The Metaphysics of ‘Your Name’

Photo courtesy Funimation, CoMix Wave Films, Toho

This article contains heavy spoilers.

About one hour into Makoto Shinkai’s body-swap masterpiece Your Name there’s a revelation.

High schooler Taki Tachibana has sought vainly for Mitsuha Miyamizu, a village girl with whom he’s inexplicably (and awkwardly) traded bodies years before. His quest leads him from the glitzy Tokyo metropolis to a mountaintop cave housing an offering of virginal sake. When Taki consumes it he’s made privy to the metaphysical logic in governance of human fate. To save his soulmate, symbolically speaking, Taki must become as a god.

For Shinkai, the cave scene is a jarring return to traditional animation not often associated with the auteur that made waves in the industry with the 2002 release of Voices of a Distant Star, a 25-minute sci-fi war drama written, directed, and produced by Shinkai on his Power Mac G4. Having quickly earned the merits of a full animation team, his four subsequent full-length features would showcase the director’s emotive storytelling in signature hue-saturated visuals, each entry improving stylistically on the last.

Toho released Shinkai’s fifth film Your Name last summer to Japanese theaters with a modestly projected return of about $60 million. Today, the anime drama has accrued in total over $330 million, becoming the fourth-highest grossing film in Japan, and the highest grossing anime movie of all time.

If that’s not enough to solidify the 44-year-old director in the annals of animation history, the film continues to produce unbelievable phenomena in its wake. Anime News Network reports last year around 750,000 fans visited Gifu Prefecture’s northern city, Hida, as part of a pilgrimage to “holy sites” appearing in the film — in effect boosting the local economy to the tune of $164 million. And a Japanese handicraft from the samurai era called kumihimo, or decorative cord braiding, is fashionably en vogue as a result of Taki’s decision to wear Mitsuha’s red hair ribbon as a bracelet.

Shinkai described his film to the Asahi Shimbun as, “a straightforward piece of entertainment,” which seems ironic considering the paradoxical plight of the protagonists: fated lovers separated by death and time. Adding to the irony is Shinkai’s reported dissatisfaction with it, a bizarre plea for fans to stop viewing it, and an expressed desire for Your Name to fail at The Oscars, even though it was rushed to LA for a screening last July in order to be eligible. (It did not receive a nomination.)

A summary of the film reads like a generic teen romance with fantasy elements. The body/gender swap trope, for example, is extremely common in Japanese pop culture, likely spawned from a Heian period (794–1195) tale (Torikaebaya Monogatari) in which a brother and sister of noble blood are raised as the opposite sex. There’s also the threat of wide-scale disaster — a blazing comet dubbed Tiamat — evoking the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that claimed nearly 16,000 lives. (Toho’s Shin Godzilla would allude to the tsunami in another 2016 blockbuster to earn critical acclaim solely in its home country followed by a delayed and limited western release by Funimation.) Finally, Your Name plays with time in supernatural fashion not unlike some of today’s biggest sci-fi blockbusters. (Christopher Nolan’s fifth-dimensional tesseract from Interstellar comes to mind.)

Photo courtesy Funimation, CoMix Wave Films, Toho

What is it then about Your Name that’s captured the imagination of moviegoers? Most critics are quick to praise the mesmerizing, hyper-realistic visuals. Others point to the film’s emotional power that’s skillfully executed in its characterizations. One should also mention the perfect marriage of Shinkai’s stellar animation with the soulful rock music of RADWIMPS. (I can’t think of a better artist/studio match-up since The Pillows and Gainax in 2000’s FLCL.) And there’s little doubt the optimistic tone of the movie resonates deeply with Japanese teenagers in a society where adults are increasingly opting out of marriage, even ditching romantic relationships altogether.

But maybe there’s something more to the fantasy elements most critics are quick to gloss over — those mystical, folkloric devices that serve as a backdrop to the quirky, heart-melting narrative. Just as Taki consumes the sacred sake and bears witness to the mechanisms of fate, one must peer beneath the hood of story to glean these underpinning elements implicit in Shinkai’s vehicle. What we find is a rich and masterful command of eastern and western occult symbolism.

Photo courtesy Funimation, CoMix Wave Films, Toho

Mitch Horowitz writes in his book Occult America, “(Occultism) comes from the Latin occultus, meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘secret.’ Traditionally, (it) deals with the inner aspect of religions: the mystical doorways of realization and secret ways of knowing.” Shinto then by definition is occult-oriented. After all, Japan’s ancient folk religion boasts one simple and profound secret: the world is populated by thousands of invisible spirits called kami capable of influencing physical reality. To appease them, the gods must be enshrined at temples and worshiped through ritual purification.

Mitsuha and her sister Yotsuha perform a ritual as miko, or Shinto shrine maidens, that involves spitting chewed rice into a wooden box where it ferments into sacralized sake. Their adoptive grandmother explains the god they venerate and its power is musubi, a word with several meanings, and the art of cord braiding signifies time itself. Like a single thread, time can bend, break, and even reconnect.

