From Cairo to Christ by Abu Atallah, Free for CAPC Members
Simply put, From Cairo to Christ is an uplifting, illuminating, and convicting read.
Note: This article contains potential spoilers for Your Name.
Acclaimed anime film Your Name finally arrived in the United States this month, and I can confirm the hype surrounding it is justified, for both creative and biblical reasons. Your Name‘s story explores abstract themes like longing, true love, and the value of family as well as concrete and specific ideas that ultimately point to Jesus.
Makoto Shinkai’s blockbuster swept Japan like a meteor shower in 2016. (It’s since surpassed Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as the world’s highest-earning anime film.) Reviewers praised the film’s beautiful artwork, carefully portrayed humanity, and gentle humor. Fans loved its genre-bending mix.
At first, Your Name’s story sounds like a standard, if supernatural, YA trope: A teenage boy and girl begin swapping lives, experiencing each other’s bodies, jobs, and communities until fate draws them together in deeper ways. But you might find your expectations subverted while watching Your Name. You might feel as if you yourself are experiencing the wonder of living in another person’s world and seeing everything through their eyes. And it might just leave you longing for something more… in a good way.
However, the film doesn’t just treat this longing for joy as if the longing itself is the only real beauty to be found or experienced. Rather, Your Name dares to run right up to the edge of said longing’s fulfillment to give us a glimpse of it.The story earnestly embraces this sense of longing as something natural to the human existence.
Your Name begins with lines about dreams and stars, then drops right into the village of Itomori. We watch a high-school girl, apparently one Mitsuha Miyamizu, awaken feeling… different. In fact, “she” reacts just as any high-school boy would if he woke up in a young woman’s body. Which, of course, is exactly what is happening.
Already we’re seeing territory unclaimed by Miyazaki’s films, gently bawdy humor aside. Miyazaki’s tales often feature younger, magically aware heroes but rarely present their last names or the names of any modern communities. After all, Miyazaki prefers to set his stories in realms subject to apparent timelessness and magical realism. (For example, Spirited Away‘s Chihiro spends most of her time in a theme park-turned-spirit landscape strangely surrounded by water.)
Your Name later “reintroduces” Mitsuha. But this time, she has awakened as herself, and she gets indications that she wasn’t quite herself yesterday. Mitsuha mostly ignores this mystery and proceeds with her life as a student in her rural community. Here she has friends, but also a politically corrupt mayor for a father and a repetitious religious duty she performs at her family’s historic Shinto shrine. Even worse, her town’s only “café” is a vending machine.
After finishing her performance one evening, Mitsuha proclaims, “I hate this town! I hate this life! Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” The next morning, Mitsuha apparently gets her wish. She awakens as Tokyo high school boy and aspiring architect Taki Tachibana. She finds not only certain bodily changes, but also money, a city job, and real cafés.
What’s causing all this? We’re led to believe the body-swapping relates to a passing comet named Tiamat. But Mitsuha’s grandmother, Hitoha, also references ancient Japanese legends of the god Musubi, who has power over the knotted flow of time that binds people together.
Ultimately, the body-swapping’s cause can be chalked up to “wardrobe magic,” a limitless source of story energy. It’s the same power that transforms household furniture into interdimensional gateways, grants humans superpowers, and brings lovers together against all odds including space and time. In Your Name, this magic is portrayed in the comet’s sparkles of color and sudden turns between realities. These dazzling flourishes aid the story’s journey into an earnest exploration of humanity, time, and the paired beauties of extraordinary and mundane things.
Yet over all these themes rise an earnest, humble human longing for a nameless joy, a dreamlike and agonizing desire to let go of one’s self and truly reach another human person and other wonders in the world. If we could only somehow ascend, transcend, or “pass inside” this unseen and resplendent beauty!
Your Name doesn’t subvert, ignore, or merely utilize this desire to other ends. The story earnestly embraces this sense of longing as something natural to the human existence. Ever so subtly, Taki and Mitsuha are drawn from their utilitarian, repetitive lives to respond to this longing.
