Thursday, July 11, 2019

What We Talk about When We Talk about Anime Logic: Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016)

A scene from Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016).

I want to talk about anime logic and why it's not the same as plot holes, using a number of examples, but mainly looking at Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016).
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Your Name is not an absolute triumph. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with director Makoto Shinkai when he says the film is "imperfect" and that the production process could have used more time (that is, more money). Narratively, we can separate the film into three acts: set-up, reversal, resolution. (Hegel , anyone?) While the reversal is a bit boring, and the resolution is downright melodramatic, the set-up is a shining gem. We all expect body-swap stories to create fish-out-of-water comedic situations (which I personally detest because the protagonists create so many problems for the hapless people around them), so it's a pleasant surprise when the continual body-swapping between city boy Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and country girl Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) leads them to work together to keep calm and carry on with their lives – and it's satisfyingly funny to see them keep meddling in each other's lives anyway.

What really makes the first act glisten is the montage editing. Once the protagonists get into a rhythm of cooperating and meddling, the film also gets its groove, with quick cuts between different viewpoints of the same event and a gung-ho Japanese pop-rock soundtrack, ending together in a cataclysmic explosion of pent-up annoyance. (This kind of energy is channeled very well in the trailer.) But the downright best part of the film, something that just works better in the first act, is the dynamic camera movement. That skyward pan following the comet in the trailer is the most prominent (and widely advertised) example, but the essence of this camera style can be seen in this very short shot, about two seconds, of an urban building. Notice how even though the angle itself communicates magnificence and urban grandeur, it's the camera movement and parallax view that really sell it.

Indeed, someone who shares my joy at Shinkai's eye for movement has put together a montage of all the time-lapse sequences in the film.

Of course, the second and third acts also display this aesthetic, but by then we're so bogged down by the story it doesn't really strike that note of wonder. So come for the first act, stay for the dynamic camera.

Now, the reason the two later acts fall apart has to do with anime logic. This is a term that I've been hearing more and more often after Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi / 千と千尋の神隠し, 2001), the box office record-setting film by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and it's a term uttered mostly by people from a Western cultural background. Basically, these people often say that, even in an animated fantasy film like Spirited Away, some things just don't make sense . Like why do Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and No-Face (Akio Nakamura) get along so well after it tries to freakin' eat her?! Or to resolve this predator-prey tension, there just happens to be a train that goes over the water to exactly where they need to go?! Complaints like these betray different underlying conventions and their cultural roots. In the East, very few spirits, if at all, are inherently malevolent, instead merely having tendencies that cause trouble for others – like a Peeves the Poltergeist. And in Japan, trains carry an aura of mystery and adventure (at least trains that run through the countryside or other less-visited places).

The same can be said of the ostensible plot holes of Your Name. When the body swapping is revealed to be cause by a meteorite impact in the past, why does Taki have no recollection of this cataclysmic event that happened just three years ago, an event on par with Fukushima or 9/11? This is actually a recycled comedic trope, in which the protagonists start off on a journey somewhere, only to arrive after a jump cut and find that what they seek no longer exists there. Another way to understand this trope is as the narrative analog to those comedic camera tricks in which the protagonist doesn't see something or someone simply because he/she/it is out of frame – even though in actual space he/she/it should be right next to the protagonist.

Another plot hole resolved by the cultural tropes of anime logic: why don't the people around Taki and Mitsuha realize that they've changed identities? First off, they do. Mitsuha's family and Taki's friends all comment on the days when the protagonists act weird; and lacking any idea of the other half of the body swap equation, they write off each of these instances as just another one of those days. Mitsuha's grandmother (Etsuko Ichihara), who has prior experience, does deduce the situation correctly. (Miss Okudera [Masami Nagasawa], Taki's initial love interest, interacts with him in a context of courtship, and so when she guesses that Taki has fallen for someone else, she too is correct.) And more generally, mental health is an even less discussed topic in Japan than in the West, so it's not surprising that the supporting characters would just let the protagonists deal with their own issues.

A scene from A Silent Voice (Eiga Koe no Katachi / 聲の形, 2016).

That's not to say that there are no plot holes. I'm usually quite oblivious to plot holes, continuity errors, and that sort of thing, but two stand out in my mind. When Mitsuha goes to Tokyo to seek out Taki, she finds him on a city train, looking exactly as he does in his own timeline, even though he should be three years younger. Of course, juxtaposing a high school girl with a junior high boy would totally ruin the poignancy of that scene, but still. The second plot hole is much more excusable, because it uses editing to bridge a logic gap. When Taki in Mitsuha's body tries to convince her father, the mayor, to evacuate the town, (s)he fails miserably; and yet, when the actual Mitsuha tries again, we later find that he does evacuate the town. In real life, of course, he'd dismiss her a second time, even after seeing the comet split into fragments, one of which is aimed at the town; maybe he’d get even angrier in a tragic case of confirmation bias. And even if he were convinced, there still wouldn't be enough time to evacuate everyone. So for the sake of a happy ending, the entire impossibility is edited over. (Lest you think this is an animation thing, the same solution is used in Arrival [2016] to elide over how exactly humans learn the alien language while lacking any conceivable shared context or shared linguistic roots.)

Perhaps the best way to think about the difference between anime logic and actual plot holes is to look at an example of each from A Silent Voice (Eiga Koe no Katachi / 聲の形, 2016, aka The Shape of Voice), an award-winning film about bullying, guilt, and reconciliation. When former bully Shoya (Miyu Irino / Mayu Matsuoka [kid]) goes to find Shoko (Saori Hayami), the deaf-mute girl he used to target and who later transferred schools, he's blocked by a junior high student who claims to be her boyfriend. Later, Shoya is completely thrown when the "boyfriend" reveals herself to be Shoko's younger sister, Yuzuru (Aoi Yūki). How can he not tell a guy from a gal? Anime logic, that's why. The way Yuzuru is drawn and voiced reflects the androgynous character of a not insignificant portion of young men in Japan and, more prominently, in South Korea. (The closest word we have in English is "metrosexual," which refers to a completely different phenomenon.)

From what my blunt plot hole sensors tell me, there is really only one plot hole in A Silent Voice. Near the end, Shoko is awakened by a dream (anime logic!) that impels her to seek out Shoya at their usual spot on the bridge, even though he's still in a coma at the hospital. Shoya wakes at the same moment (this isn't a plot hole if you concede the anime logic of prescient dreams) and is also impelled to seek out Shoko at their spot. Meeting each other and overcome with emotion, both fall to their knees and have some dialogue, including the use of lip reading and sign language. Here's the plot hole: at one point, while Shoko is looking down, Shoya starts to speak, and she looks up to read his lips. But how did she know he was speaking? In literally every other comparable scene in the film, she relies on visual or tactile clues to deduce that someone is talking to her or trying to get her attention, or that something is happening that she wants to know about or be a part of. This scene is the one exception. (Nitpickers will bring up things like breath and body language, but then why aren't these relevant factors in the other scenes?)

To boil it down for you, "anime logic" is simply the term given to events in (mainly Japanese) animated films that depend on non-Western tropes and conventions. Western cartoons have their own conventions: remember when Elmer Fudd gets teary when he thinks he's actually killed Bugs Bunny, even though his entire existence is predicated on getting that "pesky wabbit"? Yeah.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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