We talk to Makoto Shinkai, the director of ‘Weathering With You’, about the meaning of his new film, criticism from Yoshiyuki Tomino, and ancient Japanese tradition mixing with capitalism
Love, loneliness, and anxiety over global warming are universal themes. They’re also the plot hooks of Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, an eco-friendly anime that became one of Japan’s highest-grossing movies of all time within weeks of its release.
The dazzling fantasy isn’t koto Shinkai’s first moneymaking force of nature, either. The 46-year-old has written and directed several movies, most notably his 2016 body-swap romcom Your Name. Earning $360 million worldwide, Your Name amassed a diehard following: they made repeat viewings to the cinema, published reams of fan-fiction, and snapped selfies at the real-life spots in Tokyo. Yet some reviewers found Your Name too sappy, too YA. So Shinkai vowed, as he told the Japan Times, to create a new movie his critics would “hate even more”.
Hence Weathering With You doubles down on what transformed Your Name into a box-office sensation: the youthful romance is more earnest and heartfelt; the fantastical elements peer up at the sky and soar to new dimensions; and the soundtrack blasts even more irritatingly catchy tunes by the pop-punk group Radwimps. Unsurprisingly, it was Japan’s biggest movie of 2019, but it was also selected as their submission for the 2020 Oscars. “It seems like critics haven’t objected to Weathering With You as much as Your Name,” Shinkai tells me, via a translator, on a wet, windy December morning in St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. “Which is a shame, really.”
“It seems like critics haven’t objected to Weathering With You as much as Your Name. Which is a shame, really” – Makoto Shinkai
Like in Your Name (and, indeed, Call Me By Your Name), the swirling romance of Weathering With You is geographically specific and mirrored by its environment – the grey, tempestuous skies are adolescent and angsty. A 16-year-old boy, Hidoka, runs away from his parents to forge a new life in rainy Tokyo; alone in the city, he snags a job at an occult magazine that commissions him to interview a woman who allegedly controls the weather (a weather maide). Lo and behold, Hidoka meets Hina, a teenage girl with the ability to summon sunshine at will. She prays, the sky obeys, and then there are sun rays. However, the pair swiftly realise that manipulating the weather has drastic, irreversible consequences. This is surely a horror movie about global warming?
“That’s not my intention,” Shinkai says. “I tried to remove any kind of deep message about global warming or climate change or politics. This is first and foremost entertainment. Having said that, the inspiration for this film does come from the global warming that is actually happening in the world. In Japan, we’re seeing a lot more rain nowadays, and destruction due to excessive rain.”
The director then repeats the line about prioritising popcorn fun, adding, “It’s not meant to prompt some kind of action with regards to global warming. It’s a boy-meets-girl story. After that, it’s up to the viewer what they see it as.”
“It’s not meant to prompt some kind of action with regards to global warming. It’s a boy-meets-girl story. After that, it’s up to the viewer what they see it as” – Makoto Shinkai
When the translator recites Shinkai’s answers, he studies my face and seems amused by my puzzled look. Does the director really not want his viewers to be scared, if not furious, about climate change?
“If the audience sees a message about global warming and that makes them angry and prompts them to do something, then I’m happy about that. But as I say, this film is not a documentary like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a boy-meets-girl story, and about them meeting and growing, even if it was initially inspired by global warming.”
Again, he enjoys analysing my facial expressions. “It seems the audience’s reaction has varied greatly by country, because audiences in Japan and China haven’t really taken that global warming message from the film. But in India and California, they always pick up on this theme and ask that question. I’ve actually been wondering what the response would be like in the UK. This is my first interview, and going on your questions, I think I might be facing more questions on global warming.”
Shinkai also downplays any significance over the film’s depiction of Hodaka, Hina and Hina’s younger brother as children fending for themselves in one of the world’s most expensive cities. As the trio lack legal guardians, they hide from the authorities in a stretch of the film that echoes Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows and Shoplifters. “There are boys and girls in Tokyo who don’t have their parents anymore and need to make their own way,” Shinkai says. “In Japan, the old values still persist, that the norm is a child raised by two parents. But it’s more varied now. It’s not special.”
What’s undeniable, though, is the mesmerising, energising animation that lovingly details every object of every frame, from the individual magazines on the shelves of a manga café to the glistening surfaces of Tokyo’s expansive cityscape. As usual, Shinkai spent months drawing the original storyboards, and the finished product smartly amalgamates 2D and CGI technology. The animators used photographs of real locations as references, and thus the drama feels grounded, even when the action takes places in the air. Then, when the sci-fi story truly kicks in, Shinkai’s imagination explodes across the screen with vivid colours and expressive textures – it’s possible for a cloud to possess emotions.