Mitsuha is dissatisfied with her mundane existence in Itomori. Standing beneath a Shinto torii — a gate marking the boundary between the sacred and profane — she begs to be reborn a handsome Tokyo boy. Soon she’s swapping bodies with Taki nightly and witnessing the rapid pace of city life firsthand. The pair communicates by scrawling messages in notebooks (and on their bodies) and leaving memos on Taki’s smartphone. But the comedic Freaky Friday tone of the film shifts dramatically after Taki embodies Mitsuha for Itomori’s autumn festival. Without warning, they cease swapping, Mitsuha stops responding, and Taki realizes his memory of her is fading. Devastated, Taki flees Tokyo for Mitsuha’s village and descends into Itomori’s mountaintop cave — an archetype for the maternal womb. In an occult sense, Taki is thus initiated in the sacred mysteries of the Miyamizu Shrine and rewarded with a shamanic vision of a deeper reality.

Photo courtesy Funimation, CoMix Wave Films, Toho

Before Taki’s vision begins, he accidentally uncovers a crude painting of the doomsday comet on the cave walls. This is likely an allusion to the aurora borealis, a phenomenon once interpreted as a harbinger of destruction. It confirms that a fragment of Tiamat split from its nucleus a thousand years ago and pummeled the earth as it did three years ago — the night of the autumn festival. Shinkai’s comet must then symbolize the cyclical nature of time, a notion represented in occult symbolism by the ouroboros: the primitive image of a serpent consuming its tail. What’s more, Comets foretold misfortune to ancient soothsayers of South America. Mexicans described them as fiery serpents. And Tiamat is named after a Mesopotamian goddess of chaos usually depicted as a dragon or snake.

Taki’s vision transports him to the primordial waters of non-being. His bracelet slithers outward, transforming first into Mitsuha’s braided cord and then Tiamat wriggling like a sperm cell into the egg of the earth. A human embryo materializes, multiplies. Taki bears witness to Mitsuha’s birth, the story of her life, and the circumstances leading to her death.

The red cord is inspired by an East Asian soulmates myth known as, “the red string of fate,” a familiar anime trope. But when the coiling cord briefly adopts a silvery tint, it elevates the symbolism to the metaphysical. The silver cord is an occult concept of an invisible lifeline between one’s physical and etheric body. As one’s umbilical cord is removed after birth, the silver cord is severed in death so spirit may be released from its earthly bonds.

Survivors of near death experiences vouch for this silver cord, but the idea was immortalized by the world’s most prolific clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce. Horowitz writes, “Cayce was said to be able to go into a sleeplike trance and diagnose and prescribe cures for the illnesses of people he never met.” He reportedly conducted over 14,000 trance readings, tapping into a hypothetical repository of cosmic knowledge he called “The Akashic Records.” Upon reading the Japanese Wikipedia entry for Your Name, one finds it written explicitly: Taki’s vision indeed brought him in direct contact with “The Akashic Records.”

“Every ritual repetition of the cosmogony is preceded by a symbolic retrogression to chaos. In order to be created anew, the old world must first be annihilated.” — Mircea Eliade

At this point, Taki is endowed with Tiamat’s dual functions as both a creative and destructive agency of space-time. To save Mitsuha, the pair must complete the ritual that will produce a timeline where the village is evacuated before the comet strikes.

Shinkai cleverly emulates a scene from Japanese mythology by directing his protagonists to move in opposite directions around the rim of the mountain. Shinto legend recounts the gods Izanami and Izanagi who, after some failure, formed the islands of Japan in this way (and the kami that inhabit them) by invoking a sacred marriage ritual. And when Taki and Mitsuha meet at twilight, it suggests Taki may represent Tsukuyomi, the moon god formed from Izanagi’s right eye, and Mitsuha Amaterasu, the solar goddess born from his left — the deity from which all emperors of Japan are believed to have descended.

(Reddit user Eshajori posits the moon actually symbolizes Taki and Mitsuha’s fated relationship, and the god worshiped at Mizyamizu Shrine is the lunar matchmaking deity Yuè Lǎo featured in the Red string of fate legend. [Thanks, /u/Pelaven!])

Photo courtesy Funimation, CoMix Wave Films, Toho

Twilight is a liminal expression of space and time inverting into another world. In terms of our symbols, it’s the only instance when the sun and moon occupy the visible cosmos simultaneously. The cosmogonic ritual completed, Mitsuha is finally granted another chance to make things right. But the dream quickly dissolves as dreams so often do; the memories two lovers share soon fade to nothing.

In the end, Taki is just another lonely soul adrift in Tokyo. He expresses a brief, uncanny interest in the events surrounding the comet that struck Itomori. Miraculously, he discovers, the village was holding an emergency drill at the time of impact that saved hundreds of lives. What a strange coincidence. But then he sees her face in the window of a parallel train. They brush past each other on the stairs leading to a Shinto shrine. They’re strangers, and yet there’s something strangely familiar. Like the memory of a dream.

“Haven’t we met before?” says Taki tearfully.

The final shot of Shinkai’s Your Name is a surreal reproduction of a downhill view into the city from Suga Shrine. Power cables droop over an empty street and glisten in the sunlight like a spider’s web, seemingly emblematic of the interwoven strings of fate that reunite lovers across time and space. It may just be a fitting coincidence tucked away at the conclusion of Shinkai’s animated masterwork. Or perhaps even this small piece of Tokyo was preordained for some metaphysical purpose we can’t see, but may only dig at through symbolism, which is bound to tell us in no simple terms there’s no such thing as coincidence.

Photo courtesy Funimation, CoMix Wave Films, Toho

Your Name is now playing in US theaters nationwide.