Your Name. ★★★★★

I'm not sure if one could safely say that the torch has passed, but it's hard to deny at this point that the cruel void left by Miyazaki's retirement has been at least partially relieved by Makoto Shinkai. It's true that some consider his work overly sentimental and perhaps there's some truth to that, but in his defense I would point out that he's still a young presence, and his beautifully-animated, character-based stories positively reflect the core qualities that have made Miyazaki so admired throughout his career.

Shinkai's latest work, "Your Name" is a case in point. The poster suggests a coming of age story or a teen romance, both very familiar themes in anime to say the least, but in fact the story is a beautifully complex blend of other elements as well. Time travel/sci-fi, magical realism, fantasy, disaster, environmentalism and perhaps most interestingly, an examination of the changing face of Japanese culture as the younger generation's longing for a more exciting and active existence in the big city is resulting in the disappearance of rural Japanese life and tradition. None of these are unfamiliar themes in Shinkai's work ... his first film, "Voices of a Distant Star," a poignant 45 minute story he wrote and animated by himself on a home computer, deals with a relationship between two young people separated by light years of space. As he's matured, he's chosen to adhere to very personal stories about relationships but they've become more nuanced and complex ("5 Centimeters Per Second," "The Garden of Words"). At the same time, his animation style and technique has become more sophisticated as well, integrating painting and cel techniques with computer generated elements to produce a look that allows photorealism and traditional anime to coexist and compliment each other in a way that always remains in service to the story. Like Miyazaki, he has a remarkable sensitivity for atmosphere, lighting and detail ... his environments are rich and inviting, causing us to feel nostalgic about places we've never even visited.

The story begins with a teenage girl who lives in a bucolic rural town but longs for the excitement of the city. By some magical happenstance, she swaps bodies with a Tokyo teenager (who is equally dissatisfied with his own life, though for different reasons). Their dissatisfaction quickly takes a back seat to the turmoil caused by the switch, as well as their disaffection for each other, something they eventually overcome by getting to know one another (through written notes and phone messages) as they repeatedly switch back and forth. But there's much more to the film than just the familiar Freaky Friday theme ... the story is a skillfully-layered mix with some startling twists that add tremendous emotional impact to the final third. That said, Shinkai doesn't fail to tap the humorous aspects of the basic premise, nor does he allow the various plotlines to subsume character development... we remain invested in the participants and the story always feels balanced and well-paced.

"Your Name" received a lot of attention well before it became the highest-grossing anime in history (displacing Miyazaki's "Spirited Away") so I rather expected to see it in either the Foreign Language or Feature Length Animation categories at this year's Academy Awards. Apparently the studio hastily mounted a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles to make it eligible but the AMPAS ignored it. I'm not sure if the official US run (which began April 7) will make it eligible this year or not, but in the end it doesn't really matter, this isn't the first or last time a worthwhile film has been snubbed by the Academy. All that really does matter is that you get out and see it.