 Centimeters per Second might go.

It will play its tune on the following six threads:

  1. Birds, flying.
  2. A space probe, scheduled to be launched from the island they live on.
  3. The boy, typing messages on his phone.
  4. The girl, surfing.
  5. The girl, waiting behind after school so they run into each other at the bike shed.
  6. The girl, figuring out what drink to buy at the store on the way home. 

So, a two-scene sequence would go something like this:

  • A shot of a single bird, gliding lazily through the blue mid-afternoon. (1)
  • The girl, trying to catch a wave. She falls. Despondent on the shoreline, she whispers to herself that when she finally succeeds in riding one, she’ll confess to the boy she likes. (4)
  • The girl looks around the corner of the bike shed, sees him coming, and goes out to greet him. (5)
  • They stop by the store. The boy takes out his phone and starts typing. The girl looks back at him. He apologizes, and snaps his phone shut. (3)
  • The boy buys a coffee. She spends a long time, hesitating on what to buy. Eventually, she goes for chocolate milk. “That’s what you always get though, isn’t it?”, he says. (6)
  • They continue home, only to find their way blocked by a motorcade guarding a slow-moving truck. It’s the space probe, being moved to the launch pad. “They have to be really careful with it; they’re not allowed to drive faster than 5cm per second”, she says. For five seconds, the boy forgets to breathe. (2)
  • Two birds peck at pieces of bread which a jogger on her morning run tosses them. (1)
  • The girl surfs again. This time, she rides the wave perfectly. Ecstasy. (4)
  • She adjusts her hair fitfully as she waits behind the bike shed. When she peers out, still thinking about whether she looks alright, he notices her, and calls out to her. Embarrassed, she goes to her bike. (5)
  • At the store, she hesitates for a long time. This time… she goes for a coffee… but just a small, to his large. (6)
  • Outside, she examines the gears on her bike. While she does this, the boy types on his phone. This time, we see it. It is a sad and sentimental message… which he deletes, unsent. We realize he is not communicating with anyone except himself, all those times he’s texting away on his phone. He has not kept in contact with his first love. He is entirely alone.
    Snapping his phone back into his pocket, he asks her “Everything ok?” (3)
  • Pushing their bikes back home, she realizes it’s now or never. She’s about to confess to him.
    At that moment, a roar erupts, and the sky is parted by the space probe being launched. The boy’s eyes, as he watches it go, broadcast a loneliness and a distance and…such a perfect sense of identification with that exploratory hunk of metal that she cannot bear to say anything, knowing that she’ll never be able to call him down from his orbit. She starts to cry. (2)
  • One bird sits upon a tree branch. It chirps out a sad song. (1)

So that’s the basic structure. A limited set of plot threads or motifs, which systematically recur and advance and affect each other.

She goes surfing. We overlay that with her desire to confess. In the first scene, she falls. In the second, she succeeds. So she’ll confess.

She buys drinks at a convenience store. We overlay that with her characterization as slow and thoughtful; it takes her minutes to decide. The first time, she gets chocolate milk. Sweet, just the same as she always has. The drink of a child. The second time, she ditches it for coffee. Coffee, like adults drink. Coffee… like he drinks. She’s going to confess to him.

The characters are like birds. First there is one bird. Then there are two birds, flying parallel to each other. Then, they part ways. There is just one bird.
She got close to him, but never confessed. She started alone. And now she’s lonely again.

Etc. etc.

So, in the actual film, there will be more threads through this process (mailboxes; the future plans handout to be filled in; arrows and the archery club; cars and scooters), and each thread will go through further iterations (she’ll go surfing 3 or 4 times, say, instead of twice).

Furthermore, each thread will stretch backwards to the first part, and forwards to the last.

For example: in the very first line of the very first scene, the boy’s first love will have told him that the speed of a cherry blossom petal floating down through the air is… 5 centimeters per second.

Or: later, when he is at his loneliest and most listless in wintry Tokyo, he will happen upon a story in the row of magazines which tells him that the space probe launched on that hot summer day has reached the end of its mission, taken its pictures of Jupiter, and will now drift off into the nothingness of space beyond the solar system, with no hint of warmth or light or matter. Just its sempiternal solitude.


The basic maneuver is hopefully clear by now. There is an almost unnerving precision with which everything links up, diachronically and synchronically, vertically and horizontally, in space and in time. Every shot, every cut, every line hits a beat on one of the melodies he’s playing simultaneously.

