Weathering with You is an absolute mess. An often visually astonishing and idiosyncratic mess, but an absolute mess nonetheless.
Note: an abridged version of this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to an advance Blu-Ray copy provided by the film’s UK distributor, All the Anime UK.
Makoto Shinkai is, if nothing else, an auteur. The bonus features on the Weathering with You Blu-Ray make that clear for anyone new to his work. There’s a primer bonus that provides trailers for all of his works prior to Weathering with brief text descriptions of their themes and acclaim, sorta reminiscent of the one Aardman included on their Chicken Run DVD two decades back, where you can see all of his recurring muses laid to bare. Semi-tragic romances between angst-riddled often-teenaged boys and slightly older girls with either special powers or surplus angst who need saving in some way. The alluring desire of freedom and independence of big city life contrasted with the picturesque though insular and stifling nature of country life. A near-fetishistic adoration of weather in all its forms, lovingly rendered with almost photorealistic attention to detail and highly-saturated yet vivid colour tones that are constantly jaw-dropping to look at. Magical realism as on-the-nose metaphor for a very teenaged view of romance and character.
He’s also clearly a very smart and ambitious man, as the various interview bonuses involving him can attest to. (One a specific interview featurette cobbled together by G-KIDS from both a bespoke interview and various festival circuit talks; the other two as part of complete episodes of Japanese TV designed to hype the film.) Shinkai talks passionately about wanting to broaden theatrical anime’s perception beyond the rigid purview of Studio Ghibli and the revered Hayao Miyazaki. He talks about Japan’s relationship with the weather and climate change; he talks about his relationship with music on the creative process, referring to reteaming with Japanese rock group RADWIMPS for both the score and original songs; and he is fully aware and actually rather giddy by the prospect that the way Weathering wraps up is going to divide the heck out of people, especially those outside of Japan.
Makoto Shinkai is an auteur. He is a smart and ambitious man. His latest film plays right into his usual wheelhouse. If you liked his prior films, I nearly guarantee you will love this. It is the Most Makoto Shinkai film to date and, like his other films, it is a visual and audio feast for the senses, resolutely committed to its central romance at the expense of almost literally everything else that goes on. So… why, despite having had two decades of experience in this area, is Makoto Shinkai still so very bad at penning romances?
Weathering with You is much like Shinkai’s previous – the mega-successful Your Name which brought long-awaited mainstream recognition, and is a template he works heavily from this go-around despite speaking in interviews of wanting to break free from its expectations – in that it takes a turn at roughly the hour mark. Much like Your Name, it’s a turn that largely requires you to be all-in on the central romance in order to forgive the train otherwise jumping off the tracks completely and leaving a litany of bodies in its wake. Much like Your Name, it’s a turn that constitutes a major spoiler which means I can’t talk about it even though it’s the easiest explainer as to why I just did not like this. Unlike Your Name, however, Weathering with You is barely on the rails to begin with, that eventual turn which caused my eyebrow to involuntarily ascend into outer space from sheer “er, da fuck?!”-itude instead retroactively making perfect sense in explaining the absolute mess leading up to it. And unlike Your Name, its leads, its moment-to-moment scene work, and its grand emotional button presses just aren’t up to snuff to compensate for the turn.
Quite simply, I never found myself properly caring about what was going down, and then the turn arrived and I really stopped caring about what went down. Unlike Mitsuha and Taki (the Your Name protagonists who get brief unnamed fanservice cameos here), Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) and Hina (Nana Mori) just are not very compelling leads. He is a 16-year-old runaway fleeing to Tokyo, a city currently in the midst of a seemingly never-ending rainfall, in an effort to start a new life for never truly explained reasons in spite of child labour laws, no financial safety net, and it being completely illegal in Japan. She is a 17 going on 18-year-old orphan taking on various part-time jobs in an effort to support her younger brother after their mother passes away. After meeting at a McDonalds where she takes pity on his starving nature with a free meal, he later saves her from predatory gangsters trying to recruit her into a hostess club by shooting at them with a gun he found in a recycle bin. At this point, Hina reveals that she is a mythical “Sunshine Girl” and, as such, has the power to pray away the constant rainfall in limited spaces for short periods of time which the pair use for both a moneymaking scheme to make rent and as a public service to spread joy around the denizens of Tokyo.
Both leads slot very neatly into the usual Shinkai protagonist templates of an angsty male lead whose myopic unfulfilled world is given meaning by the arrival of a selfless magical girl who mainly exists to teach our male protagonist what a very specific kind of love is and eventually be rescued from dire circumstances. Unlike the better versions of these templates, though, neither Hodaka or Hina get to display compelling personalities: he’s a one-track mind of boobs and unresolved lust, she’s entirely seen through his viewpoint so exists solely as a symbol of purity and selfless-to-a-fault goodness. Each time she tries to assert agency, the narrative rips it away from her cos it’s not her story, whilst he eventually devolves by the climax into just shouting her name over and over again. One could generously say that Hodaka’s ever-constant self-destructive selfishness is an accurate depiction of the emotional immaturity of a teenager, but I’d counter it doesn’t make him all that rootable as a protagonist.
