Return to Your Name film guide
This section introduces conceptual questions that instructors can familiarize themselves with before they teach the film. They can be adapted for class discussion after the screening. I suggest pairing general questions with specific moments in the film that allow students to discuss the question. In section 4, I offer examples of such exercises.
Trauma & Agency
3/11 is a national trauma, an event that impacted all Japanese people. The naming convention calls to mind America’s own traumatic 9/11. The earthquake and tsunami were both natural disasters whose effects could be mitigated with protective measures, but that could neither be predicted nor prevented. The nuclear meltdowns, however, were man-made catastrophes; they could have been prevented or at least mitigated with proper maintenance of the facility. A comet strike is of course different from an earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear disaster, but the scenes of Itomori’s destruction do echo 3/11 imagery (e.g., a giant wave, abandoned ruins). Timo Thelen argues that Your Name is a therapeutic film that allows ordinary people to process their helplessness in the face of 3/11 with a narrative in which disaster strikes but takes no victims. 1954’s Godzilla and more recently Shin Godzilla do something similar, containing the nuclear threat in a monster that can be defeated so that the nation is saved.
- A comet strike is a random event; there is no way to plan for such a contingency. In that sense, it’s an even more terrifying natural disaster than an earthquake or tsunami, for which we can prepare by building strong foundations and sea walls. Your Name, however, provides us with a different way of managing disaster: time travel and body swaps. These are obviously not real solutions to natural disasters, but they do some sort of therapeutic work—how? What is the role of narrative in dealing with situations in which we have no agency and traumatic moments which exceed our capacity for understanding? How can storytelling help us make sense of such trauma?
- Who has agency in the film? Who is the victim and who is the savior? Whose narrative voice is in control of the film at key moments? Literally, who is telling the story? Is rural, female Mitsuha in charge of her fate, or is she saved by a male hero from the big city? Pay attention to the way in which the narrative is put together, which character and which bodies can effectively respond to the catastrophic situation?
- Your Name is a story of gender swaps, but it hints only vaguely at gender confusion. The characters ultimately have a straightforward heterosexual relationship. How does the film mark gender? How do we know that the characters are swapped (gestures/behaviors)? What are Taki and Mitsuha respectively able to do in each other’s bodies that the original character could not because of their gender?
- When Taki returns to Itomori on the day of the disaster, he “mobilizes” Mitsuha’s friends to help evacuate the town. This sequence is a playful allusion to protests of government policy (often violently) in the 60s and 70s. Tessie rigs the local power station to explode while Sayaka takes over local broadcasting—both actions resemble the tactics of radical leftists (and students) who agitated to disrupt the cozy relationship between the United States and Japan. There is a curious mix of nostalgia and parody here. Radical leftists and rightists verged into ethically suspect and violent territory in their activities in the 60s and 70s, but the popular and student movements that challenged the Cold War order and imagined an alternative path for Japan remain potent in Japanese historical memory. How does the film handle the “student protestor”? This figure may not have historically succeeded in changing the status quo in the 60s and 70s, but do they succeed here? Can we read this as a sort of redemption of their political project? What role do memories of past (failed) political movements play in our political futures?
Nostalgia & Alienation
Your Name is built around an urban/rural binary. The rural Japan of Mitsuha and the alienated Tokyo of Taki. However, the nostalgic countryside, often figured in media and consumer culture as a space of the “authentic” Japan, is not presented in an unambiguously positive light. The local government, helmed by Mitsuha’s own father, appears to be corrupt. The younger generation resents their boring life and dreams of moving to Tokyo. Indeed, by the end of the film, Mitsuha, Sayaka, and Tessie have relocated to the great metropolis. Sociologists have used the term “alienation” to describe the condition of living in a modern city. City dwellers live in large, anonymous urban agglomerations, often places that they have moved to pursue career opportunities. They don’t necessarily know their neighbors or interact regularly with an extended family that lives nearby. There is little sense of meaningful connection. Rural areas, by contrast, are associated nostalgically with community and continuity with traditions that anchor unmoored moderns in a shared national past. The film explores how the distance between the rural and the urban can be closed and how connections between people are made and maintained; rather than presenting an unabashedly optimistic vision, it holds such questions in tension.
- The film’s characters repeatedly express a sense that they are missing something, perhaps a person, perhaps a place. The first lines of Your Name, spoken by a yet unnamed Mitsuha, are: “Once in a while when I wake up, I find myself crying.” Taki’s voice continues: “I can never recall the dream I must have had. But…” Again, we switch back to Mitsuha, “But.. the sensation that I’ve lost something lingers for a long time after I wake up.” What has been lost? How does this unnamable desire connect the characters, even though they don’t know each other? Note that the red string that reappears in the film (as Mitsuha’s hair ribbon and a visual element in several musical and fantastical sequences in the film) is a symbol of fated connection in East Asia.
