Joey Nolfi
December 06, 2016 at 11:42 PM EST

From Lindsay Lohan swapping places with Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday to Rachel McAdams trading physiques with Rob Schneider in The Hot Chick, Hollywood has used the body-switching device in countless productions over the years. Japanese director Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, however, puts a fresh spin on the subgenre, an original, animated take that has thus far become one of the top five highest-grossing films of all time at the Japanese box office.

The film follows a young girl, Mitsuha, who dreams of escaping her rural lakeside town, longing to become a city-dwelling boy in her next life. Her path soon crosses with Taki, a Tokyo high schooler who, through mystical forces, inhabits Mitsuha’s body (and vice versa). They ultimately become fixtures in each other’s lives, despite having never met face-to-face; Mitsuha helps Taki get a date with a long-time crush, and Taki forges a social path for the typically reclusive schoolgirl to follow. Their destinies further entwine as a comet passes over Japan, potentially ending their identity-altering escapade.

“It was of course a very simple boy-meets-girl narrative, and I don’t think that narrative has been told in an anime medium in quite some time,” Shinkai, musing on the film’s success, tells EW. “We had no idea that it was going to be received as well as it was and produce the numbers it did. Our initial goal was to aim for about the equivalent of $20 million, and that alone would have been considered a huge hit.”

Ahead of Your Name‘s stateside debut next year (Funimation Films is preparing a North American release for early 2017), Shinkai, who previously worked with a video game company on titles like Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two and Wind: A Breath of Heart, says his production team sensed the magic at hand as they worked, and his expectations for the film’s performance gradually grew. Still, no one could have predicted it would, to date, become the second highest-grossing Japanese anime film of all time, earning approximately $19.9 billion Yen (around $175 million in U.S. dollars), behind only Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which Shinkai partially attributes to the film’s unique visual style.

While the film’s bold color palette and lush animation caught the attention of audiences, it’s actually the essence of sound that Shinkai, who’s being hailed as the next Miyazaki, used to chart a course for the film’s look.

“I would record all of the sound first, and that includes temporary voices, which I will voice myself… and get a template of the entire length of the movie so we have an audio track,” he explains, also praising the film’s original score, which was recorded by multi-platinum-selling Japanese rock band Radwimps. “On top of that, I place the storyboard visuals and what I want to see on the screen, according to the audio. What you end up with is an animatic or a video storyboard, if you will, and then the music falls into place.”

His unorthodox process continues to pay off with movie critics, as Your Name won the LAFCA Best Animation award on Sunday, and is one of 27 full-length movies that have been submitted to the academy for Oscar consideration in the Best Animated Feature category. But Shinkai doesn’t want the film’s performance at awards ceremonies to overshadow his commitment to the art of the medium.

“I personally am not very interested in awards or the awards circuit,” Shinkai admits. “Being in the position that I am, frankly, kind of takes away from what I really want to do, which is go back and make movies. I think [awards are a] testament to all of the fans and staff that helped support the movie and helped create it and have been with me throughout my entire career. Being in a position where I can receive an award is really a validation to them and a huge thank you to them, more than anything.”

It’s that support — and overwhelming fan response to Your Name — that actually restored Shinkai’s faith in the movie industry in general, he says, enough so that, while he has no projects lined up at the moment, he’s actively seeking to produce a new picture within the next three years.

Your Name‘s success told me movies still have the power to connect with society. As a medium, it still has a power that resonates,” he says. “To think that over 15 million people in the span of 3 months all enjoyed the same movie and shared the same story and experience together gave me hope that it is a medium with great power and potential.”

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