Weathering With You (2020)

Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai earned so much international success with his supernatural teen romance Your Name. that he unintentionally sparked an entire subgenre of imitators. Watching blatant Your Name. knockoffs like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas in the few years since Shinkai’s breakout hit has been amusing, but also a threat to dilute & over-familiarize the director’s schtick before he could deliver a proper follow-up himself. The first hour or so of Shinkai’s Weathering With You seemed to confirm that fear – essentially landing like an amusing-but-weak echo of what Your Name. had already accomplished. However, with time it eventually gets somewhere truly incredible that Shinkai’s imitators have failed to replicate, pushing its plot further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at a stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. It by no means bests Shinkai’s previous highs, but it does break far enough away from that precedent to justify its own existence as a bizarro YA romance tale.

In terms of plot & aesthetic, Weathering With You shares a lot of DNA with Your Name. Its tale of two star-crossed teens who yearn for each other so earnestly that their bond defies the limits of real-world physics is as shamelessly derivative of that predecessor as Fireworks or Pancreas. Shinkai seems to have a genuine weakness for that realm of teenage yearning as a storyteller, however, given how his debut feature 5 Centimeters per Second was already hinged on teenage runaways throwing caution to the wind for love. In this update, a small-town boy runs away to the big city with no money to his name and a vaguely abusive past homelife behind him. While working odd jobs as a “journalist” for a paranormal investigation rag (think Weekly World News), he falls in love with a similarly emancipated teen who happens to be a “Sunshine Girl.” Amidst record-setting, unrelenting rainfall that keeps Tokyo under a constant downpour, this “Sunshine Girl” has the ability to produce small patches of sunlight as a temporary, hyper-local relief. The pair form a small sunshine-for-hire business around this phenomenal ability, developing feelings for each other along the way, but alas her gift is gradually revealed to come with a price that could ruin their life together before it has a chance to blossom.

As fun as the heart-on-sleeve teenage romance & small-town angst can be in these supernatural heart-tuggers, that’s not really what stood out to me in Shinkai’s previous work. What I’ve been especially enamored with in his modernized anime aesthetic is the way he applies a Miyazaki-style reverence for Nature to Big City urban environments. With Your Name., I was struck by how Tokyo skyscrapers were flanked by birds & sunshine, reflecting the same sense of majesty a Miyazaki picture would typically reserve for an undisturbed forest or the miracle of flight. Weathering With You pushes that Natural wonder for Modernity even further in its third act as its rainstorms continue to flood the streets of Tokyo. This is a film where Nature reclaims the Big City as part of itself, a big-picture phenomenon that sneaks up on you as you get lost in the intimate, insular teen drama in the foreground. I don’t believe the soaring romance or the small-town angst gave me anything I didn’t already absorb from pop punk anthems in my own youth (dutifully replicated here by returning Shinkai collaborators Radwimps), but the way the film captures the Natural beauty of the Big City in traditional animation flourishes will likely stick with me for a long time. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a downtown rainstorm the same again.

If you’re looking to shoot Shinkai down for the sin of repeating himself, he’s willing to supply more than enough ammo. Weathering With You even features the definitive calling card for the Your Name. knockoff: a CG fireworks display. It also indulges in shameless product placement (most egregiously in a scene where the main character declares that a Big Mac was “the best meal of his life”) & gun violence sensationalism that drags its teen drama down into a much trashier stratosphere than its predecessor occupied. Still, the intrinsic pleasures of the supernatural YA romance & Shinkai’s visual majesty remain intact enough here that repeating the exercise is a pure joy, despite your better judgement. Most importantly, the way Shinkai pushes his interest in the border between Nature & Cityscapes into new, grandly bizarre directions in the film’s third act feels like an entirely new growth sprouting from the foundation of his previous work. Thanks to its full-hearted commitment to its own outlandish premise, all that overlap feels less like a redundancy and more like an expression of auteurist preoccupation. I would pay to watch Shinkai warp the basic outline of Your Name. into new, weird shapes forever, whether or not I’ve already gotten a little exhausted with his paint-by-numbers imitators.

– Brandon Ledet

5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

One of the year’s best surprises so far was the animated Japanese romance epic Your Name., which felt like it came out of nowhere before jumping into shockingly wide American distribution. Audiences who closely follow Japanese popular media were probably a lot less surprised by the film’s stellar quality and critical word of mouth success, however. Not only was Your Name. the top-grossing film in Japan last year, anime or otherwise, but it’s director Makoto Shinkai had been praised as “the next Miyazaki” for at least a decade now, despite not having much name recognition abroad. What really should have telegraphed the arrival of Your Name., though, was Shinkai’s sophomore feature, 5 Centimeters per Second, which shared a lot of basic DNA with the director’s breakout hit despite being released a decade in the past. It’s not nearly as significant or as cohesive of a work, but it is certainly fascinating as a wind-up to the pitch.

Told in a series of three interconnected vignettes, 5 Centimeters per Second is a kind of romance anthology, adopting a format usually employed by the horror genre. A young boy named Takaki yearns for intimacy with a classmate who moves to the countryside, several gruelling trains transfers away. In the first segment Takaki journeys to meet her at the station. In the second, he’s slightly older and painfully unaware that his current highschool classmate has a crush on him. His mind is still wrapped up in his childhood crush. The third segment finds Takaki as an adult with a job as an office drone, still living in an unfulfilled life as he mentally searches for a childhood love that never saw its due. Much like Your Name., it’s a film about two romantics separated by time & distance who yearn for an impossible shared space where they can fully explore their feelings for each other. Unlike Your Name., this film feels like a series of loosely connected, lightly detailed sketches that never truly come together in a cohesive way.

The three segments that make up 5 Centimeters per Second are obviously differentiated by drastic shifts in time: Takaki’s life as a school age boy with a devastating crush, his year as a hunky but oblivious highschool senior, and his adult state as a depressed, unfulfilled office worker. What really differentiates between these periods, however, and what keeps them interesting, is their individual senses of pacing. The opening puppy love segment is shot rapid fire at the screen with the excited energy of a young child to whom everything means so much. The highschool episode slows things down significantly, making room for reflective stargazing, matching Takaki’s off-in-the-distance sense of mental wandering. The concluding segment oddly ties the whole thing together by starting with Takaki’s aimless descent into dull adulthood tedium, but then reigniting the excitement of the film’s romantic spark with a music video crescendo that incorporates imagery from Takaki’s entire life onscreen. Each individual part has a clear sense of how to match its story with a corresponding cinematic energy, even if Shinkai is much less deliberate in how he brings them all together.

You can feel so many of Shinkai’s pet obsessions just starting to take shape in 5 Centimeters per Second that it makes sense it would take a decade for them to fully form. The film not only plays with the same city boy & country girl sending messages long distance dynamic of Your Name., but anchors that romance to a lot of similar imagery: cityscapes glistening like natural formations, birds flying against outer space backdrops, travel by trains, teens staring into cellphones in anticipation, etc. However, Shinkai seems less confident in this earlier work how to incorporate supernatural sci-fi into its central romance and how to conclude a story that spans such a long distance in both space & time. 5 Centimeters Per Second does stand well enough on it own as “a chain of short stories,” but it often feels like the sketchbook plans of the much better feature to come. Fans enamored with Your Name. should be able to find a lot to connect with in that respect, even if the movie is a loosely defined experiment.

-Brandon Ledet