What this means is that the calculating, theorizing, critical part of our brain – if it’s paying attention, and in any way invested in what’s going on – will be occupied entirely with the task of linking them all together. The mechanical exactitude with which he overlays themes and motifs and plotlines means that the cold, mechanical, skeptical part of our mind is too busy playing this kind of aesthetic speed-chess to be able to put much of an effort into distancing us from the implicit message it’s driving at, and the emphatic feelings it elicits.

Now, the cleverest part about all this is that it’s essentially unobtrusive. It’s not as if you need to follow this and figure it all out to understand the story, as might be the case if he had just done this with the central plot (which he does a bit in Kimi no Na wa, for better or for worse).

For less systematically-minded watchers, they can just let it all wash over them – let the weft of the tapestry be felt out as a whole, not just as the interlocking sum of its parts. Like, you don’t need to keep track of every time he cuts to a close-up of a phone (landline or mobile), mailbox, letter, or email to catch the drift that this film has something to do with interpersonal communication.

But if you’re the kind of person who likes to read into things, and whose ability to read into things sometimes impedes them from actually experiencing those things (and we’re all that kind of person some of the time… and if you’ve made it this far into this essay, you’re definitely this kind of person pretty much all of the time)… well then, Shinkai-sensei has you covered.


Now. What’s the point of layering all these intricacies to keep your higher cognitive functions busy?

Well, it’s as simple as “some things, you have to show, rather than tell.”

And love is very much one of those things. Any strong emotion basically is. If I want to communicate fear to you, it’s a lot easier to just jump at you screaming than it is to sit you down and go through brain charts and etymology and history of ideas. The process of communicating things abstractly can sometimes obscure the concrete thing you’re trying to describe.

This point, as an epistemological and aesthetic cornerstone of a systematic philosophy, gets its most classic expression in the tenets of Daoism. It’s through this tradition that we get Chan Buddhism in China, then Zen Buddhism in Japan, and eventually the whole counter-cultural psychedelic hippie thing and its post-structuralist Superstructure in the 60s.

From the story of Duke Huan and the Wheelwright in the Zhuangzi, to all your favorite Zen koans, the basic point is that there are certain… insights which are outside the reach of our rational categorizations.

It can be maddeningly frustrating when someone starts talking like this about something that can be pretty straight-forwardly understood. Like, any formal empirical claim about the natural world. Science is really, really good at handling that.

But there is a lot in life for which this approach is very sound. Questions of value, essentially. Questions of beauty, or of meaning. Basically, most things in your life that you don’t have the free time to write a philosophical treatise or scientific paper about.

So like, if someone asks you pleadingly: What is love? What is love? Baby don’t hurt me… you’ll have to tell them: “Look. It isn’t something that is entirely reducible and expressible in terms of rational discourse. The more you look for a consistent, comprehensive definition, the less likely you are to ever understand it – you’re barking entirely up the wrong tree.”

R-1847295-1329501305.jpeg

Yes. Yes I did just sneak a Haddaway quote in there. Whatcha gonna do to stop me?

The point is to stop thinking about things in terms of abstract, rational principles, and simply let oneself relax into the direct experience of it.

Now, you can make as much or as little of this maneuver as you like: the aforementioned traditions elevate it to an all-encompassing principle, and construct a consistent anti-rationalist worldview from it. But at its most basic level, you can take it simply as an observation about the efficiency of information transfer.

There are certain forms of knowledge or experience that simply do not compress well into language and formal, abstract concepts – either because of some essential indeterminacy in the things themselves, or at the very least, in our ability to perceive and comprehend them.

Like, perhaps it’s perfectly possible to write a sequence of words and numbers which would flawlessly communicate how to ride a bike to someone who had never used one before… but it would simply be much more efficient to put them on one and run them through it.

funny-bike-meme-they-see-me-rollin-they-hatin-picture
This, incidentally, is how you ride a bloody bike.

And that’s exactly what Your Name does with love. It allows you to stop thinking about it critically for long enough that it can walk you through it. And once you’ve experienced it yourself, through the film, you’ll be able to realize that it’s possible, what it is, and how it works – even if you might not be able to communicate that very precisely with words to a fellow sceptic.

