By Andrew Osmond.
We wake to the news that Makoto Shinkai’s blockbuster Your Name is being developed as a live-action Hollywood film, with no less a name attached than J.J. Abrams as producer – though it may be more significant that the on-board writer is Eric Heisserer, who scripted Arrival. We should stress that most of the crucial details are unconfirmed. We don’t know who’ll direct the remake, or who’s being considered for the roles of the star-crossed teenagers – at least we presume they’ll still be star-crossed teenagers.
Perhaps more importantly for anyone whose reaction is to start a protest petition, there’s no confirmation about where the remake will be set, or the ethnicity of the characters. Yes, going on past Hollywood form, it’s easy to assume that a Hollywood remake would be set in America (as I speculated in an article months ago) with white actors. Then again, a genre veteran like Abrams is likely to pay more attention to fans than most Hollywood insiders, and those fans have been very loudly against whitewashing in the last year.
However, I think there’s a big difference between Your Name and recent cause celebres such as the American versions of Ghost in the Shell and Death Note. Both latter titles had something in common – they had enormously iconic central characters. Motoko Kusanagi, Light Yagami and L are giants in anime and manga pop-culture, perhaps even bigger than the titles they appear in. Even giving those characters new names, like “Mira Killian” and “Light Turner”, was met with outrage.
With Your Name, the lead characters Mitsuha and Taki aren’t on that level. They’re enormously likable, of course – we care about them deeply, or the film wouldn’t have been a smash. But it’s surely the case that the film really soared because of its fascinating scenario; its shocking mid-film twist; its brilliant mixture of broad comedy and emotional anguish; its gripping against-the-clock climax; and of course its bravura spectacle of town, country and plunging comet. Wags are already predicting that J.J. Abrams will slather the remake in lens flares, but that’s not quite the same.
Given that Your Name’s lead characters are muted compared to those in Death Note and GITS, I suspect fans might be less upset if Mitsuha and Taki were altered for the remake (most obviously, if they were turned into white Americans). Whether I’m right or wrong about that, it would be an interesting control case, to see how much “whitewashing” controversies pivot around non-white characters or non-white properties.
Let’s move on. I’ve argued previously that Your Name’s pop comedy-drama is surprisingly close to a Hollywood smash like the original Back to the Future. Of course, Back to the Future is still far more comedic than Your Name, and one big question is whether a Hollywood remake can preserve the film’s rollercoaster swerves in tone without losing the audience. As a generalisation, animated films can negotiate drastic tonal shifts far better than live-action ones.
I suspect a more comedic remake of Your Name, full of body-swap confusions and gaffes, would be likelier to annoy fans of the original. On the other hand, it may be easier to sell such a film to the mainstream. Yet it’s quite possible to imagine a “straighter” remake of Your Name as well, perhaps closer to Abrams’ own pop-thriller Super 8, which also had young characters and a twisty, scary mystery. That could work, though for me it’d be strange to see one of the most “Hollywood” anime films ever made lose some of its most obviously Hollywood elements.
I also suspect that a Hollywood film would strive to make Mitsuha and Taki into far more vivid screen presences. Back to the Future had hugely iconic live-action performers in Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, but that was a male pairing; BTTF’s females were far less memorable. Given Your Name is a body-swap story, the filmmakers may well consult past Hollywood body-swap films like Freaky Friday, which launched two young female actors: Jodie Foster in the 1974 film and Lindsay Lohan in the 2003 version. I was always a bit disappointed that the Your Name anime didn’t show more of Taki having to cope in a girl’s body – a remake could adjust the balance.
Let’s finish, though, by looking at a more politicised argument, if the remake turns out to be set in America with white characters. Whitewashing apart, Your Name is the kind of film where some pundits may argue that it’s inseparable from its traumatic Japanese context. And it’s indisputable that Your Name has such a context. As Shinkai himself said explicitly, he made the anime film as a response to the tragedy of the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011, and the painful sense that if only people could have been warned sooner that disaster would strike.
And yet… very obviously Your Name is not inseparable from that context. People can be touched and moved by Your Name without any idea of its tragic background, the way most Star Wars viewers never think of how it reflected the post-Vietnam zeitgeist in America (George Lucas had nearly made Apocalypse Now). When Your Name was released, I asked a Japanese friend who loved the film what he thought of it as a fantasy about “saving people from Tohoku”. He said it never struck him that way.
Moreover, the in-vogue argument that stories shouldn’t be removed from their original cultural contexts is a particularly odd one. Presumably if it’s true, it should be true universally, and not through some slide-rule of privilege. By that logic, Akira Kurosawa was idiotically wrongheaded to adapt the British plays Macbeth and King Lear as Throne of Blood and Ran; the same applies to Ghibli’s versions of Britain’s Arrietty and When Marnie Was There.
But it’s also a hard argument to sustain because Your Name’s ingredients have been seen before in Hollywood cinema. And we’re not just talking about Hollywood body-swaps like Freaky Friday and Vice Versa, but about the plot ideas in Your Name’s twisty second half. If you don’t mind spoilers for 25 year-old films, have a look at this trailer for the 1992 film Timescape, especially the final images… and then try arguing that Your Name’s story couldn’t be transposed to America.