Film reviews

Weathering With You – Blu-ray Review

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 that provides trailers for all of his works prior to Weathering, with brief text descriptions of their themes where you can see all of his recurring muses laid bare.

Semi-tragic romances between angst-riddled often-teenaged boys and slightly older girls with special powers/surplus angst who need saving in some way.  The alluring desire of freedom and independence of big city life contrasted with the insular and stifling nature of country life.  An 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.

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He’s a very smart and ambitious man, as the various interview bonuses can attest to.  (One a specific interview featurette put together by G-KIDS; the other two Japanese TV specials 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 in the creative process, referring to reteaming with Japanese rock group RADWIMPS for the score; and he is positively giddy about how Weathering wraps up is going to divide the heck out of people, especially those outside of Japan.

Shinkai’s 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, a visual and audio feast for the senses, resolutely committed to its central romance at the expense of almost 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 film – the mega-successful Your Name which brought him long-awaited mainstream recognition – 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 jumping off the tracks 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 “da fuck?!”-itude instead retroactively making perfect sense in explaining the absolute mess leading up to it.  And unlike Your Name, its leads, moment-to-moment scene work, and 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.  Unlike Mitsuha and Taki (the Your Name protagonists who get brief fanservice cameos here), Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) and Hina (Nana Mori) are just not very compelling leads.  He is a 16-year-old runaway fleeing to Tokyo, a city currently in the midst of seemingly never-ending rainfall, in an effort to start a new life for never truly explained reasons in spite of it being completely illegal in Japan.  She is a 17-going-on-18-year-old orphan taking on various part-time jobs to support her younger brother after their mother passes away.

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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 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 making rent and as a public service to spread joy around the denizens of Tokyo.

Both leads slot neatly into the usual Shinkai protagonist templates of an angsty male whose myopic 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 cos this isn’t her story; whilst he’s heavily responsible for the turn that, whilst arguably an accurate depiction of the emotional immaturity of a teenager, makes him an unlikeable arse.

Some of the film’s copious side characters fare a little better by being far more interesting than our leads – chief amongst them Kei (Shun Oguri), a middle-aged widower who runs the 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 exhaust you?  That’s the condensed version and covers barely 40 minutes.  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 technically-homeless life in Japan, sudden violent weather powers used once then never again, playboy 11 year-olds, jailbreaks, and much, much else.

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This leads to problems.  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 an entire second act, but Shinkai blows through it in 10 minutes.

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.  The prioritisation of plot and a 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; ostensibly the main reasons we’re here.  The tone is a lurching mess.

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What’s most problematic, however, is how borderline exploitative Weathering with You feels at times.  Unlike his prior films, Shinkai’s handling some real hot button issues here.  Climate change is the biggie, but there’s also some deliberately frustrating depictions of how hostile life for the underprivileged youth in Japanese society can be.  Incapable of getting a job, keeping a home, even street-sleeping 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 has no message or viewpoint on such issues beyond how they could 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.  (The central relationship reads better as a platonic one, although not by much.)

Writing about Makoto Shinkai deeply frustrates me.  Part of this is because there are these constant flashes of a more refined, punchy, and affecting storyteller which break through every now and again.  In Weathering, those predominantly manifest in occasional insert-cuts – such as when Natsumi is on a round of failed job interviews where her “this is my #1 desired job!” gets increasingly more unhinged with each cut – 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 is colossally misguided.  (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) manga-esque 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 gallery-worthy.

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Weathering uses desaturation more 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, are easily the most affecting parts 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 myself, his fans, and his detractors, for good or ill.  He’s a one-of-a-kind stylist and 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 actually capable of penning the 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 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 28th September.

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