Review by C.J. Bunce
GKids introduced the CoMix Wave Films production Weathering with You to U.S. audiences for a brief run just as the pandemic was getting underway, and it quietly arrived and left with little fanfare. Fortunately the opportunity to see the atmospheric anime film has expanded to Blu-ray, 4K, and digital, and now Japan’s entry for best international feature film Oscar is also streaming on HBO Max. What looks at first blush like a quiet romance drama in the realm of the great Whispers of the Heart is actually a mash-up of many genres and ideas. Full of themes similar to the best of its acclaimed anime counterparts from Studio Ghibli like Spirited Away and The Cat Returns, Japanese writer-director Makoto Shinkai tells a story of young romance with a background intermingling fantasy with the real-life global warming concern in Japan resulting in record summer rainfalls. A romantic fantasy about climate change with kids evading the law, police chases, dystopian realities, and great writing and well-developed characters? Consider Weathering with You a sure bet for anime fans. The entire planet would be better off taking two hours to watch this gorgeous, relaxing film. Yes, it’s dystopian, but it’s also about fighting for what you want–in this case, that’s love.
If you’ve ever lived in the Pacific Northwest you’ll be familiar with the visuals in the film, giant cloud-filled storms and grey skies with vivid drips and drops that soak the fictionalized Tokyo for sixty straight days in the summer of 2021. Teenager Hodaka runs away from home to begin a new life in the big city of Tokyo. As his money runs out a girl at a local McDonald’s gives him a free burger. He then meets a man named Suga who sees himself in the boy and takes him under his wing, allowing him to live and work for him at his X-Files-esque tabloid–along with a woman named Natsumi that Hodaka assumes to be his mistress. We learn Suga was married and his wife died a few years before the events of the story, and his mother is raising his daughter who suffers from asthma. His mother allows him to see her but won’t let her out on rainy days, which sets off her condition. As Hodaka gains his footing at the newspaper job, he looks into the legend of a typical oddity for the tabloid: “sunshine girls,” a superstitious, folkloric idea that a gifted girl can actually manipulate the weather (like the girl able to command fires in Firestarter).
The thing with X-Files is sometimes when you look for something strange, you may actually find it. As intern under Natsumi, Hodaka sees the girl from McDonald’s, named Hina, being bullied by a local gentleman’s club manager. Hodaka is incensed and takes a gun he found in an alley and frees her from her oppressor. Hina says she lost the food service job and needs money to live. But Hodaka has picked up some marketing and business skills while working for Suga and convinces Hina to start a business selling a service over their smart phones. Hina seems to have a knack for predicting the weather, and possibly even changing it. Is it real or a coincidence? Does it matter? They, along with Hina’s little brother, go into business and become successful as citizens of Tokyo are willing to pay for good weather on days and for events that are important to them, like weddings or like fireworks displays after outdoor sporting events.
Hodaka is like the protagonist of Alice in Borderland, a lost and unsettled young male trying to find his place in the bustling city. The animated visuals also mimic the Japan of Alice in Borderland. The real feel helps to ground the story in reality despite the supernatural elements. The animation includes mixes of typical anime talking characters positioned against brightly lit restaurants, apartment and hotel rooms, neon night city streets, and decrepit alleys and buildings that are superbly detailed. The skies in particular are amazingly rendered as they are so key to this story. The CG and hand-drawn rain drips and fireworks feel three dimensional at times. And all the scenes of food will make you hungry. Plus there’s a great cat.
All is going well for Hodaka and Hina, but a dark future is looming, as telegraphed by a psychic Suga and Natsumi encounter. Hina cannot maintain fair weather at all times. The psychic advises that the “sunshine girl” powers come at a price. The more Hina uses her powers, the more she begins to start to vanish, to become a part of the weather and sky. An enormous bargain arises: If Hina is sacrificed, will the normal weather conditions of Japan return? But is the supernatural real?
The questions of reality and fantasy might evoke Midnight Special, a story of a boy being hunted for his special powers. Were they real or part of some religion or something supernatural like here?
Each of the key characters get interesting arcs. Hodaka is voiced by Kotara Daigo (Brandon Engman in English), Hina by Nana Mori (Ashley Boettcher in English), Susga is Shun Oguri (Lee Pace in English), Natsumi is Tsubasa Honda (Alison Brie in English). Yūki Kaji (Riz Ahmed in English) is the voice of a cop in pursuit of the teens.
The only thing that doesn’t quite translate is the title. The Sunshine Girl would have been a better fit. But that’s just a minor quirk.
Weathering with You is both sweet and touching and yet it doesn’t get bogged down like some other more saccharine anime productions. The mix of drama with police procedural action sequences–all well developed, integral to the plot, and fun–and the supernatural elements join with a satisfying ending to create a full-length film worth viewing. The dystopia unveiled is gritty and believable, and Makoto Shinkai’s story choices are intriguing and smart. He plots here in a very French film fashion, not afraid to shy away from emotion and love as a key theme, like in a Luc Besson movie or French fantasy comic book. Great for anime fans and a good entry point to the genre for anyone willing to move beyond Western animation, Weathering with You is now streaming on HBO Max and available at Amazon on Blu-ray, digital, and 4K.