In Texas, there’s a saying that goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes.” All the way over in Tokyo, changing the forecast doesn’t come nearly so easy — and may even require a human sacrifice to set things right — or at least, that’s the premise of “Weathering With You,” an inventive romantic fantasy from director Makoto Shinkai, whose 2016 hit “Your Name” became the first anime made by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki to earn more than 10 billion yen (or $100 million) in Japan. Here, a young couple desperate to stay together find themselves contending with all manner of meteorological freakery, with spectacular, if somewhat difficult to follow, results.
As in the body-swapping sensation that preceded it, “Weathering With You” blends the emotional concerns of 21st-century teens with elaborate supernatural elements, making for a visually dazzling, narratively convoluted adventure that speaks to the younger generation, but not necessarily the world at large. While it’s exciting to see a non-Ghibli-associated talent emerge in the domain of Japanese animation, there’s a great deal that simply doesn’t translate to American audiences, who may have trouble swallowing the film’s outrageous ending and its J-poppy Radwimps score.
Even so, GKIDS has ambitious plans for the film, which has earned a by-no-means-unimpressive $125 million since its July 19 release in Japan, and which kicked off the L.A.-based Animation Is Film Festival last October. GKIDS will release “Weathering With You” on Jan. 17 in the States, following two nights of fan preview screenings around the country.
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The tragic impossibility of true love is once again the director’s secret ingredient, as a 16-year-old runaway named Hokoda (Kotaro Daigo) falls for Hina (Nana Mori), a so-called Sunshine Girl, an exceptionally rare specimen with the power to pray away the gray skies. Her gift comes at a cost, however, and both teens realize that eventually, her ability to tame the weather will reach its limit, and she’ll levitate up into the clouds to be vaporized. Or something. (I’ve watched “Weathering With You” three times, and I still can’t make sense of the story or its arcane rules.) The point is, by the movie’s own mythology, Sunshine Girls aren’t long for this earth.
In the real world, of course, humans have zero control over the weather. Neither do filmmakers, which would make it hard to tell a story that calls for such extreme fluctuations between rain and shine via live action. On the other hand, by working in animation — specifically, a tech-forward approach in which tablets and digital tools are used to mirror the figures and style of classical hand-drawn anime — Shinkai is free to play God, conjuring whatever kind of weather patterns his story requires while dazzling us with his usual attention to lighting and landscapes.
One of Shinkai’s more impressive signatures, dating back at least to 2007’s “5 Centimeters per Second,” involves the awesome illumination of outdoor vistas in which the sun breaks through shadow and traces its way across the screen, like a theater curtain raising to reveal the world in all its splendor. Hina has the ability to make that happen, although the movie takes a while to introduce her ability, focusing first on young Hodaka.
Escaping the island where he grew up for what he imagines to be a more exciting life in Tokyo, Hodaka is standing on the deck of a ferry boat when a storm materializes directly overhead, hammering down so hard, the flash flood nearly casts the boy overboard. Instead, he’s rescued by Mr. Suga (Shun Oguri), a not-entirely-legit magazine publisher who gives Hodaka his card and, later, a job, after the kid realizes that he’s too young to get work in the big city. TV weather reports make it clear that Tokyo has been plagued by massive rains lately, and the newscasters don’t know what to make of the “fafrotskies,” or fish-like objects and strange jelly left behind by the storms. (No explanation ever comes, although we can assume Shinkai is riffing on the erratic impact of global warming.)
Countless filmmakers have offered their view of Tokyo, but Shinkai has a unique sense of the capital, and one of the movie’s more unexpected pleasures is seeing the metropolis through his eyes. From crowded neon-lit intersections to private rooftop shrines, the director captures many facets of the famous city, encompassing both the macro (fireworks over Meiji Jingu Gaien Park) and more intimate details (like the pleasures of a vending-machine feast). Hodaka meets Hina at a nondescript McDonald’s, where he finds a gun left behind by another customer, later using it to defend her from what looks to be a pimp.
Shinkai doesn’t provide enough background on either of the characters (why Hodaka leaves home, why Hina agrees to sex work), and yet, audiences will have no trouble accepting that they’re meant to be together, finding it easy to root for the couple through some of the story’s stranger turns. For example, once Hina realizes that she can override the rain, she and Hodaka decide to start a business, where clients pay her to call out the sun for sporting events, street fairs and a simple family afternoon in the park. But that incident with the gun (a bizarre subplot by any measure) attracts the police’s attention, as does Hina’s ability to harness lightning in alarmingly violent ways, and before long, they’re on the run from the authorities.
This is where “Weathering With You” proves weakest, falling back on tropes seen far too frequently in kids movies (rescuing the mermaid from researchers in “Splash,” for example), instead of charting a fresh path. Shinkai hasn’t gone far enough into fantasy to excuse the enormous holes in his script, though he does a nice job of distracting us with details, going so far as to incorporate cameo appearances by Taki and Mitsuha, the lead characters of “Your Name,” in such a way that suggests that the films may be part of an extended “Shinkai-verse.”
If that’s the case, the last act of “Weathering With You” feels all the more extreme (spoiler alert: this paragraph reveals the film’s ending). Shinkai conceived the film on the premise that average folks don’t appreciate the degree to which their emotions are influenced by the weather, nor do they realize how their individual decisions, no matter how small, may contribute to global climate change. Here, rather than accepting Hina’s fate — her sacrifice restores the weather — the couple selfishly challenge nature, to the extent that Tokyo is left permanently underwater. Romantic? Sure, though it’s no better than Jack and Rose letting everyone on the Titanic drown just so they could wind up together. There’s gotta be a better solution.