In 2017, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Best Animated Feature category at that year’s Oscars. Their decision to ignore Shinkai's new animated feature, Weathering With You, at this year's ceremony appears to be every bit as outrageous: beyond breaking domestic box-office records in Japan, Weathering With You followed Your Name in becoming a phenomenon throughout Asia, solidifying Shinkai's status not only as one of Japan's leading animators but as one of the continent's most important filmmakers.
I can, however, understand why Academy members had their reservations about Weathering With You. As with the rest of Shinkai's filmography, it goes against the common Hollywood perception of animation, relying heavily on dialogue and environment rather than action. To make matters worse, Weathering With You suffers from another problem: it's just not that good.
In Your Name, it appeared that Shinkai had managed to overcome the problems that had plagued his earlier feature-length works (his short films, in comparison, were far more accomplished), notably their tendency to fall apart midway through and never quite pick up the loose ends by their conclusion. Weathering With You, unfortunately, only becomes more and more problematic as its plot advances, especially in its themes.
The film does, for the most part, feature the talent that Shinkai demonstrated in Your Name for the creation of strong and sympathetic characters, starting with the film's protagonist, Hodaka. A teenage runaway who arrives at Tokyo just as the city is struggling with a wave of ever-worsening storms, he finds a job as a writer for a conspicuous magazine which focuses on occult stories, and this job leads him to Hina, a girl who can make the stormy weather go away. The two quickly come to the aid of different people in the city who wish for the weather to get clearer.
The story of the romantic relationship that grows between Hodaka and Hina is, for the most part, charming and heartwarming, as can be expected from a Shinkai film. Relationships have always been a recurring theme in his works, and in Weathering With You, he tells the story of how love blooms between two people who initially help each other in their respective struggles for survival.
There is another character involved in this relationship who is perhaps the most important character in the film—the city of Tokyo. Few people, in animation or live-action filmmaking, direct landscapes as beautifully as Shinkai does. The sights of rain hitting pavements, of leaves flying violently as storm-winds hit the city, and of this aggressive weather coming to an abrupt end, courtesy of Hina's powers, are all stunningly beautiful, and serve the greater story that the film's landscapes tell.
In Your Name, Tokyo was portrayed as a modern, busy hub of constant movement, where people have little if any time for meaningful human interaction. In Weathering With You, however, Shinkai presents another side of the city: the back-alleys and rundown apartments of the less fortunate citizens who live on the fringes of society. Yet these fringes hold their own appeal and beauty: they may not offer the comfort and safety of "proper" life in the big city, but they have a more authentic, honest, and friendly approach. In fact, through both the narrative and design, Shinkai idealizes life on the fringe, where people seemingly have better interaction with each other. This idealization, unfortunately, brings the film down.
There is no clear explanation in the film as to why Hodaka ran away from home, though it is implied that he was sick of the insistence (probably of his parents) that he properly complete his studies. Hina and her brother, meanwhile, live in an old, crumbling apartment, and yet their biggest concern appears to be getting reported to the welfare authorities, who will come to take them away (the film's main antagonist is a police officer who makes it his concern to investigate just what is happening with Hina and Hodaka). The film portrays running away from home and living in poverty as a rollicking adventure in which Hodaka plays a knight in shiny armor, saving Hina from bad people (in an encounter involving a dangerous firearm), and Hina is a super-heroine who solves everyone's problems.
So: proper education is bad, running away is good. Living in poverty is good, letting welfare take care of you is bad. It's a bizarre subtext, that gets even worse at the film's ending—probably the most gut-wrenching "happy ending" I have ever seen in any movie. If Your Name told the story of how love between two people can bridge social distances for the greater good, Weathering With You tells the story of how love between two people is the most important thing in the world, and everyone else can drop dead. Perhaps Shinkai attempted to deliver a message about individualism here, but it's an insane, not to mention selfish, kind of individualism.
Worse, it makes the characters considerably less believable and complex. The most obvious comparison is Mitsuha, the protagonist of Your Name, whose tragic past forged her into the strong character portrayed in the film; in contrast, Hina is passive and weak. Comparisons to other works that appear to have inspired Shinkai are equally unflattering: Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) also deals with a teenager who leaves the village to live in a big city, where she opens a business and helps people. But in Miyazaki's film—which was closer to a secondary-world fantasy, as opposed to the modern-day setting of Weathering With You—the process was presented as a continuation of the character's maturing and education, rather than a turning of the character's back to them. Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers (2003) also followed a teenage runaway (among other protagonists), but it never attempted to idealize this character's life. In Weathering With You, Shinkai builds a disturbing romantic fantasy from tragic materials provided by reality.
The general thematic weakness of Weathering With You makes it easier to see Shinkai's regular and perhaps overtly familiar stylistic and narrative tropes throughout the film. Is the story of the relationship as powerfully emotional as before? Definitely. Is the film as gorgeous-looking as its predecessors? Absolutely. I just hope that in his next film, Shinkai will use all these tropes in the service of better subtexts and themes.