And it accomplishes this in a very elegant, gentle way. Rather than browbeating you into abandoning your rational(ist) principles, telling you you’re a neurotic monster for overthinking everything so much (which is what I felt people who were trying to show me love earlier ended up doing; which I’ve always told myself is my fault, and I’ve only recently allowed myself to admit could sometimes have been partially theirs)… it meets you on your territory. It just keeps that part of you occupied with an intricate, complex game to play with, and then takes the child in you by the hand and demonstrates how to do it directly.

And this method of generous, gentle guidance – suited to all sorts of otherwise intractable philosophical questions – is all the more perfectly suited to teaching someone about love, which is at its core an experience of pleasant communion with some other being.

The immortal words of Peter Frampton are quite exactly apposite in this case. What we ask for, when we ask to understand love, is:

I want you… to show me the Way.

…yes, I am now making most of my main points through pop songs.

Be honest here: what better way could there be to philosophize about love…?

Part Three, Section Two

Come on dude. So what does Your Name actually show us about love?

I’ll fucking bite you if you don’t get to the point already, Leon…

Alright, alright. I get it.

If that’s all there is to Kimi no Na wa, then I might as well have said: just pick whatever romantic comedy you can stomach and watch that. Cus that’ll show you what you can’t fully understand.

But I didn’t just pick whatever romantic comedy. I chose this one. And it’s not merely because it happens to be more intricately structured than the competition.

It’s because I think that the kind of love it shows us — however briefly — is basically the right one to go ahead with and build on, in our fiction and in our lives.

Plot spoilers ahead. Obviously.


The story of Your Name follows two main characters. A boy and a girl.

The premise is that they suddenly start swapping bodies with each other one day. The boy has to regularly live the girl’s life, and she has to live his.

Obviously, comedic hijinks ensue.

He doesn’t know to keep his legs together in a skirt.
She’s too disorganized to follow the shifts of his job.
But he’s more assertive than the demure front she affects, and ends up shutting up her bullies for her.
And she’s got a softer touch, which ingratiates him with his seniors at work, and even ends up setting up a date with one of them…

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There is even a pretty funny, slightly disturbing (and ultimately, I think, quite wise) running gag about the boy feeling up her (his?) breasts every time he wakes up in her body.

hqdefault

…tee……hee?

They only have vague memories of their stay in the other’s body, just as if it had been a vivid dream. They communicate, however, through a diary they write in each time they swap: a physical book for her, and an app on his phone for him.


So I get about a third of the way through the film, and I’m like:

“……..ok. I can work with this.”

Cus if this is the way the whole story continues, then I guess the happy ending potentially ain’t so bad.

The idea here would be: they keep on swapping bodies forever… which means they each have to be equally comfortable and willing to advance the other’s goals as they are to follow their own. They have to be just as invested in the other’s dreams and daily lives — just as familiar with the habits of the other’s coworkers; just as intimate with each other’s family members; just as willing to hang out with each other’s friends — as they are in their own. Or else both of their lives will fall apart.

He has to be just as committed to breastfeeding as she does. He has to be just as careful with his period as she does. He has to be just as wary of sexism in society as she does. She… she… well, sorry, there’s really not that many comparable difficulties guys face. I guess she has to work just as hard as he does not to allow her emotions to calcify under a toxic culture of male emotional repression…?
(Though I’m kinda sorry for whomever gets stuck with the date of birth if they have a kid. There’s no really sharing that one evenly… Post-partum depression, though? Have fun with that, dude!)

And, you know, that’s great. Mainly for the reasons I babbled on about just now. It forces us to take gender equality very seriously. And it forces us to accept that a romantic relationship is a partnership, in which you’re supposed to treat each other’s desires, pain, pleasure, and ambitions with equal commitment.

…but honestly (and without getting into any spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion; there will be plenty of time for that in another essay): not only is that a really unrealistic fantasy to aim for… it’s also not really all that compelling.

Because, for all that partners in love should work together and take each other seriously… there really isn’t need for them to try to overlap that much.

Just because my girlfriend is really into architecture doesn’t mean I have to be able to natter on about it with even remotely equal verve to her colleagues. And by God, I’m not expecting a prospective partner to give nearly as much of a shit about anime as I do; don’t worry, I’m not a complete fucking monster. Preserving individuality in a relationship seems, to me, just as important as the intensity of the communal connection.

And a love story which pushes so hard on this point of total identification can easily lead us on to a sort of creepy, overly-couply couples thing…

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And nobody wants that.

