It's impossible to watch Weathering With You without thinking of the immense pressure writer/director Makoto Shinkai must have felt making it. The animator's earlier work, 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words, began earning him comparisons to the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, who has been flitting in and out of retirement for a few years now. The meteoric success of Your Name in 2016 all but cemented that, particularly when the body-swap romance (briefly) overtook Spirited Away as the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. One section of Weathering With You even invokes Studio Ghibli's Laptuta, Castle in the Sky, in both its mysticism and imagery.
Given the phenomenon that was Your Name, it's also impossible not to directly compare the two and, inevitably, find Weathering With You comes just a few inches short of the dizzying heights of its predecessor. It's enthralling and touching, but the wrenches on your heartstrings won't hurt quite as much. For newcomers to Shinkai's work, however, Weathering With You will likely cast a far stronger spell. And, as a box-ticking exercise in what has come to be Shinkai-isms, it's also a strong jumping-on point.
Teenage runaway, Hodaka is our main anchor in the blustery love story. His disenchantment with his life is echoed by a copy of Catcher in the Rye he brings with him on his journey to Tokyo and, although we don't know it yet, the uncertain ending of Salinger's formative coming-of-age novel will foreshadow an ending for Weathering With You that is sure to be divisive for audiences. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
As an unsupervised minor, Hodaka struggles to find work in Japan's capital, a city that he quickly learns can be as cold and unforgiving as the ever-falling rain. After sleeping rough on the streets, he's thrown a lifeline from a struggling editor, Suga, who offers him food and lodging in exchange for being his live-in gofer. His main source of content seems to be amassing tabloid tales of the weird and unexplained, mostly connected to the unseasonably wet weather. One of his leads heralds the existence of a "weather girl" who can change the tide of the city's bad weather.
During his homelessness, Hodaka was also shown kindness from a McDonald's server, a girl called Hina. Later, while in Suga's sort-of-employ, he comes across the girl again. This time, it's Hina who is down on her luck, and Hodaka is the one to intervene, scaring off an offer from a seedy nightclub owner with what he thinks is a replica gun he found on the streets. He also scares off Hina, too, though, as you'd expect in a love story, not for long.
As the pair get to know each other, Hina reveals that -- yes, you've guessed it -- she is that weather girl. Specifically, she can pray the rain away, if only for a short time. With Tokyo constantly barraged by rainfall, Hodaka persuades her to try and monetize this power, given her recent unemployment and status as the sole breadwinner for herself and her younger brother, "ladies' man" Nagi. Unbeknownst to them, however, is that her meteorological manipulation comes with a huge catch.
Weathering With You is brimming with Shinkai's usual hallmarks. Visually, real-life areas of Tokyo are replicated in his usual picture-perfect quality; a style that approaches photorealism but still bears the unnaturally vivid colors and delicacy of touch that belies a handmade nature. As is always the case, the breathtaking richness of the world Shinkai creates only serves to heighten the melancholia. That's not to say, however, that there aren't laughs to be had -- mainly from members of the supporting cast like the adolescent Lothario, Nagi, and Suga's charmingly messy assistant, Natsumi. RADWIMPS, who lent Your Name its anthemic, pop-rock soundtrack also return for the score here. Thematically, Weathering With You follows Your Name's template quite closely: a romance between two alienated teenagers that becomes impeded by cosmic forces. On a broader level, it's a premise that Shinkai has spent a lot of time developing throughout his body of work: Young people yearning for connection against both the constraints of modern day living and predetermined forces, whether they be spiritual or sci-fi. Few filmmakers working today quite do against-all-odds romance like Shinkai.
And, for longtime fans, there are Easter eggs not so much hidden in plain sight but walking right into the middle of scenes and sticking around for far longer than you'd expect. (Cue discussions of a shared cinematic Shinkai-verse.) These clear nods back to his past work are perhaps an acknowledgment of the creators' acute awareness of the weight that his own previous success hangs around his neck like Coleridge's ancient mariner. But while Weathering With You doesn't meet the insurmountable stakes that had audiences uncontrollably blubbering three years ago, it's emotionally engaging on a more down-to-earth level. Ironic, given its skyward-directed nature.
The relative simplicity of the story compared to Your Name's interconnected timelines is elevated by the unexpected turn it takes towards the end, which could be interpreted as defeatist, though Shinkai mitigates this by framing our relationship to nature somewhat pragmatically. Or, rather, our insignificant place within nature. It's a controversy-baiting decision that perhaps proves that, in the end, Shinkai is able to throw the Albatross-sized hindrance off himself and not bend to crowd-pleasing expectations.