Beyond The Multiplex: The Anime Hit ‘Your Name’ And The Vampire Drama ‘The Transfiguration’

Beyond the Multiplex is an occasional round-up of new arthouse releases.

The world may be getting smaller and more and more movies tailored for the global box office, but some films can sweep across whole regions of the globe but arrive here as arthouse curiosities, if they arrive here at all. (See the recent work of Kung Fu Hustle’s Stephen Chow, for instance — if you can.) Apart from the films of Hayao Miyazaki, anime largely remains a cult taste in North America. But if any film could break out beyond that cult it’s Your Name, which became a hit across Asia last year on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of the year in Japan and, after Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the second highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, all without playing in the U.S apart from a short, awards-qualifying run in December.

Your Name missed out on Oscar nominations, but they’re probably not far in the future of director Makoto Shinkai, who’s been widely heralded as anime’s Next Big Thing. It’s easy to see why. You’re Name is a visually arresting film made with great feeling and filled with moments of quiet wonder, a story of missed connections and cosmic misadventures that begins as a wacky comedy and ends with an attempt to battle fate itself as two characters try to figure out how the fit into the world and what, if anything, they mean to each other. It’s ambitious, in other words, and it lives up to that ambition in nearly every moment.

Mitsuha (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi in the Japanese-language version and Stephanie Sheh in the English dub, both of which are being released), is a teenage girl from the provincial town of Itomori, a place with of great natural beauty but without one character notes, bookstores, cafes, or much else to make life interesting. Much of Mitsuha’s life revolves around the local shrine, to which her family tends, and her widowed father, the town’s mayor. She dreams of escaping to Tokyo and living the exciting life of a teenage boy. Enter, sort of, Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki / Michael Sinterniklaas), a teenage boy in Tokyo whose life is more awkward than exciting, in part because he’s nursing a crush on Miki (Masami Nagasawa / Laura Post), a slightly older co-worker at the restaurant where he works between classes.

Though they don’t know each other, Mitsuha and Taki find themselves occasionally trading bodies, a mix-up that seems to have something to do with an approaching comet, though neither can quite figure out what. So they decide to make the most of it, and in the process find they’re improving each others’ lives. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, is bolder with Miki, even setting up a date that Taki then nervously has to make good on. Taki takes more chances as Mitsuha than Mitsuha would ever take on her own. They leave notes for each other. They develop a rapport. They begin an odd, but oddly functional, relationship in which they never meet but know each other better than anyone else. And then Mitsuha disappears.

It’s here that Your Name transforms from a sweet, sort-of romantic comedy into an X-Files-ish mystery. It’s also at this point that the film becomes a little less compelling. After spending so much time on Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, Shinkai’s film isn’t quite as assured when they’re on their own. Still, the emotions keep it moving, to say nothing of the visuals. Shinkai lets the drama play out against sumptuous landscapes — be it the hills around Itomori or the streets of Tokyo — unforgettable places he fills with passionate, searching characters haunted by a happiness that eludes them and a loneliness they’re not sure they can ever overcome — even if they suspect they have a soulmate chosen by the stars themselves. By the time Your Name reaches its moving finale, the Next Big Thing tag doesn’t seem quite enough for Shinkai. He’s arrived already.

Or, for a different sort of coming-of-age story, you could seek out The Transfiguration, the first film from writer/director Michael O’Shea. An eerie, unsettling story that uses its low budget to its advantage, it seems at times to be an answer to the question, “Why, Scream series aside, doesn’t anyone in a horror movie seem to know much about horror movies?” Eric Ruffin stars as Milo, a quiet kid from the New York projects who gets picked on a “freak” by his neighborhood’s gang members. They’re not wrong, really, but not for the reasons they suspect.

Milo knows all about vampires, but his reasons for that knowledge have more to do with the need to research than any sort of fan-ish enthusiasm for bloodsuckers. He has a shelf of hand-labeled VHS tapes that includes Blacula and The Lost Boys. Vampire images line his wall. And he keeps a notebook filled with thoughts on what it means to be a vampire, because he is one. Maybe.

He’s certainly not averse to drinking blood, taking down victims in public bathrooms and local parks. But he uses a penknife, not fangs, to do his killing, and he doesn’t seem to be especially averse to sunlight or garlic. Not that anyone pays him much notice. He has a therapist who doesn’t seem to have much patience for him and a brother who mostly just stares at the TV, possibly because their mother’s suicide and the horrors he witnessed as a soldier have made staying put seem like the best option.

But Milow does find a friend in Sophie (Chloe Levine), a new addition to his apartment building and a white girl in a neighborhood where white girls stick out. They strike up a sweet romance in spite of their differing tastes in vampire fiction. She likes Twilight and True Blood. He judges vampire stories based on how “realistic” they are, citing Let the Right One In and Martin as particular favorites.

In a way, O’Shea referencing Martin is a matter of the film beating everyone else who’s seen George Romero’s 1978 classic to the bunch. Romero’s movie is also about a troubled kid who thinks he’s a vampire, and whose undead status the film refuses to confirm or deny. But The Transfiguration wears the comparison well. Just as Romero grounded Martin in the reality of an economically stagnant ‘70s Pittsburgh, O’Shea’s film remains rooted in the perilous world of New York’s projects, where a vampire counts as just one more threat in an already dangerous environment. And just as Romero refused to romanticize his film’s protagonist, The Transfiguration stirs a lot of sympathy for Milo without looking away as his condition, supernatural or otherwise, leads him to do some horrible things. It’s a horror film without much in the way of real scares, but its matter-of-factness just makes it scarier.