For years, Makoto Shinkai has been obsessed with a singular vision: how do I capture the optimism and beauty of youth across distance and time? It started with Voices of A Distant Star, a movie about a girl who reaches out to her childhood friend via text messages as war rages over the planet. From there, Shinkai worked on The Place Promised In Our Early Days before moving on to 5 Centimeters per Second, a film that secured his name amongst some of the up and coming directors post-Ghibli era. After the short and sweet Garden of Words, it was clear: the director had established his brand of romantic drama. Finally, in 2016, he released the blockbuster Your Name, which came out and took the world by storm, becoming the highest-grossing anime film of all time. Your Name wasn’t just a phenomenon, though. It was also a clear statement that Shinkai had finally found his rhythm, pairing the blossom of young romance to emotional and inspiring music from the band RADWIMPS.Now, nearly four years later, Shinkai’s latest film, Weathering With You, has landed on western shores. For those wondering if the film rides off the success of Your Name, I can confidently say that it does indeed replicate much of what made that film so enjoyable, but with enough adjustments and variations for any Shinkai or anime fan to enjoy wholeheartedly. On the flip side of this coin though, Weathering With You also bears traditional Shinkai’s faults; there are plot contrivances, the characters are still very superficial in their personality and growth, and some of the emotional beats still feel far too rose-colored to be appreciated in depth. One of Weathering With You’s greatest strengths is the weight of Tokyo’s identity. Shinkai takes great care to paint the setting in every visceral stroke possible, whether it’s from the muted honks of cars zooming through the tight lanes between skyscrapers, the nonstop chatter of adults in cafes and shopping districts, or the absolutely overwhelming clutter of signs and lights in local shops and menus: Tokyo feels alive, real, and as much a part of the film as the actual characters. Even when much of the city is overcast with cloudy skies, there are enough details to carry over the presence of a rainy day. Umbrellas get shaken out by crowds, and streams of droplets fall on the window panes as city-goers trud through mud and wet pavements with their rubber boots. Throughout the film, I felt like I was there with the characters, in the cold, wet and miserable rain.
This is important because Weathering With You is equally about Tokyo as it is about the romance that buds between protagonists Hodaka and Hina. Much of Shinkai’s questions about love and distance are now focused on a singular perspective: can youth blossom in the fast-paced, ever-changing and brutal reality that is Tokyo? In its apathetic crowds, shady businesses, and unconventional ways of making a living? The answer, without spoiling, is an ethereal one, but no doubt: Shinkai has much to say about the current way of life in Tokyo, and does a fantastic job of weaving it with Hodaka and Hina’s story.
Which brings us back to the main thread that binds Hodaka and Hina. If Your Name is a film that explores the red thread of fate, Weathering With You takes a step back from the mysticism and instead chooses to focus more on the nuance of forcing yourself into adulthood. That’s not to say that the movie has its fantastical moments, but the drive of Weathering With You isn’t necessarily myths or prophecies about the power to change the weather, but rather, the desperation of youth trying to live a meaningful life when the city and others consistently try to take so much from them. It’s a far more serious plot than Your Name and is what colors Hodaka and Hina’s relationship into something more realistic than just a fated union. This is a story about teenagers who want to find a life in a city that simply won’t let them have one. As a result, Weathering With You is a moodier film, but sometimes, a better one because of it. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its bright moments. RADWIMPS continues to make their mark: their orchestral soundtrack fits perfectly with the tempo of the film, ranging from simple piano melodies for quiet, introspective moments, to melancholic love songs that play in the background as Hina and Hodaka chase across bridges and weather. Out of all the tracks, “Great Escape” is clearly the strongest, and played in a way that easily took my breath away. Shinkai has not lost his touch for the dramatic moments of life, and while Weathering With You doesn’t have as many of them as I’d like, it’s got enough to pack a punch when it needs it most.
Many of these sweeping theatrics rely on the stunning animation and composite you come to expect in any Shinkai film. In Weathering With You’s case, Shinkai truly manages to make water feel everchanging and powerful, as much of the movie is about the rain and how weather changes our perception and mood. As a result, there’s a lot of meticulous attention on how light, shadow, and color all work together to change the setting in such a way that it really reflects the atmosphere of the current scene. Shinkai’s “painting-like” aesthetic is really felt in the urban setting, and the art direction is strong and cohesive enough that even a single water drop feels alive and vibrant on its own.
All of this sounds beautiful, and it’s true: much of Weathering With You is pleasant and evocative. But it also still suffers from Shinkai’s trademark issues: characterization and pacing. Hodaka barely grows as a character, so his relationship with Hina feels forced and superficial. Side characters do feel far more interesting in personality, but aren’t given enough time to become fleshed out or balanced in their relationship with Hodaka. The ending feels abrupt compared to the slow build and climax, and many of the movie’s light-hearted moments don’t feel strong enough to counterbalance a lot of the movie’s melodrama. Many plot contrivances appear towards the end of the film, and some things are wholly left unexplained.
Despite these bumps in the road, Weathering With You is still a self-contained film that manages to hit all the buttons of what makes a Shinkai film so endearing, captivating, and stunning. It’s not his most polished work by any means, but if you enjoy a good dose of teen drama and romance, the film has plenty to offer. It wears its heart enough on its sleeve that its shortcomings can be swept under the rug to make for an enjoyable film that captures the frustrations and longings of youth in the current generation, while also serving as a beautiful tribute to the busy world of Tokyo.
Nominees: Best Anime Movie