Weathering with You, Makoto Shinkai’s latest film and his first since the phenomenally popular Your Name, is my favorite film of 2019 so far. I love its animation, especially the many moments of great character animation that bring life to many key scenes in this film, and I love the story it has to tell. I say this now because nothing in this review of Weathering with You that you’re about to read will suggest that I have such a high opinion of this movie, and would possibly even suggest I didn’t enjoy this movie at all.
Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. Makoto Shinkai is easily my favorite director working in the industry at the moment and has been for the best part of a decade by now. I appreciate this film to the point I am willing to praise it as my favorite movie of this year, and yet, perhaps because of this adoration I have for both the film and its director, I feel unable to write a positive review about it. Weathering With You is undoubtedly very good, yet I sit here unable to write a review that reflects such high regard for this work. Why can’t I praise my favorite movie of 2019?
But let’s take a step back first. Weathering With You follows 16-year-old Hodaka Morishima as he leaves his isolated island to start a new life in Tokyo. This plan quickly falls apart, however, and he soon finds himself without money and alone in the streets of Kabukicho before he finds a job with an occult magazine. As part of this job, he is in search of the truth behind the urban legend of a girl with the ability to stop the rain, bringing him into contact with a girl named Hina Amano.
I’ve loved Makoto Shinkai from the moment I saw 5 Centimetres Per Second, his 2007 film made up of three short stories that tell the story of Takaki Tono and Akari Shinohara and their strong friendship and romance which is gradually lost to the painful realities of life, distance, and the passage of time. Not only do I still regard this film as being the best he has created up until this point, but it is also this movie that made me so passionate for the director and his work going forward. Even if many of his films shared a central romance in all of their stories, every film that the director made up until the blockbuster success of Your Name was each tonally and structurally distinct from the last, retaining the director’s trademark visual aesthetic while touching upon different ideas that helps to differentiate each and every one of them.
To be fair, you can see these attempts to differentiate this film from those that came before it being made with Weathering With You. The Tokyo shown here is much less welcoming than he has ever portrayed it to be before, placing finer details, not on the beautiful tourist hotspots of the city, but the run-down manga cafes, the rude and abrasive staff members, the yakuza. This is a Tokyo whose poster child is instant ramen and the shady side-streets of Kabukicho, with even its sexual solicitation industry being given some unlikely representation. A very different Tokyo is on display in this film, and attempts to differentiate this film from his previous works don’t stop at its setting either.
Both of our characters, before meeting one another, are alone (Hina only has her brother, while Hodaka fled his family and doesn’t want to return). Both can only rely on themselves. Your Name’s thematic core embodies the way the souls of people can connect to one another on a deeper level and the importance of such deep connections between family and friends, with the movie looking at how these connections can enrich and save lives, as well as bring people together. Meanwhile, it could be argued that Weathering With You’s thematic core is more of a warning. This film is a warning that by eschewing such connections and placing the weight of the world on your shoulders while refusing to open up to others risks making things worse and could leave you unable to protect that which you care for most. This film makes a strong attempt to differentiate itself from Shinkai’s past work and, in many ways, he does succeed at this.
However, this success only helps to highlight one key problem with Weathering With You, in my opinion: it’s impossible to discuss this film without the specter of Your Name hanging over your shoulder. Despite my praise for how it strives to set itself apart from Your Name, the changes only emphasise how much of the film is similar to the 2016 mega-hit, as the specter of that film has seeped itself into the production itself and forced a continuity between these two films that threatens to undermine what this new film wants to be.
It may have become obvious from the trailers released for Weathering With You in the lead up to the film’s release, but this is a film that definitely wants to evoke the director’s 2016 success; the level of care placed in recreating this tried and tested formula of three years ago has me retrospectively feeling a bit cynical about elements of the movie’s production.
