Thursday 6 April 2023

Head in the clouds: "Weathering with You"

The release of Makoto Shinkai's Suzume next week is a very big thing indeed in anime circles, such that it's triggered a theatrical reissue of Shinkai's last two features, 2016's Your Name and 2019's Weathering with You. The framing-slash-hype thus far has been that Shinkai, 50, represents the heir apparent to the now 82-year-old Hayao Miyazaki, but this remains an idea that the former's features have only sporadically borne out. Shinkai undeniably has some measure of Miyazaki's artistry and delicacy, in particular a marked attention to environmental elements, although the films released here so far suggest the younger man is more urban fox than country mouse, and he demonstrates a zappy, poppy, 21st-century approach to storytelling you suspect the stately Miyazaki might frown upon in his grumpier moments. (Shinkai likes montages set to keening emo, and you can't imagine Miyazaki committing undue time - or, indeed, any time at all - to perfecting the look of an animated Big Mac.) My ongoing reservation is that Shinkai's films have emerged out of a modern YA sensibility, and thus can feel underdeveloped when set against the fully articulated, entirely universal works of art his illustrious predecessor has produced over the last half-century; in short, their maker still has some growing to do before he inherits the crown.

Weathering with You, which originally opened here just before lockdown, is Shinkai's take on the making-it-in-the-big-city narrative; the city, however, is a permanently drizzly near-future Tokyo, labouring under a climate ruined for outward-looking young sunbeams by the careless elders sploshing around them. The YA-ness here comes through most sharply in the dismissive description of those grown-ups, set in frowning opposition to fresh-faced heroes who represent the picture of innocence: Hodaka (voiced in the original Japanese version by Kotaro Daigo, and in the US dub by Brandon Engman), an editorial assistant for a disreputable urban myths website run by a serial philanderer, and Hina (Nana Mori, or Ashley Boettcher), the "sunshine girl" - so named for her supernatural ability to part the clouds - whom the upstanding Hodaka rescues from her pimp. This altogether melodramatic development shows Shinkai isn't afraid to broach the seamier side of life, but in the main, he comes across as a shy boy who's still somewhat awkward and squirmy around the subject of sex. (Listen to Hodaka as he waits on Hina's doorstep after the pair's initial encounter: "Could this be... the first time... I'm visiting... a girl's home?" Heaven help him if he ever gets to first base.) This integral naivety is as much limitation as boon, and Weathering with You doesn't do all that much to push back against the (debatable) notion that anime remains primarily kids' stuff, juvenilia designed to fill the days and nights of poppets who haven't yet got round to touching another person's bottom.

It's far happier with the U-rated stuff. Rapt attention is paid to the preparation of a lunchtime salad, an afternoon playing in the park with an adorable young relative, a mid-film pillow fight, the way the sky turns from drab grey to ebullient blue under Hina's redirection. For Shinkai, it's all about the simple things, and maybe that precludes the turbulence of adult relationships, or any conception of teenage life that isn't terminally dreamy - but Weathering with You is exactly that. Dramatically anaemic, too, in a way the great Miyazaki narratives never are: the wide-eyed first hour finds the characters waiting for a troubling formation of cumulonimbi to pull into position, so Shinkai can initiate the cloudbusting necessary for the slip-and-slide action of the movie's closing half-hour. As I, too, waited for the weather to turn, I found myself thinking not of Miyazaki, but of Hirokazu Kore-eda's lesser dramas, the ones that believe gentility alone is enough to sustain a two-hour entertainment. Weathering with You retains its minor charms: as a visual representation of a city bombarded by the elements, it's often very pretty. But it's perilously wet behind the ears; it's a surprise to learn something so soppy could be the work of a creative approaching his sixth decade on this planet. Even formally, Shinkai wards off those with bladders that predate the 1990s: you can't watch this much water sloshing around on screen without rushing out for a pee break every fifteen minutes.

Weathering with You is now playing in selected cinemas; the American dub is available to rent via Prime Video.

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