How Anime 'Your Name' Became an Unlikely Phenomenon

'Your Name' still - H 2016
Courtesy of Toho

The low-budget Makoto Shinkai-directed megahit is now the highest-grossing Japanese film in history.

Makoto Shinkai's body-swapping, time-shifting anime Your Name may have missed out on an Oscar nomination, but it has been setting records both in Japan and overseas, single-handedly driving both the domestic film industry and studio-distributor Toho to record revenues last year. And it isn't finished yet.

Last weekend, Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) returned to the top of the box-office charts in Japan for the first time in nine weeks, on its 22nd weekend in theaters. While big films often have longer runs in Japan than in other major markets, regaining the top spot after more than two months and staying in the charts from August until the New Year is serious longevity, even by Japanese standards.

The last film to capture the hearts of Japanese cinemagoers to this extent was Disney's Frozen, on whose third-highest all-time local box office record Your Name is now closing in. Frozen spent 16 weeks atop the box office in 2014 — Your Name is currently at a total of 13 weeks — and finished with a quarter of a billion dollars (?25.48 billion). As of last weekend, Your Name had taken in $233 million (?23.56 billion) in Japan. (Converted at $1=?101, the rate when Your Name was first released.)

The highest grossing film ever in Japan remains Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2002), which took ?30.4 billion, or $300 million at the same rate used for Your Name, unadjusted for inflation. But thanks to Your Name's strong performance in Asia — it took more than $80 million in China and more than $20 million in South Korea — it has already surpassed Spirited Away to become the highest-earning Japanese film ever globally.

The massive success of Your Name is even more remarkable when taking into account that Shinkai's previous film (The Garden of Words) was released on just 23 screens; the story is complex; and it was written by the director rather than based on an existing property.

"Because The Garden of Words took only 150 million yen [$1.3 million], we thought no matter how hard we tried Your Name could only do 10 times that amount, so the production and promotion budgets were kept really low, smaller than an average Toho release," Genki Kawamura, the film's hit-maker producer, told The Hollywood Reporter in October.

Driven in large part by Your Name's massive success on a low budget, Toho's operating profit for its first three quarters jumped by 30 percent to a record $370 million (?42.53 billion). The megahit also helped push the entire domestic box office to a record $2.09 billion (?235.5 billion) in 2016.

"It was the young audiences that recognized the greatness of director Shinkai, spreading the news about the film at great speed on social media," said Toho CEO Yoshishige Shimatani at Tuesday's Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ) press conference to announce last year's box office numbers.

While the film's core audience has been teenagers, many of whom have seen it multiple times, the hype around it has pulled people of all ages into theaters, though some have struggled to follow the story's body-swapping and time-shifting elements.

"As it was an anime, I thought it would be kind of silly; I don't watch anime, I've never even seen one Miyazaki film. But the story of Your Name was really moving and actually made me cry," Hitomi Mizune, a Tokyo businesswoman in her 50s, told The Hollywood Reporter.

"The central ideas of fate and that there is a person you are somehow connected to and destined to meet are ones that Japanese people love. There have been a lot of films using those themes, but often in a cliched kind of way. They were handled very well in this film," said Mizune. "But my mother, who is 85, went to see it, and she couldn't understand the story, even after I'd explained it."

Aya Fuji, another Tokyoite, also pointed out that there had been similarly themed films in the past, but said the way Your Name depicted and developed the story made her feel it could happen to her. Fuji took her grade-school daughter to watch the film, but she found the story too complicated to follow.

An IMAX version of the film was released in Japan on Jan. 17, further boosting ticket sales. Meanwhile a dubbed English version — a rarity in Japan — will be in theaters for two weeks beginning Jan. 28.

Your Name will be released in the U.S., with dubbed and subtitled versions, from April 7.