The visual realism in Makoto Shinkai’s anime feature film Weathering With You is nothing short of stunning. Shinkai’s follow-up to his international hit Your Name keeps the warm, bright visuals, but adds even more detail, to the point where it rivals Studio Ghibli’s films for richness. This is the kind of movie where sharp-eyed viewers can pick out the individual crimp marks on the end of squeeze-tube toiletries, or the tiny moss spots that give an aging sidewalk its texture. Metal signs have photorealistic rust streaks. A hotel rate card on an unremarkable background wall is so meticulously drawn, you can read the pricing structure for services. You can count the individual leaves on shrubs as the characters walk by. The setting feels almost excruciatingly real, like a vivid sort of reality-plus.
It’s also a movie about a magical girl who creates sunshine by praying.
The thematic clash between a sublimely rendered but familiar mundane world and an unknowable preternatural element defines a lot of the conflict in Weathering With You. There’s no villain in this movie, and barely anything resembling an enemy that can be faced or fought. There’s just a sense that neither of the protagonists entirely belongs in such a quotidian world. Shinkai’s version of Tokyo is too beautiful to feel entirely ordinary, but it’s still so thoroughly realized that it’s solid and fixed, in a way the characters never are. And to some degree, the world knows they don’t fit in this setting, and responds to them as implacably as nature always does.
The central story develops slowly. Sixteen-year-old Hodaka Morishima (Kotaro Daigo in the original Japanese version; Brandon Engman in GKids’ English-language dub) runs away from his isolated island home and arrives in Tokyo with a battered face and a carefully calculated budget. Along the way, he nearly has a serious accident, but he’s saved by a vaguely sketchy man named Suga (Shun Oguri/Lee Pace). Trying to live on his own in Tokyo, Hodaka finds he can’t get legal work without a student ID. As his savings dry up, he reluctantly renews ties with Suga, moves into his office, and becomes a gofer for his tiny freelance writing business, alongside Suga’s lively associate, Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda/Alison Brie).
Assigned to a project to write about urban legends, Natsumi and Hodaka run around Tokyo, chasing lurid supernatural tales that Hodaka contemptuously dismisses as “fantasy novel-like stuff.” But one confident psychic tells them a story that becomes relevant, about sunshine girls and rain girls, who are possessed by gods and can change the weather with their presence. For a seeming fable, the story feels unusually relevant: Tokyo is being battered with record-breaking, unseasonable rain, and its residents are eager for even a hint of sun. When Hodaka meets a teenage orphan named Hina (Nana Mori/Ashley Boettcher), who appears to be genuinely capable of breaking the clouds and ending the rain in a small area for a short period, he quickly suggests they go into business. Joined by Hina’s little brother, they set up a website and start selling Hina’s powers online, bringing quick bursts of sunshine to people trying to enjoy their outdoor fairs or weddings.
In a more American story, the idea of leveraging a spiritual blessing for financial gain would be horrific hubris, and would come at a terrible price. But Weathering With You is a much warmer, homier story, and one far more suited to Japanese culture. There’s a familiar metaphor at work in Hina’s “sunshine girl” powers, which draw on the Japanese obsession with youthful energy and good cheer. It isn’t hard to make the leap from Hina’s upbeat personality spreading light and warmth around her to the more literal sunbeams that follow her around.
That warmth is especially effective on Hodaka. Like Your Name, Weathering With You is a tragic love story about two young people gradually discovering their need for each other under strange, desperate circumstances. Weathering With You focuses more on Hodaka’s perspective; for all his independence in leaving home, he’s still shy and awkward, and Shinkai finds the humor in Hodaka’s delirious terror at entering a girl’s apartment for the first time, or trying to figure out how to declare his love.
And where Hodaka seems to desperately need Hina, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, Hina’s needs are more complicated, since she has a brother to look after, a job and household to manage on her own, and a gradually emerging price to pay for her powers. Where Weathering With You most falters is in Shinkai’s failure to make Hina much more than an idealized fantasy figure. She’s a polestar for Hodaka’s world, and a gift to Tokyo’s residents, but she isn’t much of a personality in her own right. The way she bears most of the story’s pain and pressure, while the focus is still on Hodaka’s yearning for her, can feel uncomfortably unbalanced.
Weathering With You also introduces a handful of strangely specific elements that it never fully explores, at least in the subtitled version. Hodaka is first seen with his face covered in adhesive bandages, as if he’d been injured. The natural assumption, given that he’s a runaway, is that he’s fleeing abuse at home, after some climactic incident. But when asked about his choice to leave home, he defers with a mild shrug of a statement about finding it repressive, and it never comes up again. Early in the film, Hodaka finds a loaded handgun, seemingly left in a dead drop for someone who hasn’t picked it up. The film never addresses who it belongs to, and Hodaka’s reasoning for hanging onto it, even after it causes him considerable trouble, is never fully articulated.
And Shinkai goes out of his way to establish Hodaka’s fascination with rain — that inciting accident at the beginning of the film happens because when he’s warned of a dangerous downpour coming, he runs into it, rather than away from it. Later, traversing the city behind Natsumi on her scooter, he raises his face to the rain in seeming bliss. And yet he never really talks about that part of himself, even in the face of a story that centers on the damaging and dangerous effects of rain, and the misery it brings an immense number of people.
But none of these threads matter much amid the movie’s heady, romantic sweep, which centers on the swooning emotions of young love. Hodaka and Hina have a ready-made Romeo and Juliet scenario going for them, in that they’re both underage, and most of the adults who notice them trying to live independently either try to exploit them or take them into custody. Shinkai never acknowledges that these kids might not be equipped to live on their own yet; he gives the story over fully into their perspective, where they have everything they need in each other, and just want to be left alone. The triumphant music of Japanese band Radwimps, which also scored Your Name, underlines that feeling of youthful, confident energy, with bursts of joyous uplift at key moments along the way.
And nothing in Weathering With You’s minor flaws interferes with the film’s melancholy beauty, which particularly lands whenever Hina engages her powers. The film’s near-constant rainfall is as exquisitely rendered as its cityscapes or its cozy, overpacked, but well-organized rooms. Every falling drop of water has its own highlights and shadows, and the clouds look like they drifted in from a Maxfield Parrish painting. But the moments when the rain clears are magical, not just literally, within the story, but in their glorious execution. There’s a repeated image throughout the film, as someone holds a hand up toward the sunlight, and looks at how the light illuminates their skin and makes it glow. In those moments, the audience can almost feel the weight and heat of the sunbeams.
Weathering With You is clearly channeling anxieties about climate change, though Shinkai keeps the image metaphorical and spiritual rather than digging into the real-world causes. The environment is out of balance in Weathering With You, and while it threatens Tokyo with gray, miserable days and eventually with storms and flooding, it threatens Hodaka and Hina in a much more personal way. In a film so obsessed with the fine line between childhood and adulthood, and with the ways grown-ups oppress and control people on the wrong side of that line, the message about the next generation paying the price for this generation’s decisions about pollution is entirely clear. That makes Weathering’s surprising, daring ending even more symbolic.
But while that ending seems ready-made for debate and discussion, and while it’s possible to pick the story apart and find some dubious elements, the real joy of Weathering With You is in the sensual pleasure of stepping into this world with Hodaka and Hina, and reveling both in their personal joys and in the more mundane ones of the world around them. This is the kind of film where viewers can let themselves flow with the film’s emotion, or entirely ignore the action and just get lost in the beauty of the imagination. Either way, it’s a luscious trip to take.
Weathering With You is in theaters now.