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Though if you are gonna do it… definitely be the couple on right.

…all that being said… there was a little variation on this theme I came up with which would definitely be a lot more interesting.

And that is… what if they don’t get together in the end… but still keep swapping bodies?

Just imagine. What if, every other day for the rest of his life… the guy has to let this girl’s boyfriend and husband literally fuck him if he wants her to continue living a semblance of a normal life (and not one in which the boyfriend is expected to be OK with a girl who is all over him one day and then totally ignores him the next). Imagine him having to raise her children for her until the day he drops dead.

Now, this could be a turned-up-to-eleven cuck fantasy from hell.

OR it could be a fascinating portrayal of real universal love.

I have no real connection to you. You’re not my wife. You’re not my girlfriend. You’re not even my friend-friend. Hell, you might even be my ex-girlfriend. In either case, right now, you’re just some person who lives on the other side of the country to me.

But even then, I STILL am equally invested in, serious about, and committed to your life as I am to my own.

That, for me, is somehow better than the last version. Because it’s just so unrealistic that a normal, healthy person couldn’t get confused and lapse into creepiness with it. The only way to go from there is full-on Jesus Christ hyper-hippie universal love.

And that’s not really my bag. I’m a Jew, not a Christian; and I’m too much of a Marxist to ever be a hippie.

But I gotta admit, that would be a pretty interesting ending, from which a really interesting philosophy could be extracted.


But that, obviously, is not what happened.

Because instead, about a third of the way through the film, the body-swapping just…….. stops.

That’s it.

No more preternaturally close connection.

No more perfect knowledge of the other’s life.

No more living fantasy which serves as objective confirmation of their nascent, flickering love.

Instead, they are left with a sense of loneliness and isolation so much worse than anything they felt before… because now, they know what such intimacy with another person could look like, and have had it ripped away.


And from that point… well… the plot happens.

They try to find out what caused the swapping… and what stopped it. They each encounter obstacles. They find out the truth, and it portends a terrible disaster, and they have to team up in order to overcome it.

And guess what?

They do!

Yaaaay!….yeah, the details aren’t really important.

I mean, they’re fairly standard fare, but I personally found them fun, so do go ahead watch the film and enjoy it there. But for our purposes now, this is what matters:

They swap bodies. Then they stop swapping bodies. Then they overcome the thing that stopped them swapping bodies.

Great. So then, what happens next? Do they rush into each others arms, and kiss, and everything is picture perfect yay happy love-y times forever?

Thankfully……… no.

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Instead — after that one, last, climactic swap… they never swap again. It never starts back up again. She’s in her own body, and he’s in his.

But that’s not all.

Now that all the crazy plot things have been solved, and the world has been saved… they start forgetting about each other entirely.

Everything we saw happen — gone. All the things they did together, for each other, to each other — wiped away from memory.

All the notes they left in each other’s diaries disappear before their eyes. All they ever did and shared — the very name of their beloved — evaporate into something worse than nothing. They’re left with a residue, an imprint, which manifests itself only in vague aesthetic impressions, aimless longing, and lovely, lonely dreams.

All they’re left with is… all that any of us are left with, really.

A nagging sensation that there’s more to life than what we’re seeing — and more to the point, that there’s more to love than what we see around us. People just getting together out of lust (a fine reason, really), and staying together out of habit (maybe a bit less good). People settling for “well, we have similar interests”, rather than “this person is more important to me than everything else in my life”.

They’re in exactly the position the protagonist of 5 Centimeters per Second finds himself in. Already a grown-ass adult who’s somehow still holding out on relationships because they can’t shake the childish sense that love should be something more. That there’s a connection we have with someone we haven’t met yet and who probably doesn’t exist… but someone we half-remember from dreams, and seems to be birthed from intense childhood nostalgias we can’t quite put our finger on. Someone we see out of the corner of our eye every time we’re in a crowd. Someone we have no right to believe exists, because they’re someone born from impossible fantasies and overactive imaginations: from fictional stories we told ourselves as teenagers and then forgot. A person that you feel so strongly about that the only way it would make sense is if you had swapped bodies with them as a teenager, and accomplished a grand quest to save the world with them. Someone who is obviously fictional, obviously idealized, obviously impossible. And yet, someone we just can’t fucking shake.

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And that’s where the final scene of the film starts off. They’re both single and job hunting in Tokyo. All their friends have paired off, or gotten married, or married themselves to their careers. And they’re just left there with their loneliness and their unrealistic expectations.

