The smash-hit animated movie by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name., continues to be a long-running success around the world—racking up more awards and praise as the year goes on. In my last article on the film, we explored the reasons for its success, from the popularity of the soundtrack by the Radwimps and the Disney-like narrative structure, to the growing multi-generational audience speared on by word of mouth. It has a universal thematic relatability, being a tale of young lost love, which brings both young and old back to the theater time and again.

How Your Name. Became Japan’s Most Popular Film of 2016

[This article contains spoilers for the plot of Your Name.]

But there is a heavier aspect of the movie that actually forms its backbone. The inception of the project was kick-started by the events of March 11, 2011, the day of the Tohoku disaster. To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the earthquake, and the ensuing tsunami and nuclear meltdown which sent the north-eastern region of Japan into disarray and killed almost 20,000 people, displacing many more, TBS aired a special two-hour program entitled “3.11 Nana-nen-me no Shinjitsu/The Truth in the 7th Year of 3.11.

“What if it had been me?”

“What if I had been you?”

At many times in our life, we experience this fleeting thought of happenstance, where had the variables been a little off, our fate would have turned out entirely different. We have all had moments when we felt we were at the right place at the right time. We may have wondered about those placed in the opposite scenario.

When Makoto Shinkai and a camera crew traveled to Tohoku in 2011—four months after the disaster—he was at a loss for words. He looked around at the devastation surrounding him in awe. He noted how there was so little sound and stood there, in eerie silence. His gaze turned to a mound with a shrine on top, a small hill named Hiyori. In the program, we can see the moment he was inspired to make a sketch—that of an enormous cloud rising within a beautiful, glorious blue sky in the background of Hiyori, overlooking a landscape covered in the ruins of houses and flooded rice fields.

As the program shows, last week, Shinkai returned to the city of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture. He was present to give a talk at a screening of the film. In his greeting to the audience, he proceeded to read aloud an entry from his diary which he wrote down upon experiencing the aftermath of the devastated town, seven years ago.

“There are no words to describe how the tsunami completely whisked away this town of Natori,” he read from his mobile phone. “In English, you might use the word ‘breathtaking.’ The vast, blue sky at the cusp of sunset is beautiful, and underneath there is a sprawling wasteland as far as the eye can see. If things were just a little different, I could have been born not in Nagano but in Sendai. I might have grown up in this town. Had that been the case, surely I would have loved this land. Thus, I may have met with the tsunami back then. In any case, there is enough chance that a world exists in which I would have been here on that day.”

He wrapped up by revealing to the audience that Natori was the basis of the story of Your Name.

The visit he made, his emotions upon seeing the wreckage and the sketch he created on that day, appear to be the key foundation upon which everything that Your Name. became was built.

It seems that while in Natori, Shinkai was moved by two things: The first was the juxtaposition between the horrific destruction on the ground and the magnificence of nature as seen in the sky, the wind, and of course, the sea. The second was the concept that it could have been him, or you or me, or anyone.

Upon witnessing such a landscape, he began to consider what his role is. He is a creator of fiction, but what is the use of fiction, in this case?

This made him think, he explains. What if it were me? What if I were you? What if I were in your position? And, further, what if you could go back and use that position to warn people of the impending danger, tell them to evacuate and take shelter?

Image source: 新海誠作品PRスタッフ on Twitter

Sure enough, upon his return to Natori, Shinkai noted that a lot had changed. Power line poles had been erected, roads had been rebuilt, and, most notably, fishermen and surfers were enjoying the sea. He was somewhat amused by this—the very waves that wiped out the town were now being used as entertainment. It is just like in the movie, where the meteorite gathers a lot of attention as it burns up on its way through the stratosphere and is romanticized by the public for looking beautiful, yet in the next instant causes an impact that completely obliterates a village. It drives home the notion that nature is beautiful but powerful, and, as such, it commands a high level of respect.

It is the essence of the juxtaposition inherent within Shinkai’s initial sketch: the idea that nature can flip from being beautiful, enjoyable thing, to a powerful destructive force, in the blink of an eye.

Listening to Shinkai talking about the changes in the area, such as the surfers, the presenter of the show noted that the region had changed from a sad one to a fun one. At the same time, she was wary that, at the end of the day, perhaps we will forget about the dangers of underestimating nature.

Image source: 新海誠 on Twitter

“The role of fiction is not just entertainment,” he responds. “Stories can be lessons for people, communities, and towns about how to survive.”

Shinkai then dropped a few hints as to his next project. He described how adults today are disillusioned with the world around them not being what they expected when they were growing up. He is tinkering with the theme that perhaps the younger generation, with their greater imagination, can rise above that gloom and create something better.

Your Name., too, is an uplifting, positive story that rises from the shadow of disaster, lifting our spirits. It is a master work of animation for many reasons. At its heart, it is an expansion of the fleeting idea we all have had at some point—if you have ever said to yourself, is there nothing I could have done? What if I had been there? It grew out of that line of “what if?” thinking, to be a powerful and beautiful film, just like the essence of nature it is trying to depict.

Your Name. is on general release in Japan and in selected theaters globally. Check your local listings for screenings near you.

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