That said, these clouds tend to be grey and ominous. Moreover, the presence of gangsters and a truck recruiting underage sex workers signifies a different tone from Your Name, even if Mitsuha and Taki from the 2016 movie make brief cameos. “In Your Name, it’s a kid from the country dreaming of going to Tokyo, and then he has the body-swap. I wanted him to be surprised by this shiny version of Tokyo. But in Weathering With You, it’s a boy who’s left home, and it needed to be a darker place.”
Although Weathering With You and its bustling depiction of a metropolis feels thoroughly modern, the story of a “Sunshine Girl” borrows from Japanese folklore and Shinto beliefs. One scene might feature teru teru bozu dolls in the background, while the next depicts Hodaka chomping on a Big Mac. “Teru teru bozu is a major custom in Japan,” Shinkai says. “People make them when they want the sun to come out, so it was perfect for this film.
“You do get the Japanese traditional magic of the teru teru bozu and this global corporation in the same film, but I don’t find it strange. That’s everyday life in Japan” – Makoto Shinkai
“And there is a McDonald’s in that spot in Shinjuku, and it’s somewhere I’m very familiar with. I asked McDonald’s for permission to feature it in the film. You’re right, you do get the Japanese traditional magic of the teru teru bozu and this global corporation in the same film, but I don’t find it strange. That’s everyday life in Japan. You might have someone sitting in McDonald’s folding origami cranes.”
Due to the success of Your Name, Shinkai was able to take more risks. As an example, the director cites a scene where Tokyo is partly underwater. “A lot of Japanese people are going to feel very uncomfortable with it,” he admits.
However, Shinkai received a more esoteric criticism from Yoshiyuki Tomino, the creator of Japanese sci-fi franchise Gundam. A few days earlier, Tomino complained that Shinkai’s movies are “stories about a boy and a girl who are always stretching out their hands towards each other, and yet the boy’s hand never reaches the girl’s crotch. Why do they never go any further? I want him to make a story where they aren’t just satisfied with no physicality.”
I suggest to Shinkai that the comments are harsh and perhaps from a place of resentment. “Firstly, Tomino and his work on Gundam has influenced me and I like his work,” Shinkai says. “The fact he said anything at all about me is an honour, and makes me happy. I haven’t read everything that Tomino wrote, and so I might not fully understand what he’s trying to say, but I think it’s slightly unfair.
“In Weathering With You, it’s true, I haven’t drawn Hodaka and Hina actually kissing, but you can tell that Hodaka wants her. He reaches out towards her. You have this sense of adolescence excitement when he looks at her. It’s not the case that there is no connection between them and that they’re never going to have a relationship.”
In the same interview, Tomino refers to Shinkai as a rival. At the time of writing, Weathering With You and its $175 million earnings makes it the sixth highest-grossing anime of all time, lagging behind Your Name in second place. Nobody can be called the new Miyazaki, but numbers-wise, Shinkai certainly is. The total will increase even further when it’s released in the UK and US, with options for subtitled and dubbed – Lee Pace, Alison Brie, and Riz Ahmed are providing the voices. (Shinkai tells me he doesn’t mind which one you choose.) It’s also not farfetched to imagine a live-action Weathering With You a few years from now. After all, Shinkai confirms to me that he’s still in communications with JJ Abrams’ studio Bad Robot about an Americanised remake of Your Name.
Although Your Name didn’t land a nod for Best Animated Film, Japan has selected Weathering With You as their single entry for the Best International Feature Film – the first time they’ve submitted an anime since Princess Mononoke in 1998. (A few weeks after our conversation, Weathering With You will fail to make the Oscar’s 10-film shortlist for Best International Feature Film.) As it’s such a news story, does that mean animation is still underappreciated by the business?
“First of all, it’s a great honour,” Shinkai says. “As for the status of animation within the Japanese film industry, I don’t know where it stands. The truth is that a lot more people go watch anime than live-action films in Japan. Take any year, and the top of the box-office list for that year will be an animated film. So that’s what the audience chooses.”
Weathering With You is released in UK cinemas on January 17, with special double bill screenings of Your Name followed by Weathering With You at select cinemas on January 15