Once again, RADWIMPS has returned to create the movie’s soundtrack, including a collection of vocal tracks to punctuate key moments. Toko Miura has been brought on to add her vocals to some of the new pieces of music, but otherwise, it’s the same team as we had before. The use of RADWIMPS, however, alongside the impacts it has on the film’s structure, means that, even in the context of rather differing stories, you have a pair of films that leave the audience with a sense of deja vu. Unlike with Your Name, here, the structure of Weathering With You is forced to bend around these songs in order to accommodate their inclusion instead of complementing it. Once a new everyday life has been established in Tokyo for Hodaka, you get a montage of clips attached to music to establish this, just like Your Name established its body-swapping status quo with music. There’s even a long buildup to the film’s climax matched to a vocal crescendo with an extended vocal and instrumental tune emphasizing the emotions of the scene while building up to the film’s big finale.
Just. Like. Your. Name.
Don’t get me wrong here. As they were able to do with Your Name, RADWIMPS have come together to create a wonderful soundtrack with some stunningly evocative vocal songs. Being compared to a film as brilliant as Your Name is hardly an insult, either. It just doesn’t feel as intrinsic to the film as it did three years ago. Almost like it was clearing a checklist.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot since seeing this film. Your Name released 35 months before Weathering With You. Following the unprecedented success of his last film, it felt like there was almost a desire to do whatever it took to create a film that could replicate this lightning-in-a-bottle success, with a goal of developing it as quickly as possible. This meant that RADWIMPS are required to come back, the structure is required to stay the same, the visuals are not allowed to evolve out of a fear of alienating its audience, and even if the story being told is different, there’s only so much change possible under such circumstances.
To me, this isn’t what makes Makoto Shinkai a great director. I didn’t fall in love with Makoto Shinkai because his films didn’t change or develop as he advanced through his career. Makoto Shinkai is a director I fell in love with for his ability to create stunning worlds through his distinct approach to storytelling and his attention to detail that spread far beyond the obvious visual beauty. I fell in love with him for his romance stories that use human connections as a springboard to discuss an ever-expanding list of philosophical ideas behind human connection, relationships, and the human psyche. His early films would often discuss how distance in various forms, be it physical, mental or both, can affect human relationships, while his later films since Garden of Words have discussed the performative nature of life and how societal expectations impact how you connect and interact with those around you.
Shinkai uses his filmography to discuss a huge range of topics, and he always finds a new and exciting way to share such ideas. Your Name was unlike anything the director made before. While I want to avoid making this article a comparison piece between Weathering With You and Your Name, it’s impossible to watch this film, think about this movie, write about this movie, without the presence of Your Name sitting there in the back of your mind. Comparisons were always going to be inevitable considering its success, but the movie doesn’t do itself any favors to avoid such comparisons, either.
The thing is, even after creating a movie as brilliant as Weathering With You, I never want to see the Shinkai I encountered in this film ever again. Even if this film tries to be different in some areas such as with its story, the resulting movie feels rather derivative, something I’ve never been able to say about Makoto Shinkai’s work before now. I don’t want to see one of the most exciting directors in anime become trapped in a cycle of replicating his past work in the hope of making lightning strike twice with another film that can replicate Your Name’s unlikely triumphs. I believe, even if he has already shown his talent to create stunning works that can capture the imaginations of people around the world, he can still improve and develop and create new stories, and I believe that it’s only by doing this he’ll have a chance of creating something that can surpass anything he has created up until this point.
Weathering With You, as great as it is, suffers by being trapped in the shadow of such an industry-defining film. I feel like the reason I struggle to praise this film is not that it is undeserving of such praise, but because of a fear that such praise could cause my worst fears to come true, sending Shinkai down a path I don’t want him to follow.
For a film whose central themes force our characters to change and grow in order to find the solutions they seek, this is the first film that Shinkai has created a movie where I don’t feel he has changed and grown as a director. I love this film, yet am loathe to praise it when I see a director who is leaning into his past for success instead of reaching into the future and taking a leap of faith.
I can safely say that I enjoyed Weathering With You and would recommend that everyone goes to see this film at the earliest opportunity, yet this is also the first time I’ve come away from one of Shinkai’s films scared instead of excited about what he will create next.
Perhaps that’s the reason why I can’t praise my favorite movie of 2019.
Weathering With You is now showing in Japanese cinemas, and you can find more information on the film’s official website. GKids have licensed the film for a limited theatrical release in the US in early 2020.