The Phenomenon Of KIMI NO NA WA: A Study of the International Success of Anime and Japanese Media

The East Asian country of Japan has a modern history of what can be called an identity crisis. In 1873, the country abolished Japanese and declared English to be the national language.[1] While this has obviously changed since then, the country has always had an obsession with westernization. In his book, Return to Asia? Japan in the Global Audio-Visual Market, Koichi Iwabuchi describes Japan’s modern history as “a cultural hybridization through the processes of ‘Westernization’, ‘Japanization’, and ‘de-Asianization.” In the pre-War period, Japan’s westernization attempts coexisted with an attempt at Asianism: emphasizing solidarity with fellow Asian countries against Western imperialism. This was an issue as Japan was not only distrusted by Western powers, but they were distrusted by their fellow Asian countries who saw the island country as territorial. Therefore, while Japan was attempting to unify Eastern and Western civilizations and societal practices, the country failed to identify as either. In the nineties, Japan adopted the “New Asainism” principle, establishing itself as a strong economic factor within the continent of Asia. This was an important step for Japan economically, as the country previously relied on Western imports with hardly any exports, if any. In his book, Iwabuchi describes how important this step was for Japan for their audio-visual market. The international success of Japan’s audio-visual market and other international markets can be accredited to what Sony calls “global localization.” Iwabuchi defines the term as being “sensitive to local preference in order to spread standardized commodities overseas.” These exports are Japanese with enough Western attributes to succeed internationally. A recent and incredibly successful example of these exports is Makoto Shinkai’s 2017 anime film, Kimi no na Wa (Your Name.).[2] Even within the film itself, Shinkai displays Japan’s social and economic evolution. Kate Stables of Sight & Sound explains this by stating, “As the film swings back and forth between mountain shrines and Shinjuku Station, it eloquently and elegantly expresses not only teen confusion but also the tensions between old and new Japan.”[3] Your Name made a huge splash not only in Japan, but all over the world, especially in the US and around the world. According to Ollie Barder of Forbes magazine, Your Name made the Oscars’ consideration list in 2017 for Best Animated Feature.[4]  Kimi no na wa became the most successful anime film of all time due to domestic and worldwide theatrical release, stunning visuals, and universal storytelling.

Aside from its landmark international success, Kimi no na Wa was also a smash hit and record breaking film for Japan domestically. According to Ollie Barder, “Kimi no Na wa, also known as Your Name, has been hugely successful at the Japanese box office. Earning in excess of 17.9 billion yen, or around $170 million, it has also hovered at the top of the Japanese box office rankings now for almost three months.” This makes it the highest grossing film of all time in the country of Japan. While the film has been a historical success in Japan, the importance of Your Name comes from its success overseas. Even though the film failed to get nominated for the Academy Award, the film received a major theatrical release in the US. In 2017, Mike Duboise, COO of Funimation Entertainment, announced to the West (USA and Canada), “Based on audience reaction around the world and a week’s worth of sold out screenings during the film’s Oscar qualifying run last December, we expect ‘Your Name’ to be a hit with North American theatergoers this April.”[5] The importance of this accomplishment for not only an anime film, but for a Japanese film, is that the only films to accomplish this prior to Your Name were through Disney’s Studio Ghibli; a world renowned studio with popular films from director Hayao Miyazaki such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo being recognized by moviegoers across the US. When describing the success of Your Name, Mokugyo (writer for Manga Tokyo) writes,

Needless to say, it is by far the best selling movie (both foreign and domestic) to be released in Japan this year. It’s also the first animated film to exceed a revenue of 10 billion yen after those directed by Hayao Miyazaki; it even surpassed Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises (11.64 billion yen).[6]

According to Riley Hutchins of comicbook.com, “The film has officially outgrossed Spirited Away, which was the most successful film in Japanese History, having grossed $289 million worldwide.”[7] Another Japanese anime film that had tremendous domestic and international success the same year (not to the extent of Your Name) is Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice.[8] According to Box Office Mojo, the film made the equivalent of just over nineteen million US dollars in the Japanese box office and just about three million dollars outside of the country.[9] While A Silent Voice was also an important film for Japanese anime and media, it still didn’t achieve the astronomical success that Kimi no na Wa has. The success of Your Name on both the Japanese and worldwide box office is an important factor of why it is the most successful Japanese film of all time.

