Weathering with You (2019)
‘This is the story of the world’s secret that only she and I know.’
Tagged by Variety as one of ten animators to watch back in 2016, Makoto Shinkai has emerged as bold new voice in the world of Japanese animation, having written and directed one of the most successful, record-breaking animated films of all time, Your Name (2016) — based on Shinkai’s eponymous novel — which, at the time of its release, became the highest-grossing anime movie ever — it’s currently the fourth highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, the eighth highest-grossing traditionally animated title, and the twelfth most profitable non-English movie, globally. So yes, quite an accomplishment.
Unsurprisingly, all eyes are on Shinkai as his follow-up feature, Weathering with You, storms into cinemas, a beautifully animated romantic supernatural drama about two star-crossed lovers, one spiritually connected to the forces of nature, who, in order to be together, challenge authority and Mother Earth; the natural world and, in particular, the sky seem to be tied to much of Shinkai’s work — just check out his stunning 2013 short, The Garden of Words. Heck, even Your Name managed to drop in some subtle observations on the unforgiving natural world, chiefly the devastating 3.11 Earthquake, the largest ever recorded in all of Japan.
Set sometime in the near future (alluded to be the year 2020), Weathering with You — in true Makoto Shinkai fashion — trails a pair of teens who foster strong, passionate feelings for one another. Our male protagonist is 16-year-old runaway Hodaka Morishima (voiced by Kotaro Daigo), who we meet fleeing his rural, isolated island home to move to Tokyo, arriving by ferry in the midst of a freak summer storm that’d been relatively persistent for about two months. Battered by the rainfall, Hodaka is saved from drowning by a man named Keisuke Suga (voiced by Shun Oguri), a low-rent journalist who owns a small publishing house on the mainland.
Once on the Eastern Capital, Hodaka struggles to find employment, given that he’s much too young to legally hold a job. With no place to go, he turns to the one person he knows, Mr. Suga (the man from the ferry), who offers him an intern position doing chores around the company office, along with a temporary place to call home — the gig doesn’t pay much but it beats sleeping on the streets. Eventually, Mr. Suga decides to mentor the boy in the ways of reporting — his magazine specializes in articles about the occult — sending him off to chase wild stories with an alluring free-loading female named Natsumi (voiced by Tsubasa Honda), who naps and hangs around the workplace. His first gig is to investigate the urban legend of the ‘Sunshine Maiden/ Rain Girl,’ a mystical figure that could put an end to the country’s recent spell of crazy, unpredictable weather.
Although having a brief run-in with our female protagonist, 18-year-old Hina Amano (voiced by Nana Mori), at a McDonald’s eatery earlier, and remembering her kindness, it isn’t until a number of random coincidences place our would-be lovebirds on the same narrative path. Bumping into Hina on the wet Tokyo streets, and rescuing her from a shady hostess club proprietor, Hodaka eventually learns that the scoop he’d been hunting, the fabled girl who can call out the sun, is in fact real, Hina showing off her ability by momentarily breaking the storm with a simple prayer. With our heroin strapped for cash and forced to care for her younger brother, Nagi (who’s a bit of a lady’s man) — the pair recently lost their mother — Hodaka proposes that she use her unique ability to start a small business helping Tokyo citizens by clearing the skies (for short spirts) on special events and occasions. But Mother Nature, as they say, is a cruel mistress, as Hodaka soon learns that Hina, the weather-clearing girl (who’s linked with Japan’s recent abnormal weather bout), is deeply burdened, forced to sacrifice her own life if she wishes to revert the seasons back to their natural form.
While generally ambitious and vastly entertaining, Weathering with You sees writer-director Makoto Shinkai, who’s clearly mastered his craft, rely heavily on his past works — he has a go-to story formula and distinct tempo and style, and sticks closely to what he knows here, using similar story beats to Your Name while borrowing visual, narrative and thematic elements from Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) and The Garden of Words. Still, this coming-of-age teen drama has a lot to offer; it’s uplifting, even if often bittersweet, and actually quite funny, and uses its quasi-apocalyptic landscape and fantasy-esque mythology to cleverly comment on climate change.
