Leaving the movie of the 2016 Academy Awards shows its inherent bias.
Out of the 89 years of the Academy Awards, only one Japanese anime film won Best Animated Feature Film: Hayao Miyazaki’s classic “Spirited Away” in 2003. In the almost fifteen years since then, very few anime films and shorts show up in the list. The snobbery for anime showed up again last year when the Academy did not nominate the internationally successful film “Your Name” (Kimi no Na Wa) from director Makoto Shinkai. After its release, multiple awards worldwide, and critical acclaim, the Academy missed recognizing “Your Name” as an example of a work that goes beyond the standard anime genre to tell the story of fate, missed connections, and first love.
Set in contemporary Japan, “Your Name” revolves around two students who intermittently switch bodies for no apparent reason or cause. Taki Tachibana lives the modern dream, attending a good school and living in a nice Tokyo apartment. He feels discontent though, an unknown missing piece weighing down his life. Across Japan, in a (fictional) mountain village of Itomori, Mitsuha Miyamizu lives a quaint rural life that she can’t stand. As a keeper of her ancestral home shrine, Mitsuha longs to leave her town, explore the larger world, and become a handsome Tokyo boy in her next life.
Her wish comes somewhat true when she and Taki realize that their “dreams” of switching places with each other actually take place in reality, and the two form a bond over their fated connection. Their story, however, doesn’t remain a cheery romantic comedy and innocent slice of life for long — an impending comet flying over Japan breaks off, the chunks landing in Mitsuha’s town, and destroying all of Itomori. When Taki realizes he actually lives three years ahead of Mitsuha, he must figure out how to use their connection to save her and her town.
“Your Name” became an early contender for Oscar fodder at its release in the summer of 2016. It premiered at the massively popular anime convention Anime Expo in Los Angeles, California, and became a crowd favorite following its debuts around the world. When it made its theatrical launch in the United States the following April in 2017, it grossed over $5 million dollars on opening weekend. Over a year later, “Your Name” earned over $355 million worldwide, and its deluxe DVD pre-orders already sold out in the United States. For the first major work and feature-length film from up-and-coming director Makoto Shinkai, “Your Name” had no reason to get overlooked by the Academy.
Shinkai’s trademark on the industry remains his hyper-real animation of his settings, characters, and an almost otherworldly Japan. From glistening Tokyo, to Mitsuha’s small mountainside village, all of the backgrounds and settings look like real places in Japan. Other anime styles look realistic when they take place in Japan, but “Your Name” works on a higher level for the photographic clarity of every scene. On top of that, the comet acts as a driving force in the movie, but he animated it so well it looks almost innocent. The celestial look to the way Shinkai drew the sky, the town of Itomori, and the comet created a more magical feel to an otherwise everyday life movie.
Take the moment when Mitsuha watches the comment fly over Itomori, on the same day as the town’s spring festival. Lanterns illuminate the traditional vendor stands in a soft orange hue, students walk around in traditional kimonos, and the early evening sun turns the whole sky pink. Mitsuha goes for a walk with her friends to the fields for the best view of the comet, and inbrilliant arc it sparks across the sky, like pastel fireworks. The audience feels the same awe as Mitsuha staring up at the dusky blue sky. As the stars fall, it dawns on you at about the same time it this Mitsuha the imminent danger Itomoria faces. The artistry of the scene going beyond any form of animation, because once immersed in Shinkai’s Japan, it doesn’t feel like watching an anime, it feels like enjoying a film.
Aside from its identity as modern Japanese pop art, anime as a medium affords certain factors that only work through its own definitions, tropes, and artistic styles — and even then some more specific references to Japanese culture. I think that this level of foreign media puts off a majority of Western viewers. When seeing anime imports like “Pokemon,” “Sailor Moon,” and “Dragon Ball Z,” the genre earns a reputation that only masterful works — but still heavily “other-ized” sensibilities — like Miyazaki can afford to pull off. But “Your Name” manages to keep Japan at its core as the characters move around it and tell an otherwise not too unbelievable human story. In the same vein as Disney’s trademark look, or the beauty of Pixar animation, the style of anime in “Your Name” uses its medium to tell a meaningful story.
The anime industry in Japan amasses about $18 million dollars, according to the Association of Japanese Animations in an NPR story, and yet preconceived definitions and misconceptions of anime discount its films for consideration from the legacy Western awards such as the Oscars. I believe that the Academy acted with a bias against anime when they didn’t consider “Your Name” for Best Animated Feature Film in 2016. “Your Name” compares easily to heavy hitters like “Zootopia,” and “Moana,” sharing the same core themes of good animated movies: family, friendship, saving the day, and doing good. “Your Name” marks Shinkai’s first major stake in the game of animation, and the Academy should not — and cannot — continue to ignore his work.