Some of the film’s copious side characters fair a little better by being far more interesting than our leads on account of having divulged backstories – chief amongst them Kei (Shun Oguri), a middle-aged widower who runs a publishing company where Hodaka first works, and Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda), Kei’s chipper assistant struggling to get a proper job. But they end up being done dirty by Shinkai’s typically overcooked plotting. Did that summary earlier make you feel exhausted? That’s the condensed version and covers barely 40 minutes of this 113-minute film. There are also *deep breath* gangsters admitting to statutory rape as a joke, city-wide police chases, lots of “SENPAI, WERE YOU A PERVERT?!” jokes, philosophical conversations about the nature of climate change, a cute sassy cat, bleak explorations of grim un-person reality for those who try to drop out of Japan’s rigidly enforced societal constructs even if it’s through no fault of their own, the aforementioned publishing house covering Japanese legends, sudden violent weather powers used once then never again, playboy 11 year-olds, jailbreaks, and much, much else.
This leads to problems. Obviously, watching all this plot be crammed into 113 minutes is like when a full season of anime gets haphazardly chopped into a massively unsatisfying OVA – you’d think the ‘use Hina’s powers as a makeshift job’ aspect would be good enough for a film’s entire second act, but Shinkai blows through it in 10 minutes and one montage. Equally as obviously, Shinkai’s habit of starting his melodrama at 11 then contriving ways for that knob to somehow reach even higher means the emotional pacing is all off since there’s no grounding baseline for the more blatantly tearjerking moments to work from. Most obviously of all, the prioritisation of plot and a later conga-line of misery leaves little time for actual vital character work, the kind that might sell our protagonists as people with a relationship which visibly grows, whilst actively demolishing satisfying character arcs come the climax; ostensibly the main reasons we’re here. All that also means the tone is a goddamned lurching mess.
What most problematic, however, and in a way that’s new for Shinkai’s work, is how borderline exploitative Weathering with You feels at times. Unlike with his prior films, he’s handling some real hot button issues here. Climate change is most obviously the biggie, but there’s also some deliberately frustrating depictions of how hostile and unsympathetic life for the underprivileged youth in Japanese society can be. Incapable of getting a job, keeping a home, even staying in a motel for one night if you’re without parents either by choice or unfortunate circumstance; constantly shoved away by those with hands tied; ruthlessly harassed by police. But Shinkai sees no message or viewpoint in such issues beyond how they could complicate and add drama to the central romance for maximum tears – in the various interviews, he insists that he’s not trying to impart a political message despite actively playing with political themes. So, at best, the film is forever gesturing at a potential message but frustratingly not committing to it outright. At worst, it has a pretty selfish-ass teenaged-ass view of the world that comes to a mildly repellent boil around the turn and ineffectual climax. All because Shinkai has a tunnel vision for melodramatic romance he’s not even that adept at writing. (Rather like Your Name, the central relationship works better as a platonic one, although still not as much as in Your Name.)
In case you’re wondering, yes, writing about Makoto Shinkai deeply frustrates me. Part of this is because there are these constant flashes of a much more refined, punchy, and affecting storyteller which break through every now and again. In Weathering, those predominately manifest in these occasional insert-cuts – Hodaka in a stonewalling circle of failed job interviews due to not being of age, Natsumi on her own round of failed job interviews where her “this is my #1 desired job!” gets increasingly more unhinged with each cut, Hodaka & Hina being turned away from seemingly every hotel when forced on the run – that display great character. Part of it is because I as a person am just incapable of not respecting an artist who has the guts to fully go for the wild swing even when doing so’s colossally misguided. Like, the turn definitely put the last nail in the film’s coffin for me, but I also gotta respect the guts it takes to so fully commit to that turn regardless of what a viewer might think. (And, yes, part of it is also because there’s just a chance that I’m falling victim to differences in cultural values despite my best efforts.)
But my biggest frustration comes from the fact that Makoto Shinkai is one of the most gorgeous animation directors I have ever laid eyes on, something Weathering with You continues with aplomb. He often goes for something close to photorealism whilst working within the parameters of the (generalisation) Japanese animation art style, and the combination of sumptuous detail with his vivid expansive colour palette creates these magnificent eye-popping visual arrangements, laid out like there was an edict that every single shot needs to be laptop-wallpaper-worthy. There’s a lot more desaturation in Weathering than his previous work, all the better to communicate the oppressive onslaught of the never-ending rain; here a force to be feared rather than a beauty to luxuriate in. And that also means when the sunshine does arrive, there’s this explosion of joyous colour which, paired with RADWIMPS’ strong score, is easily the most affecting part of the entire film.
I don’t want Shinkai’s auteur license taken away from him. He makes singular films that elicit strong reactions from both myself, his fans, and his detractors, for good or ill. He’s a one-of-a-kind stylist and he’s not incompetent at directing major emotional moments. He has oodles of potential that could be realised into a fully fantastic piece of work. For his many fans, perhaps he already has; they’ll likely love Weathering with You too and I’m happy for them. But for me, I think it’s time for Shinkai to either share writing duties with someone who is actually capable of penning the affecting melodramatic romances the man loves so dearly, or to step away from the typewriter entirely and commit himself fully to visual splendour in realising other writers’ visions. There’d be no shame in that. Some auteurs just can’t do it all.
Weathering with You will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Monday.