Thematically, the film focuses on the weather: how man affects it and how it, in turn, affects us — our mood, vitality, and overall wellbeing. And an uncanny phenomenon is used (quite skilfully, actually) to explain our current, often unstable meteorological conditions; these ideas are strengthened more so in Shinkai’s homeland Japan, with Tokyo, over the past summer, hit by an unusually large number of rainstorms. Interestingly, both Hina and Hodaka can be interoperated as an allegory for all of mankind, who, now more than ever, need to address climate change. Without giving too much away, Hina, who has the power to fix Tokyo’s environmental anomaly, is prepared to forgo her own life to save many; Hokada, however, is reluctant and somewhat selfish, not wanting to lose his beloved. If you stop to think about it, the personal struggles of our characters sort of parallel man’s real-world plight, as, through discipline and sacrifice, we too can atone for past sins and avert any ecological catastrophes in the future — in other words, minor loss (readjusting our habits) for long-term gain (the survival of our planet). But, just like Hina and Hodaka, are we willing to make the sacrifice?
While these timely messages are certainly commendable, and Shinkai’s imagination worthy of praise, not everything comes together as a cohesive whole — there’s a story thread involving a lost firearm that kinda goes nowhere — and the film does seem to linger, running at a generous 112 minutes — the sleazy nightclub owner subplot could have easily been chopped — but Weathering with You, all up, gets more than enough right.
It’s biggest asset, by and large, is the gorgeous animation produced by the team at CoMix Wave Films, who have produced most, if not all, of Makoto Shinkai’s movies and shorts. The recreation of modern-day Tokyo is utterly mesmerising; the realism in the soaked urban setting is out-of-this-world amazing, the streets and structures dripping with detail and atmosphere; from gritty, decrepit alleyways, iconic landmarks, and pop-culture references (I loved seeing McDonald’s and nods to famous cosplaying events in glorious 2D), to the spectacular ‘Hanabi Taika’ firework extravaganza taking place above the stadium in Shinjuku. This breathtaking imagery certainly warrants a trip to the theatre — so, see it on a massive screen.
It helps that the film is populated by a cast of great characters. The cheery Hina is the straight-up highlight, who feels like a living, breathing person despite being supernaturally gifted — I can totally see her allure and appeal, and her design is pretty neat, too. Protagonist Hodaka is a bit generic and one-dimensional, coming off as a tad too reckless and unrealistic, but he does grow on you after some time. The support players also break through the clouds and shine; Suga and his frisky employee Natsumi inject brio and bounce into the proceedings, their interactions fun to watch, while the inclusion of a couple of detectives, the more experienced Yasui (voiced by Sei Hiraizumi) and his younger, pompadour-haired partner Takai (voiced by Yûki Kaji), add tension and urgency to the oft breezy love story — there’s an awesome high-speed police chase late in the last act.
Capped off by another catchy J-pop soundtrack by rock outfit Radwimps — who provided the songs/ music for Your Name, this time recruiting actress Toko Miura as vocalist to give the tunes a more feminine splash — along with a memorable, upbeat score, which boosts the ambience and general energy — apparently, the Radwimps used droplets of real rain to enhance the soundtrack’s authenticity — Weathering with You stands as an accomplished piece of animated cinema. It tells a compelling story and showcases some truly spellbinding imagery, steered by a confident filmmaker who’s leading the pack; Makoto Shinkai is on his way to becoming this generation’s Hayao Miyazaki. And, just like the Miyazaki opus Princess Mononoke (1997), Weathering with You has been selected as Japan’s 2020 Oscar entry for best international film — let’s hope it lands a nomination, though, unlike the aforementioned. Either way, this is a film worth braving the weather for — rain, hail or shine!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner