Reviewby Theron Martin,
your name. [Hardcover]
Aimless city boy Taki longs for meaning beyond the bustle of Tokyo, an escape perhaps to the quiet, contemplative countryside. Country girl Mitsuha longs for the city, to escape the doldrums of her small village with its few amenities, not to mention an embarrassing ritual she does each year for the local Shinto shrine and a politician father who has distanced himself from her family ever since their mother's death. Both get their wishes when they find themselves inexplicably switching bodies on a regular basis as a comet on a 1,200-year orbit makes passes over the Earth. At first they both think it's just a dream, but they gradually realize what's happening is real, that there is another person out there that they are connecting with, and start planning accordingly. They even find alternate ways to communicate with each other, since they can't call or text each other directly for some reason. But one day, the body-jumping stops completely, leaving Taki with only a fading memory of Mitsuha and a mystery to be solved, which will change everything for these two souls rapidly falling in love.
In 2002 Makoto Shinkai effectively shouted his name to the anime industry and fandom with the release of Voices of a Distant Star, an OVA that caught attention both for nearly one-man production team and its simple, potent story about teenage lovers trying to stay in contact even as the time and space that separated them became interstellar. Deep sentimentality and themes about longing for connection across seemingly insurmountable barriers have been recurring elements of Shinkai's work ever since, so I'm hardly the only one who has wondered if Shinkai is capable of making anything else. your name. does not stray from that pattern – in fact, if anything it doubles-down – but I find it hard to hold that against him when the result is so effective, making the film version into a phenomenon that's now the highest-grossing Japanese movie ever in worldwide ticket sales.
This novel version, which Shinkai says in the Afterword he didn't originally intend to make, was written concurrently with the movie's production and actually came out three months earlier. It's exactly the same story as the movie, down to being a virtual scene-for-scene recreation. In fact, the only real variations are some minor expansions on certain details that couldn't have as been fleshed-out easily in the movie (such as a little more on Taki's assumptions about the forgotten role of Shinto priestesses in Mitsuha's family line), though the movie also has some visual cues that aren't as easily reproduced in print form. Shinkai himself sees the book as a companion piece to the movie, and to an extent I agree; it does allow you to read in more detail some text that flashes by quickly in the movie version, for instance. However, the additional insight you'll get into the story by reading the novel after seeing the movie (or vice versa) is minimal.
The one big difference between the two versions is that the movie uses a third-person perspective, while the novel uses a first-person perspective. It smoothly shifts back and forth between Taki and Mitsuha's perspectives, always relying on context for the reader to figure out whose eyes we're seeing through rather than just naming the viewpoint character outright. This works in part because identity ambiguity is sometimes appropriate for the situation, as initially neither Taki nor Mitsuha is clear about what's going on. The writing style is also unmistakably Shinkai's; anyone who has seen any of his anime productions could identify him as the author right away. The sense of longing and striving for connection comes through just as well in his writing as it does in his filmmaking.
For those who haven't seen the movie version, this story is to some degree a typical body-swapping tale, in that the process of each character living the other's life brings the two characters closer together in a more intimate understanding of each other. It strays markedly from titles like Kokoro Connect in that the swapping happens at great distance, resulting in a sense of indefinable longing for the participants in the aftermath. While much of the story's first half is normal day-to-day consequences of the swap, there's also a much more involved plot afoot than is readily apparent at first, which dominates the second half after a massive plot twist is revealed. It partly involves a favorite topic of mine – the way that the original meaning of certain rituals and practices can be lost over time due to calamity or cultural drift – and packs a fair dose of mysticism into the story beyond the body-swapping gimmick. The story also delves heavily into contemplation of the way that memories are stored, something Shinkai also comments on in the Afterword; are memories part of the soul or the body or split between both, and what might the consequences of that truth be in a situation like this?
The book is short even by the standard of light novels, clocking in at only 174 pages of story, and that includes generous chapter breaks. It's a very small book in terms of dimensions too, even in hardcover; it's only slightly bigger than a typical manga and decidedly smaller than most other light novels that Yen Press has released. This also results in smaller-than-normal print. The book's slipcover features the same artwork used on advertising posters for the movie version. It contains no other illustrations and includes a three page Afterword by Shinkai and a four page essay by the anime's producer, Genkai Kawamura.
If you like Shinkai's other works, then you will almost certainly like this one too, since it's arguably his crowning achievement to date. (In fact, according to the extras in the novel, that's exactly what it was intended to be.) To merely describe it that way is selling the story short, however, since his appeal has reached vastly beyond normal Shinkai devotees with this work. I find that the lack of visuals and musical score, which can be crucial to fostering the tone of Shinkai's works, hurts both the story and its dramatic effect a bit, which is why I wouldn't rate this version quite as highly as the movie. Even so, this is still an achingly poignant tale for reasons well beyond the central romance, and it concludes in a satisfying direction that's contrary to many of his previous works.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
+ Captures the full spirit and sentiment of Makoto Shinkai's work, compelling second half of the story
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