Filmmaker Makoto Shinkai has a loyal following in Japan and America. But until this year's release of the animated feature "Your Name" ("Kimi No Na Wa"), he'd never had a major box office hit.
In the three-plus months that "Your Name" has been in Japanese theaters, however, the film has earned more than 19.4 billion yen (about $174 million). That's made it the No. 1 box office hit in Japan for 2016. In fact, "Your Name," which opened Friday in Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run, is the first animated film not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to gross more than 10 billion yen (about $88 million).
"It's a stroke of luck that goes beyond what can reasonably be credited to my abilities: Our box office goal was only two to three billion yen," said Shinkai in interview conducted via email. " 'Your Name' is a straight-up boy-meets-girl story: I think people, particularly young people, were hungry for an animated film in that genre."
Despite Shinkai's modest description, "Your Name" is anything but "straight-up" — and unlike any American animated feature. Teen-age Mitsuha is bored with her life in rural Japan; Taki, a high school student in Tokyo, wants to be an architect. One morning, they wake up in each other's bodies. They have to navigate their everyday lives without knowing where to find anything or who anybody is.
"I wanted to create a tale of what happens to a boy and girl who are destined to meet," said Shinkai, who began thinking up the story for the film in 2014. "Neither one knows it yet, but somewhere out there is a person they are bound to care deeply about. I thought I might be able to encourage today's young people if I could create a tale that evoked that sort of destiny."
Mitsuha and Taki begin texting and become friends as the weird exchange pattern recurs. Mitsuha's pals are surprised at how assured she becomes when Taki inhabits her body; Taki manages to get a date with an attractive co-worker when Mitsuha's in charge. But some things remains problematic: Mitsuha's little sister asks why she touches her breasts like she's never seen them before. Taki sneaks out of the boy's bathroom, red-faced and uncomfortable.
"Older Japanese body-switching stories focused on the humor of men and women no longer being able to fulfill their societal roles: The humor of a man not being manly or a woman not being womanly," Shinkai explained. "But 'manliness' and 'womanliness' aren't as clearly defined today. A person's nature isn't determined by their biological sex. Taki and Mitsuha don't become angst-ridden when they're switched into bodies of different sexes: Their liveliness in those bodies makes them increasingly popular with the people around them."
As their friendship deepens, Taki discovers they also share a link to a life-threatening disaster caused by the impact of a spectacularly beautiful comet. "The film starts," Shinkai said, "by getting the audience to wonder, 'What would I do if I switched bodies with a girl?' and carries them to a place where they're asking, 'What would I do if a disaster struck my town tomorrow?'"
Shinkai pointed that since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 (which Americans refer to as Fukushima), "Japanese people have been living with the fear that our cities may disappear. But even if that happens, even if we have to move somewhere else, we go on living. We meet someone special. That's what I wanted Mitsuha to do. 'Your Name' may have struck a chord with Japanese viewers for that reason."
Roland Kelts, the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S," feels Shinkai's ability to express the trauma the Japanese experienced in the 2011 earthquake makes "Your Name" significant as well as popular.
"When you look at Shinkai's early films, there's an extraordinary intimacy to them," Kelts said. (The director's previous films include "The Place Promised in Our Early Days," "5 Centimeters Per Second" and "The Garden of Words.") "He's the most intimate anime artist alive. It seems implausible that an artist who makes films about lovers who never quite connect could write about a disaster like the 2011 earthquake. But 'Your Name' shows that an intimate sensibility is the only way to approach a story about the apocalypse."
When the inevitable question arises of whether "Your Name" can repeat its success in Western markets, Shinkai replied, "I made this film primarily for a Japanese audience. I don't know how it will be received in the United States or Europe; I just hope that it will meet viewers there who'll enjoy it.
A limited nationwide run in the U.S. for "Your Name" is slated for early 2017.
MPAA rating: NR
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles