As Earth’s climate continues to change for the worse, a peculiar little subgenre of science fiction, the environmental allegory, is due for a cinematic resurgence. Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You is a tale of awkward teenagers finding each other and falling in love amid all sorts of trials and tribulations—a specialty for the filmmaker, whose smash hit Your Name made him one of Japan’s leading voices in animation. But what makes it truly fascinating is the story in the background: a quiet climate apocalypse that the characters are mostly intent on ignoring until it’s too late.
Shinkai, who has directed six animated features since 2004, became an international sensation with Your Name, which broke global box-office records for anime in 2017. In Japan, where it was released in 2016, it was a pop-culture phenomenon, grossing more than any domestic film ever, save for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The movie is a mesmerizing balancing act, blending high-concept fantasy (a body swap between a teenage boy and girl) with the lingering trauma of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 and the country’s ongoing push and pull between tradition and modernity.
Weathering With You is similarly ambitious. It’s set in modern Tokyo, but a Tokyo where it hasn’t stopped raining in recent memory, something the city’s denizens have come to accept as an everyday part of life. Even for the viewer, registering all the rain takes a while; the atmosphere is less apocalyptic than emotive, a weepy backdrop for a story about young people trying to find their way in an ever more harsh-looking future. Weathering With You takes place in a world ending so gradually, people barely notice it anymore.
The film’s heroes are Hodaka (played by Kotaro Daigo) and Hina (Nana Mori), two plucky teens struggling to stay above water (metaphorically and literally) in Tokyo’s rat race. Hodaka has run away from home with dreams of writing and big-city life, but can barely earn a living wage. Hina, an orphan trying to support her younger brother, works at sketchy clubs frequented by unsavory older men. Since this is a Shinkai movie, she also has a magical power, one vaguely rooted in Japanese myth: If she tries hard enough, she can essentially pray the clouds away for a little while.
Hina and Hodaka turn that ability into a business, traveling around Tokyo to give people little patches of sunshine, and Shinkai’s usual brand of whimsical world building follows. Rather than explaining upfront how Hina’s powers operate in this eternally rainy Tokyo, Shinkai sprinkles information throughout the narrative before kicking off an aggressively weird third act. In between, there’s a little comedy, plenty of giddy flirtation between the two leads, and raunchier dialogue than one would get in a Miyazaki film. Though Weathering With You is technically science fiction, its style is vividly contemporary—not an archetypal fable, but rather a compelling yarn about young people trying to live and love in an often hostile world of grown-ups.
Shinkai, who wrote as well as directed, has a natural way with the awkward poetry of teenage dialogue—all stammers and half-considered compliments—which he demonstrated in Your Name. That talent makes the charmingly romantic middle section of Weathering With You its strongest. After a while, though, Hodaka and Hina’s weather-control start-up unsurprisingly spirals out of their control, and the supernatural qualities of the world Shinkai has created begin to assert themselves. The final half hour of Weathering With You revolves around physical transformations, alternate dimensions, a pair of bumbling policemen on the tail of a missing handgun, and the two main characters going on the lam.
After the far gentler energy of their meet-cute, this tonal shift might prove too much for some audiences, but it’s further evidence of Shinkai’s boldness as a storyteller. While I can’t spoil the ending, I have to offer my applause for its stubborn and somewhat bleak fairy-tale logic, which proudly ignores the selfless and heroic acts typical of such animated allegories. Instead, Weathering With You sticks to its guns all the way to the finale. It’s a story of Japan’s younger generation figuring out its future, and of a repudiation of the past that goes hand in hand with hope.