Hodaka and Hina lead complicated lives. He’s run away from his rural home to Tokyo, where he starts a job researching paranormal events for Keisuke, an irresponsible freelancer. She’s desperate to make money to support her and her younger brother, who live by themselves. But the pair are brought together by an extraordinary phenomenon, a rain imbued with magical, ancient elements over which Hina seems to have sway, a possession for the two in a world where they have little else and no control—though the question arises, are the powers at work here even more oppressive than the human ones that have shaped their traumatic lives?
Makoto Shinkai’s follow up to his smash hit, Your Name, has made its way to U.S. theaters, and fans of its predecessor will enjoy this one as well. The prime hallmarks of the director’s films—unrelenting love set against epic obstacles and his unmatched skills as an animator—are as present as ever (as is a bit of self-referential fanservice that, if you’re anything like the audience I watched with, will make you gasp). Shinkai is perhaps best in the west known for his animation of food, clouds, and rain, and a film about a weather maiden who can bring sunshine and clear the skies is a perfect the showcase for the latter two (though he still finds opportunities to animate the first as well). The film demonstrates that he remains the master of animation, and also that he’s constantly innovating: While aerial shots downward are nothing new for Shinkai (think Garden of Words), he moves the “camera” even higher in Weathering with You, at the top of the Tokyo skyline and then even higher into the clouds over which Hina has authority. The most wondrous parts of the film are those spent in the sky.
But how does Weathering with You do down below, focusing on its characters in the streets of Tokyo? If there’s one criticism I’ve had with Shinkai’s films over the years, it’s his inability to craft dramas that carry authenticity into their final acts. There’s something artificially cold and mechanical about many of his films, points as which the screenplays seems to move in a direction willed by a director who wants to emphasize a theme, but can’t carry them there naturally. And many of the themes to which he’s married are again present here: the clash between new and old, the powerful force that is distance, and the barrier of time. For his earlier movies, these themes naturally created a sense of pessimism, once which he’s trended away from with his more recent films, which in itself presents a challenge. Starting with Your Name, his style has drastically evolved, and Weathering with You proves it by featuring the same new qualities in abundance: musical montages (often set to RADWIMPS’ music, which once again delivers), a balance between scenes that are mystical and serious and those that are humorous and childish, and a sense of optimism. The challenge is, how can he combine his favorite themes with this new, consumer friendly style, creating something that feels right on both a heart and head level?
He attacks this problem with the heart of the story—his characters. While Taki and Mitsuha were dealing with their own issues (and the latter’s conflict between familial expectations and her teenage desires was a significant part of Your Name), it’s on a whole new level with Hodaka and Hina. They are runaways. They’re dealing with family death and probably abandonment. And they break the law multiple times, including in violent ways. This is not Bonnie and Clyde because our characters still display an innocence we expect out of anime drawn in such a style, but their innocence isn’t complete—the pains of life have left marks on them, and the choices they make and the feelings they feel are quite in line with the improbable events and quizzical decisions of the story. With a connection to Japanese myth and a crossing into the genre of disaster film, the meaning of the movie’s name carries an epic slant, but it’s mostly posited in something simpler—the relationship between a boy and girl that are hurting dearly and need each other to navigate life, even if doing so from a teenage perspective, with suspect adult role models around them, creates more problems than solutions.
Shinkai, though, mostly succeeds. The movie isn’t as emotionally powerful as Your Name due to a screenplay that plays too loose (and lazy) to earn its huge moments, but it’s still heartfelt. At the end of the day, I still believed. I believed in the world Shinkai created, and I believed in the ending he carved out, something I couldn’t say about some of his earlier films. The English dub, which I viewed, was also strong: Lee Pace was a nice selection as Keisuke, Hodoka’s new guardian who is himself trying to recover from trauma, and Ashley Boettcher (Hina) and Brandon Engman (Hodoka) give nuanced performances. I couldn’t help but think that Engman sounded very much like Michael J. Fox: the youthful and often confused tone of his voice was a great fit for Hodoka.
The director also emphasizes an additional theme, one present in other works but most fully evolved in this one, the idea that life is both temporary and on-going, and because of that we should have a sense of relief, not worry. In movies like Voices of a Distant Star and 5 cm per Second, change was a chief antagonist, a divider of people, stronger even than fate. But as repeated by more than one character in this movie, time will move on, but the heart of things—of the earth, of people—can adjust and stay strong. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and I think a sign of maturity in Shinkai’s work rather than an indication that he’s become soft, as I imagine some will contend. Weathering with You is not Your Name, either in the emotion it evokes or the story it gives, but it is a symbol that Shinkai is no longer trying to become a great director—he has found a voice, one that as the aforementioned theme states, will be conveyed differently as the years and topics of his films change, but that will remain strong, beautiful, and brilliant. Weathering with You tell us this: the magic of Shinkai is here, and it will go on and on.