An incredibly important factor as to why Your Name was so attractive to Japanese and worldwide filmgoers alike is the stunning animation and visuals presented by director, Makoto Shinkai. Scott Douglas of the Mountain Xpress (who is open about not being keen on sappy romance stories) writes in his film review,

I would have given this film a strong recommendation on the basis of its narrative construction alone, but it’s also a visually stunning accomplishment of animation. Shinkai, a former graphic designer and self-taught animator, has developed a process of CG augmentation that combines the intimacy of hand-painted cels with the immediacy of hyper realistic backgrounds.[10]

By creating beautiful backgrounds and overall setting, Makoto Shinkai was able to wrap this universally relatable love story in a visually stunning packaging that displayed both old-school mountainous, rural Japan and the modern, commercialized country. Referring back to the Iwabuchi book,[11] Shinkai was able to tell the world the story of Japan’s progress through westernization, Japanization, de-asianization, and “new asianism” through gorgeous backgrounds and a little help from time travel. Mokugyo writes, “In Your Name the viewers are able to rediscover how beautiful Japan really is.”[12] She goes on to explain, “The male protagonist, Taki, lives in Tokyo, but the town is illustrated in a way that paints the city in a favorable light. Mitsuha, on the other hand, lives in a beautiful rural town, surrounded by nature. Shinkai has established his reputation for illustrating realistic and beautiful background scenery.” The hyper realistic style of animation is one that other parts of the world outside of Japan do not often see, so when an animated film comes out that is so visually engaging, the entire world tunes in.

Relatability and identification with the audience is one of the most important factors in selling any film or product in general. What I believe to be the key factor in the incredible international success of Your Name is its universal storytelling. The film contains themes of love, teenage struggle, and empathy. These are all themes that, regardless what country or continent someone is from, they can identify with. The story of Kimi no na Wa follows two teenagers of the opposite sex and opposite sides of Japan who wake up in each other’s bodies and have to live through their eyes in their world. Although annoyed and objective at first, the two begin to understand and admire the other’s personal qualities and societal situations, eventually falling for one another. Without tremendous spoilers, aspects of time travel engage as the two desperately  try to find each other. As Douglas puts it, “The plot’s a little like The Shop Around the Corner meets Freaky Friday with a touch of time travel thrown in for good measure.”[13] On why the film’s narrative succeeds, Douglas also writes, “The reason this film succeeds where so many other contrived romances fail is its sincerity — as perplexingly implausible as it is, it never feels false or manipulative.” Kate Stables describes how Shinkai uses the unique plot to tell an engaging and relatable story. She writes, “Rather than Freaky Friday hilarity, the switching dramas are all on teen topics, charmingly executed: clumsy dating, high-school embarrassments, even a very Japanese gaffe about using wrongly gendered language.”[14] Again, the story explores themes that regardless of location or even age, the audience can identify with and have empathy for the characters involved. Your Name is also heavily driven by the idea of destiny. The first words spoken in the film are, “I always feel like I’m searching for something, someone.”[15] Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com specifically touches on that first line of the film, writing,

Haven’t we all felt that at some point in our lives? A sense of displacement from our daily lives, and a search for something that would anchor us to a more commonly perceived sense of normalcy? The Japanese phenomenon “Your Name” (it was the highest grossing film of last year in the country and the highest grossing anime film of all time worldwide, passing “Spirited Away”) is about this highly relatable sense of looking for something, someone, someplace. And so much more.[16]

The way Shinkai allows the audience to really see themselves in these characters makes Your Name not only a film that can be loved by anyone, but a timeless film as well.

Through Japan’s history, the country has gone through an identity crisis, not really sure if it should establish itself as a westernized state or pride itself as an Asian country. In recent history, however, Japan has been able to establish a balance in culture and media between western themes and aesthetic and their own rich history and culture. Makoto Shinkai’s 2017 anime film Kimi no na Wa (Your Name) is a perfect example of this and achieved incredible domestic and worldwide success due to its wide theatrical release, amazing art and animation, and universal themes.

[1]Koichi IWABUCHI. “Return to Asia? Japan in the Global Audio-Visual Market.” (pg 226-45, 1994).

[2] Makoto Shinkai, “Kimi no na Wa.” (2017).

[3] Kate Stables, “Film of the week: Your Name.” (2017).

[4] Ollie Barder, “‘Kimi No Na Wa’ Makes Oscar Consideration List For Best Animated Feature.” (2016).

[5] Funimation, “MAKOTO SHINKAI MASTERPIECE ‘YOUR NAME.’ TO OPEN IN NORTH AMERICAN THEATERS APRIL 7, 2017.” (2017).

[6] Mokugyo, “Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name) and Its Story of Success.” (2017).

[7] Riley Hutchins, “Kimi No Na Wa Becomes Highest-Grossing Anime Film Ever.” (2017).

[8] Naoko Yamada, “A Silent Voice” (2017).

[9]Box Office Mojo, “A Silent Voice (2017) – International Box Office Results.” (2017).

[10] Scott Douglas, “Your Name. (Kimi No Na Wa).” (pg 63-64, 2017).

[11] Koichi IWABUCHI. “Return to Asia? Japan in the Global Audio-Visual Market.” (pg 226-45, 1994).

[12] Mokugyo, “Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name) and Its Story of Success.” (2017).

[13] Scott Douglas, “Your Name. (Kimi No Na Wa).” (pg 63-64, 2017).

[14] Kate Stables, “Film of the week: Your Name” (2017).

[15] Makoto Shinkai, “Kimi no na Wa” (2017).

[16] Brian Tallerico, “Your Name” review, (2017).