They begin helping each other, using plain devices like smartphones and school notebooks to strategize how to handle their body-swapping. They also begin seeing the beauty in each other’s existence. As Taki, Mitsuha is naturally enthralled with Tokyo — not just the city, but also the people she meets who share his life. Meanwhile, Taki enjoys encounters with Mitsuha’s family and friends in the countryside.
Like Taki and Mitsuha, we begin to appreciate the beauty of their realities. Your Name dazzles with Itomori’s garden wonders, suggesting a Miyazaki-like respect for nature. But it also embraces the city. Tokyo teems with advertisements, icons, and corporate names you won’t see in Miyazaki’s oeuvre. The film’s camera affectionately lingers on both Hitoha’s kumihimo marudai weaving tool as well as the colorful screens of smartphones. Both are manmade tools of different eras, used for creating art and bringing people together.
Thus, Your Name revels in all kinds of beauty — not just in timeless and sometimes nameless natural places, but also in named places and human creations, including modern technology.
Taki’s longing eventually makes him desperate to find Mitsuha, though he can’t recall her town’s name. He possesses only the artwork he’s drawn from his memories, memories that eventually fade. By the movie’s end, even their memories of each other’s names have faded, setting up several tense moments that threaten any chance of coming together.
Your Name’s further twists could have followed the “tragic dream” trope. If it had, I still would’ve left the theater mostly content. However, I’m not overly fond of such finales. For Christians, they’re “realistic” only in the short-term, not the long-term (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). I prefer stories that respect the truth of Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Your Name’s story concludes with just enough joyful finale to leave fans both satisfied and wanting more — and also wanting there not to be more. A sequel would ruin it! Instead, Taki and Mitsuha live on in the vague “out there.” They’ll experience their fulfillment and we’re happily not allowed to watch. Such glories are too private. They cannot be “named.”
What then about our longing? Should we conclude that desires for eternal beauty and humanity remain unnamed? Is this unspiritual, irrational, or immature? Can these longings only be fulfilled in part by human relationships or glimpses in stories?
I wonder if Christians feel we’re not “allowed” to name the actual expected fulfillment of all our quiet, inward hopes for eternal beauty and happiness. Subsequently, we create very spiritual or artistic-sounding excuses for not speaking directly about such fulfillment. “That wouldn’t be artistic.” “If you’re too heavenly minded you’re of no earthly good.” “Anyway, isn’t the real beauty the desire itself, especially if it’s denied?” “That’s too sentimental.” “That’s a ‘Jesus juke.’”
But a Christian engagement with stories like Your Name is incomplete, and I would daresay sub-Christian, without an eye toward eternity, even an eternity containing named people and places.
Without eternity, per Your Name’s own rules, Taki and Mitsuha would find their fulfillment interrupted. Even within the story’s world, they would surely face relational conflict. In our world, they would confront career and social pressures wherever they lived. They could divorce. And even if they enjoyed a happy marriage, both of them would eventually die.
In either the secular humanist or vaguely pagan “dream,” there’s really no meaning to all this longing. There’s no sudden, magical awakening after death pours fire on all our dreams.
Only in Jesus Christ can we actually find literal, named fulfillment for this aching desire we all experience. Through his life, death, and resurrection, he promises an awakening into this dream. Jesus directly promises that his people will find its resolution in himself.
Therefore, we need not fight to find or create transcendent, hope-affirming (or -denying) stories. We don’t need to hover artistically above this fulfillment, believing that only the Longing itself is beautiful and it’s tacky or un-artistic to consider actually finding its source.
Our longing will become reality in the New Heavens and New Earth. This won’t be some hazy, disembodied place, but a place of soil and GPS coordinates and names and histories. He’ll glorify both the world he’s created (i.e., the garden) and the world we’ve created (i.e., the cities and all the earthly treasures created in cities, including stories and culture).
Consequently, I hope Jesus’s renewed universe will contain manga and anime. I hope great films like Your Name will find a place on New Earth. But on this side of waking up there, thank God he’s given talent to artists like Makoto Shinkai so they can give us glimpses of that place of fulfillment.
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