Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Time of Who Goes There

Have you dreamed you are in a different body, even that of someone of a different gender? Have you noticed that you are a time traveler in dreams? Do you have the sense that you may be leading a parallel life? Do you feel you know far more than you can remember about a deeper reality?
    These themes and more - the liminal state of adolescence, and twilight zones of reality and consciousness - are beautifully explored in a recent Japanese animated movie I discovered when a friend shared a dream that had the visual quality of a film in this genre.
    "I was riding a train to the Moon," she told me. "The train crossed a bridge that was a long, bright crescent. I knew I had to get off at the third stop. You looked different - older but strong and sharper-featured - and I became aware I was dreaming."
    The train to the Moon made me think of Hayao Myazaki's animated films. I went online to refresh my memory and stumbled across a remarkable anime film released in Japan last year as “Your Name”. The original title was “If I Had Known It Was a Dream”, from a line in a famous ninth-century poem that ends “I would not have woken up.” Soon I had it streaming on my screen.
     "Your Name", written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, is a gorgeously-visualized story of body swapping, time travel and parallel worlds. A boy in downtown Tokyo and a girl in a mountain village wake up in each other’s bodies and each other’s lives. 

Spoiler alert  Plot surprises are revealed in the summary that follows.

    In an early scene we see the astonishment of Taki (the Tokyo boy) waking up to realize he’s in the body of a girl named Mitsuha. He’s still feeling her young breasts as her little sister comes to call her to breakfast. The grandmother tells him he’s more “normal” today. Yesterday he was “nuts” and didn’t know how to tie his hair. 
    On the way to school, someone asks if Mitsuha's grandmother had him exorcized because the day before he was acting completely possessed. In class, when a teacher calls “Mitsuha,” the boy in her body is just able to respond; the day before, he did not recognize this name.          The teacher’s blackboard lesson is fascinating. She is explaining the etymology of a Japanese word for "twilight." It literally means "Who goes there?" This is the theme of the whole story, and we will discover in the denouement that twilight is truly magic time.
    Mitsuha, in her own body, participates in a ritual at a Shinto shrine, making sacred sake the old way by masticating rice and spitting into a bowl. After, she screams her frustration at being “stuck in a weird dream, living someone else’s life.” She wishes that in her next life she will be “a handsome boy in central Tokyo.”
     Scene shift to Tokyo: Taki is wakened by his cell phone. But he's not there. Mitsuha is in his body. Now we see the girl experience the shock of discovering that she's changed sex overnight. Mitsuha is horrified when she reaches between the legs of the body she is in. She doesn't know Taki's routine - where he goes to school, where he waits tables after school. She must be dreaming of course, but she's amazed by the realism of this dream and wonders where it will end. She finds Taki's online diary and enters a message.Before sleep, she writes her name on the boy’s palm.
    Next day neither remembers the body-switching, but both boy and girl find they have messages written in markers on their hands. They go over their journals and come to the shocking conclusion that in their dreams they are switching bodies. This seems to be happening randomly a few times a week.
    They come up with a survival strategy. They’ll give each other guidelines, like "Use the right bathroom." They’ll go on posting diary notes on each other’s smartphones. Taki reads this entry in his phone diary: "Today is the day we’ll be able to see the comet". But there is no comet in the sky that day on his timeline. As we will discover, the comet appeared three years earlier. Taki and Mitsuha are not only living in different places; they are living in different times.
   Mitsuha, in her own body and her own time, watches the comet. It splits in the sky, hurling a lethal fragment straight at her village. We understands that the comet kills her and wipes out her village. After this episode, Taki stops waking up in her body. He entries in his smartphone diary fade away.
    Is it possible to bend events in the past, to save the girl from the death she experiences three years earlier? It's a crazy idea, but then it's crazy that boy and girl have been swapping bodies and living parts of each other's lives. If their destinies are that closely intertwined, maybe there's a chance that Taki can reach her across time, warn her about the coming disaster - and save her life and others.
    So the quest begins. Taki does not know the name of Mitsuha's village, but he has sketches he has made from his second life of its beautiful setting. Out in the countryside, a woman in a noodle shop recognizes the location in his pictures.
   Taki goes to the site. The village is gone, replaced by the crater made by the meteor.  All seems lost, but then then there is sake, and archaic technology for relocating spirits and stepping in and out of time. He finds his way to the place of a god, a placee where Mitsuha left “half herself” in safekeeping. The container of a vital part of her spirit is  a jug of kuchikamisake, sacred sake, made with her own spit.
     Taki drinks this. We understand that he is ingesting part of Mitsuha's vital essence. Now we see the unbraiding and re-weaving of time. This is visually compelling, bringing alive an ancient tradition. We come to understand that corded braids represent the threads of time, which can be knotted and unknotted.
      Now Taki is back in Mitsuha’s body on the day that the comet will strike. He struggles to get people to evacuate the village, without much success.
    Meanwhile Mitsuha is on a train to Tokyo in search of him. “If I see you I will know I was in your body.” But his number is unavailable (because they are living three years removed from each other, which she does not yet understand. She finds Taki on a train. He does not recognize her but she gives him her name.
     They are finally able to see each other and meet on the lip of the crater where there is the home of the old god. This begins and ends in the space of twilight. We are reminded of the blackboard early in the film, on which the teacher writes the kanji for Tasogare-doki , twilight time, and explains that it means the time of “'Who Goes There?”. The sense of the expression is that at twilight, t’s still light enough to see someone but too dark to recognize them. For much of the film, the dialect word kataware-doki is used.
    Thanks to Taki's journey across time, the people of Mitsuha's town are saved, though the town itself is destroyed.
    We can't stop without some romance. Mitsuha and Taki continue to seek each other. They finally spot each other on trains in the big city, as they travel on parallel lines. By this time, just as dreams fade, they have forgotten almost everything 
– including each other’s names – except that something restless in their souls has kept them searching for someone, somewhere.

Makoto Shinkai wrote a "light novel", also titled Your Name, while making his film, and it is well worth reading, though I recommend watching the movie first.

1 comment:

Sandy Brown Jensen said...

That is an amazing story! Thank you so much for pointing me to it and for taking the time to explicate it.