And then… their eyes meet.

They’re in different trains, going opposite ways. Their tracks are crossed. It would be crazy to suppose that the person they caught a glimpse of for one second could be the one they’re looking for… and yet, they both get off at the next station. And they both run back towards the previous station, on the infinitesimal off-chance that the other person might have gotten off there.

They both come to the same set of stairs. They cross paths. They chicken out, walk past each other.

And then… they turn around…

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And that, my friends… is the best representation of actually falling in love I have yet come across.

It doesn’t sell love short, by saying it’s just a sanitized, safe, thornless, castrated and spayed mediocrity, having nothing in common with the stuff of fairy tales and opera.
But neither does it go entirely off the track of sanity into naive, prince-in-shining armor, bubble-gum bullshit.

Insofar as the characters in the film inhabit anything remotely like the real world, this is where they stand, when they face each other at the end:

Nothing we saw before actually happened. There’s no supernatural wizardry. There’s no crackpot ESP. It’s just that all that came before is the most succinct way to express the kind of unrealistic expectations they each have about what love looks like. That it’s something that ties you inextricably to the one person who could ever fully, if ephemerally, see you for who you are… and understand you… and embrace you. That you’re supposed to feel like your boyfriend and your girlfriend is as significant to you as if you had swapped bodies and saved the world together before you even met. That love is this impossible, beautiful thing.

And that’s ridiculous. If that’s what love is, then it’s ridiculous.

And the thing is, that is what love is.

Love is an illusion. Love is a lie. Love is a fiction we mostly project on our lover, selfishly, from our personal fetishes and fixations. Love — just like in 5 Centimeters per Second — is very much a delusion… and a pretty dangerous one, at that.

But — as Your Name shows us — there is no reason why it cannot be a shared delusion.

One again, a pop song puts it best. This time, it’s the silky-smooth “Nightmoves“, by Michael Franks, whose chorus goes:

Love is like two dreamers dreaming the exact same dream.

Just another technicolor romance on the screen.

Love, in the fashion of 5 Centimeters per Second, is like a dream. It’s not real — not just because it happens to not correspond to reality, but because it follows an entirely different logic to reality. A logic which can include destiny, and telepathy, and all kinds of crazy things that only exist in the filter of the mind, not in the world. And it’s (usually) a fantasy only you can see.

But love can also be like Your Name. Love can be a movie. And two people can go see a movie. And sure, what they each take from it will always be a little different. But there’s sure to be a heck of a lot of overlap.

And that can happen in real life too. It’s perfectly possible for you to find someone who’s telling themselves a story about you that is both similar and compatible to the one you’re telling yourself about them.

And it can, I believe, go one step higher than this — though even I would struggle to find this stated anywhere in the film.

Love, at its best, isn’t just finding someone who just so happens to have the same fantasy about love that you’re having.

It is, in its highest form, finding someone who can be a co-author to your fantasy. Who will shape your crazy idea about them, and tell you their crazy idea about you, and who will sit down and stand up and dance around with you to help you create a story which somehow weaves those two together inextricably, like threads within a tapestry.


It seems idiotic to have to make such clarifications at this late juncture, but my inner critic is piping up, so I have to get up and put it to bed.

And that’s that the delusions I’m talking about don’t have anything to do with empirical claims about the objective characteristics of the world. It’s about being deluded about the value of the objective characteristics of the world.

So let’s say you’re going out with a professional athlete who’s the 34th-ranked javelin thrower in the country. Love isn’t believing, against all evidence, that they are actually the national champion. That’s not the kind of delusion we’re looking for.

Love is believing, rather, that the 34th ranked javelin thrower in the country is actually cooler, more attractive, more worthy as a mate and a life partner, than any of the top 33.

Love is being offered a brand-new and quality-tested Corvette, and a Mercedes, and a Jaguar, and a Rolls Royce, and a friggin’ state-of-the-art presidential fuckin’ limousine… and instead picking out a banged-up old Toyota at the back, because it’s your favorite.
It is very much not thinking that that old Toyota is faster or safer or a smoother ride than all that others. That is just stupidity. It is, instead, simply wanting that Toyota more. Thinking that it is special. Telling yourself some story in which that Toyota has a connection to you, is part of you, is necessary to you.

That’s what art is, and what religion is. It’s not about stating anything different about the world than any anal-retentive neo-atheist who’s got a hard-on for objective facts would. It’s about picking out those same exact facts, and elevating them as more beautiful or more transcendent than other facts.

Which is not to diminish the basic truth that this still is a delusion. It’s not inconsistent with any facts. But it is inconsistent with your other values. If you’re into javelin throwing, then surely the #1 ranked athlete should be more worthy of your interest than #34.

More to the point, if you need to feel this strongly about someone to enter into a relationship with them, then there’s clearly something wrong with you. It’s going to make you unhappy, cus it will be hard to form these relationships, and an extra challenge to maintain them (as if it weren’t hard enough already). It will go against pretty much every desire and goal you have for your life: productivity, stability, long-term pleasure, company, self-respect, etc.

You’d be really crazy to need to have such an unrealistic, quixotic, unsustainable impression of someone else, just to be able to do such a basic thing as mate, like every other animal. You’d have to be insane. You’d have to be like someone who’s sleepwalking through life, taking the kinds of things that make sense in your inner dreamworld and living like that in reality. And… well… I guess that’s just what I am.

But if the public reception of Your Name (it’s the top-rated anime of all time on MyAnimeList) and the very fact you’ve read this essay seem to indicate… you may feel that way too.

Once again, a pop song says it best:

You may say I’m a dreamer… but I’m not the only one.


So. To wrap up.

You could think that love is real and great and just around the corner. You would be wrong. That would be a false, because too quick, answer. Like most of Shinkai’s films.

So first, you have to believe that love is a lie. That it’s based on nothing. That it sticks out like a sore thumb from everything else you value in the world. That it’s all in your head, and the world will never mold itself to that selfish fixation. You can do this the hard way, with a really harsh nihilistic text. Or you can do this in a kinder, more forgiving, more accepting way. Like in 5 Centimeters per Second. There is no answer to the question of love. But that ain’t so bad. You can write some pretty stories about it.

But then, there’s a way out. It’s not that we’ll find any sound basis for love. It’ll always be a delusion. But it’s possible for it to be a shared delusion. You just have to find someone who has the same crazy ideas about it as you. And then hopefully include them in directing the movie you’re having them star in.

And the same progression can be made with other stuff. Take justice. If you think “OK, my intuitions about what’s right are rock-solid!!”… you’re an idiot. You gotta doubt it entirely. They’re just in your head, and the world and its other subjects won’t mold itself to your selfish fixation. But then, you can go “wait. It’s possible that other people could share the same ultimately foundationless beliefs. Now, how do we go about making that happen?”

So that’s basically it. That’s what the answers to these ultimate questions will look like. And so, from now on, in other blog posts, I can start suggesting some specifics, for each of those specific questions.

Til then!

Afterword:

…ok. If you’ve made it all the way down to the bottom to read this… jeez, man. Thank you. I truly appreciate you taking the time to do that, from the bottom of my heart. Having read all that should leave you in no doubt as to how important communicating these kind of thoughts is to me. So, once again thanks.

But, if you made it all the way down here, I reckon it’s probably safe to assume you like reading me enough to want to read some more. And so, I don’t feel nearly as shy as I normally would when I say:

Follow me on twitter!!!!!

Join my mailing list!!!!!!!!!!!

Comment below!!! Share with your friends!! Do whatever you like to stay informed and engaged with the ideas I’ve brought up here!

I’m going to be writing a lot more of these in the near future — including a direct follow-on, which picks up where this left off and tries to explain the mechanism of how we can come to share these delusions a little better, through the lens of the films of Satoshi Kon.

So yeah. Thanks very much for coming. And please do stick around for more!



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One thought on “Your Name, Love, and the Answers to Everything

  1. You’ve come up with pretty much the same theory of love as Professor Bob Sternberg in his book Love is a Story: a New Theory of Relationships. (He was one of my house fellows at Cornell. I also heard he’s the most cited psychologist, after Freud). Clearly, your two pieces are very different, though. Would be curious what you think of his book. He spends the most time on classifying archetypal stories and says that couples with the greatest longevity and happiness share the same story. It’s interesting and worth a read, but ultimately makes it all feel a bit too pre-determined for my taste. Rather, I think your point about continuing to co-author the story is an important addendum to the Sternberg theory that shows that so much about being and love and making it last is an active (and yes, often aesthetic, although that sounds wrong…) choice.

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