WEATHERING WITH YOU: A Sunny Romance with a Cloudy Moral Center

Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime melodrama features truly dazzling spectacles with off-key consequences

The conceit I love most of all about movies is how they can make us feel like a first kiss matters as much as the end of the world. Movies help us make sense of an at times senseless universe, and imbue us with life-affirming power in our moments of darkness. It all depends on how much we grow to care about the people depicted onscreen, how much of ourselves we see in them.

Makoto Shinkai is a director who has spent his career marrying the personal with the cosmic. From life-swapping in Your Name to war and interstellar travel in Voices of a Distant Star, Shinkai tests the bonds of human hearts against time, space, and myriad other forces that threaten to tear them asunder. In Weathering With You, Shinkai makes a film that tests the bounds of love once more — focusing more on how much one is willing to give for others at the cost of themselves. And, as the film’s title suggests, that cost is inextricably linked to the worsening health of a planet in ever-looming danger.

16-year-old Hodaka is a runaway new to Tokyo who manages to get a job as an errand boy for a tabloid of tall tales. In researching the latest creepy phenomena, he crosses paths with orphan girl Hina, who can magically cease Tokyo’s unending rainfall by praying for it. Hodaka’s on the run from the cops, who’re trying to return him home; Hina’s determined to protect her and her brother Nagi from being found out by social services. Together, the three set up a lucrative business bringing sunshine to the citizens of Tokyo — a decision that threatens to upend Hodaka and Hina’s budding relationship as well as the balance of nature.

Like Shinkai’s other films, Weathering With You is a visually stunning piece of work. With an unabashed love of aerial landscapes, Shinkai never ceases to create stunning vistas that put heaven and earth in continued conversation with each other. In his more grounded cityscapes, Shinkai’s production design revels in the minutiae of worldly pleasures, from the interiors of internet cafes to the brash, eye-grabbing ads that illuminate Shibuya and Ikebukuro. Such fascinations heighten the magical realism of Shinkai’s worlds — as a result, anything godlike or paranormal feels delightfully normal in a world that already feels extraordinary.

At times, the beauty of Shinkai’s settings and conceits leaves little to spare for the film’s characters. We are given enough to root for Hodaka and Hina — and at times care a damn good amount about what happens to them. But through the film’s extended usage of montages, unelaborated backstories, and other narrative hand-waving, one can’t help but feel the rough edges of the film’s storyline the more we progress through Weathering With You. The circumstances of Hodaka’s running away aren’t elaborated upon enough to emotionally invest in their urgency, and the interwoven subplots of the film’s characters (from a father’s asthma-stricken daughter to a woman’s desperate search for a better part-time job) feel more like narrative hinders to Hodaka and Hina’s romance than earnest, complimentary explorations of the film’s themes in their own right. However, that doesn’t stop us from being won over by much of the film’s cast — there’s a genuine youthful thrill to Hodaka and Hina’s adventures, one driven by a boundless hope for the future that has turns out to have overwhelmingly positive effects on the environment around them. Weathering With You’s infectious soundtrack by Japanese rock band Radwimps is equally soaring, with some of the best needle drops 2019 has to offer.

Over its runtime, though, Weathering With You gradually builds an argument between self-destructive selflessness and world-destructing self-interest that traps Shinkai and company uncomfortably between two equally problematic moral extremes. There’s a compelling argument made against Hina’s drive of well-intentioned but unreasonable self-sacrifice as much as it finds a compelling purpose in her noble pursuit to protect others from harm. True to form, Shinkai is just as fascinated with the natural forces that put humans in such situations, as global warming continues to rise in apocalyptic import and humans are forced to confront their not-so-insignificant role in the way the world literally works. Shinkai acknowledges how unfair and “crazy” the world is for putting us in these awful choices — and prizes our drive to put as much good out into the world to make up for all of the bad, no matter how fleeting our rewards may be. These moments make up the best of Weathering With You, as Hodaka and Hina revel in the little eyes of their personal storms before the world returns to its naturally chaotic state.

For all of its efforts, though, one can’t help but be slightly stormy at where Shinkai decides to steer his story to conclusion. Weathering With You naturally dovetails its many storylines and themes to a fittingly cataclysmic convergence, one that nearly bests Your Name in marrying matters of the heavens and the heart. It’s a third act, though, that’s hampered by the same amount of narrative hand-waving that plagues the film’s opening sections — except with a degree of apocalyptic moral relativism that may cause some viewers to plummet out of Shinkai’s emotional highs. Weathering With You’s destruction and creation may be beautiful and rich in personal symbolism — but one can’t help but think about the other lives that hang in the balance of Hodaka and Hina’s slice-of-life story. It’s a concern that bleeds into how Weathering With You treats Hina overall— and how the film is compelled to equate her visceral trolley-dilemma choices with her choice to give up or stay with Hodaka. It’s a grand gesture, fitting for the other films in Shinkai’s filmography — but it feels slightly tone-deaf when the director chooses to make the stakes as high as he does.

However, Weathering With You’s questionable morals may not be as much of a dealbreaker for Shinkai’s more devoted fans. Some of these scenes are quite a technical achievement, and when Weathering With You works, it truly excels in ways that are truly special. I just wish that the film’s moral compass wasn’t as inconsistent as the weather of its title.

Weathering With You opens in theaters January 17, 2020 courtesy of GKids.

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