- Your Name has beautifully rendered landscapes, both in the countryside and in the city. Mitsuha’s first view of Tokyo, for example, pans over the metropolis, inviting viewers to partake in her sense of awe. Itomori’s rural charm is likewise depicted in the film’s many picturesque landscape shots. What are the pleasures of these landscapes? Mitsuha explicitly admires Tokyo for its cosmopolitan possibilities. How does Taki experience the rural, especially on his trip to the Miyamizu’s guardian shrine in the mountains?
- The film focuses on Itomori’s local traditions, traditions that are upheld by Mitsuha’s maternal grandmother, who takes care of the local Shinto shrine. Mitsuha and her sister are “temple maidens,” responsible for carrying on local traditions. In one scene, Mitsuha dances and produces “kuchikamizake,” a ritual type of sake made from rice that is chewed and fermented with saliva. How do the towns people relate to this tradition? Do they identify with the rituals?
- Although the film showcases various local traditions, and Mitsuha’s family is involved in the Shinto religion, Mitsuha’s grandmother is constantly explaining the significance of these activities (the Shinto concept “musubi,” the weaving practices, the ritual sake). If these are traditions that speak to shared Japanese national past, or at least a shared local past, why isn’t everyone, both in the film and those watching the film, familiar with them already? If people are alienated from so-called tradition, what does it mean for them to consume it through films or touristy knickknacks?
- What about Mitsuha’s father? He has abandoned the priesthood to pursue a political career, but what is the film’s attitude towards local politics and its potential to rejuvenate the countryside? In reality, corruption and mismanagement of funds intended for rural revitalization are common problems in Japan.
- Your Name relies on various technologies to connect the two worlds, Tokyo and Itomori. Tim Shao-Hung Teng points out that the film’s publicity included an app that asked users to choose either Mitsuha or Taki’s stories and synch their screens with other fans accordingly to visually restage their meeting (474). How are cell phones used in the film? What do they allow characters to do?
Technologies of Memory
Your Name is concerned with memory and remembering. At the level of narrative, despite sharing a fantastical and traumatic experience, Mitsuha and Taki do not remember each other after the disaster. While they are body swapping, they only vaguely remember their experiences in the other’s body. Diaries kept on cell phones act as “prosthetic memory” so that each protagonist can “remember” what they did on days when they were not themselves. Finally, Mitsuha’s grandmother, the elder of the family, preserves memory in a much more abstract way, through the ritual forms of Shinto. In its larger context, the film is also a way of remembering the national disaster, albeit with a certain distance, since the film alludes to 3/11 but does not concern those events directly. How are memories maintained? What needs to be remembered? What is under the threat of forgetting?
- Nationally syndicated news is a shared “national” time, a mediated space where everyone in Japan learns about what is happening in the country. It plays in the background in Mitsuha’s house and on giant screens in Tokyo. Does this technological connection establish solidarity? After all, Taki doesn’t even know about the comet incident until he begins searching for Mitsuha, as if news about the cosmic devastation of a rural community was only peripheral to his life. Imagine not knowing that a whole town in America was destroyed by an asteroid three years ago. Seems crazy, but slower forms of violence like the loss of opportunity and rise in addiction in rural areas are easily forgotten by most of the urban population.
- When Taki realizes that Mitsuha has died, all the memories that she had recorded in his cellphone also disappear. This data erasure is alarming to Taki, who struggles to remember Mitsuha even after he has helped her save Itomori. Cell phones and other devices store our memories, photographs, histories, even locations; in a sense, they have become a part of who we are. But why does knowledge of Mitsuha’s death erase all traces of her from Taki’s cell phone?
- The disappearance of records and meaning also troubles the town of Itomori itself; 200 years ago, a fire destroyed all the documents in the local shrine, essentially erasing the previous 800 years of Itomori’s history. Mitsuha’s grandmother explains that they no longer know what their traditions mean, but they continue to perform their forms. Why continue performing “forms” without knowing their meaning?
- Taki documents his visits to Itomori by drawing pictures of the town’s various structures. He recognizes Itomori landscapes at a photo exhibition in Toyko. The photo show is called Kyōshū, literally, a “sorrow for home,” or “nostalgia,” a term that is derived from the Greek for “home/return” and “pain” in its Western context as well. What role do these images play in the narrative? Why is home “painful”? The pictures he draws are obviously important to Taki in his quest to find the town, but Taki’s interest in architecture might also suggest a bigger redemptive possibility of rebuilding a destroyed town, yet the film’s ending doesn’t reference Itomori’s rebuilding at all. All the main characters have moved to Tokyo. Itomori was literally destroyed, but haven’t all the hometowns in the nostalgic photo exhibition in Tokyo have also essentially disappeared, preserved only as photos?