Two weeks ago, the United States’ box office saw a surprising animated feature take the top spot and generate large amounts of discussion — and memes — on social media.
That was Dreamworks’ “The Boss Baby,” starring Alec Baldwin as a dapper, sassy infant.
Further down the list was “Your Name.,” the highest-grossing movie in Japan last year, which made its North American debut on April 7 in select theaters. Directed by Makoto Shinkai, the anime feature about body-switching high school kids opened to $1.6 million, pretty good for 13th place.
The film wasn’t put out by one of Hollywood’s powerhouse distributors and is only screening in just over 300 theaters, but still brought in more than $600,000 on its first day, an impressive showing for an anime feature that didn’t get too much attention in the West prior to its release. As website Cartoon Brew noted, the last independently released film to pull off similar numbers “Un Gallo con Muchos Huevos,” an animated Mexican flick from 2015.
Western critics have almost unanimously praised the film. Looking at review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, “Your Name.” holds a 97 percent “fresh” rating (take that “Boss Baby,” with your 52 percent). Out of 76 reviews, 74 of them have been positive. The two negative takes came courtesy of The Seattle Times (“overly complicated”) and MovieMail back in late 2016 (a site that seems to have had its reviews scrubbed after joining with Simply Home Entertainment).
Japan should be patting itself on the back after this soft-power success. In particular, “Your Name.” stands out against two other hyped-up films based on Japan and its pop culture: Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and action blockbuster “Ghost in the Shell.” The former looked like a classic vehicle for scooping up awards, but Oscar was, uh … silent. The latter cost its studio millions following a disappointing showing at theaters.
Looking purely at numbers, “Silence” and “Ghost in the Shell” trump “Your Name.” But in terms of cultural impact, the anime is being perceived as inspirational, while “Silence” has been forgotten and “Ghost” is being remembered for its whitewashing controversy.
“Your Name.” wasn’t aimed at a global audience — in fact, those involved with it didn’t even realize how big it would be domestically — but still had a universal theme. There was a youthful optimism at its center, and many gushing reviews focus on the emotions stirred up by the main characters’ stories. It wasn’t focus-grouped into being awards-bait or the next big franchise — it was just allowed to be.
The far bigger triumph, however, comes from its reception in non-Western countries. On Twitter, writer Matt Alt noted that the real story isn’t that “Your Name.” is the all-time best-selling anime globally (it is), “but that it got that way without needing the U.S.” Stateside accolades are nice, but the markets closer to Japan may just decide our future blockbusters.