The problem with Makoto Shinkai is that he makes consistently beautiful films that are almost inevitably about so much less than you might think. Weathering With You, his latest, is as spectacular as any other movie he's done. And for about half its running time, it's also a good-to-great story, with characters we care about and a situation that has tremendous potential. Too bad about the second half, where it stops being about some kids who realize they have potentially enormous responsibilities to the world and starts becoming about nothing much at all.
Showers, clearing later in the day
Weathering opens with two characters: Hodoka, a runaway kid who's boarded a ship to Tokyo, the better to start over again in the big city; and Hina, a young girl who has discovered that her prayers have the power to clear away the torrential rains afflicting Tokyo. Hodoka has no prospects in Tokyo — he's got no ID, no prospects of a legitimate job, and no contacts save for Suga, the dodgy-looking guy who saved him from almost being swept overboard on the ship during a storm.
Suga runs, along with his niece Natsumi, a dodgy publishing company that deals in urban legends and ancient mysteries. It's entertainment, not journalism, but they could use an extra pair of hands, and soon Hodoka finds himself in the position of contributing editor and chief bottle-washer. He and Natsumi soon find themselves tracking down a story about a girl who can allegedly dispel stormy weather, and Hodoka realizes he's crossed her path before, when he was starving in a McDonald's and she took pity on him by serving him a burger from behind the counter.
Her name's Hina, and her powers are quite real, albeit limited: she can only clear a small area and for a limited time. But rather than just write about them, Hodoka decides to help her go into business for herself. Along with her little brother Nagi, they set up a website where they can take requests for clearing the skies at a few thousand yen a pop. It works, and soon they're helping everyone from festival organizers to wedding planners to grade schoolers enjoy a day in the sun. All this without Suga knowing about it, that is.
This is all good stuff, and it sets us up for a whole slew of possible tensions. Little ones, like the way Suga has been trying to reconnect with his little daughter (and can't get through his mother to do it), and big ones, like Hodoka's crush on Hina. And really big ones, like how Hina's power essentially seems to have come on loan, and the more she uses it the more she runs the risk of returning to the source of the power and never coming back.
Under the weather
Then at about the halfway mark, the film begins to step wrong. Not all at once, but by way of one boneheaded plot movement after another that stray off into the least interesting aspects of this material.
Hodoka, as we have learned, is a runaway, and when the police close in on him, he and Hina and Nagi go on the lam and somehow con their way into a luxury hotel (something that doesn't make sense given that they were earlier turned away from even the skeeviest of hot-pillow places). Then when Hodoka's arrested, he manages to escape the police station only because the cops are apparently too stupid to lock any doors — and because exactly the right person happens to be riding past on their moped. And so on, with Hodoka running through a sopping wet Tokyo like Forrest Gump trying to save Hina.
I'm not saying action-driven plotting has no place in a story like this. It's more that it's the wrong kind of action to the wrong end, where there are dumb showdowns with the police (cheap peril is the worst sort of sentimentalizer) and a truly foolish subplot involving Hodoka mistakenly acquiring a pistol. It also doesn't help that the gun subplot goes nowhere of substance; in a better movie it would have been removed in the rewrite. And then there's an extended coda that is just infuriating, because it throws over its shoulder in the last few minutes a bunch of good ideas that could have enriched the entire rest of the movie, if anyone had bothered to try. Why just dump them on us and walk off? And what about all the other unfulfilled ideas floating around in here — e.g., the genuinely exciting concept of the sky holding unknown ecosystems of its own, something the movie hints at and then forgets about because it's too busy trying to get us to cry?
Of course this is a gorgeous project; it's a Makoto Shinkai film, and his movies are gorgeous to behold in a way that never disappoints. Shots of raindrops plinking on the pavement are animated with more detail than the characters in some other films, and a signature image in the film — a shaft of sunlight piercing through a hole in the clouds — gets depicted with the beauty and majesty it deserves. And I liked all the little touches, like the notches in the doorjamb where Suga measured his daughter's growth. It's a shame the back half of the story doesn't benefit from that kind of loving craft, especially since the front half is so solid and promising.
I think I was lucky in that I always felt Shinkai was more surface than substance, and so was never all that attached to the identity largely constructed for him by others (the "next Miyazaki", a concept as silly as it is misleading). When his works were good-to-great, as with your name., I gave them a nod; when they weren't (Children Who Chase Lost Voices), I shrugged and moved on. No big loss. But a wasted opportunity hurts no matter who's in charge. With your name., even that good-to-great movie had a popped plot tire that inadvertently made the protagonists look like incurious idiots. This time, it's the movie itself that is incurious. Maybe "soggy" is a better word.