On screen, the sight of a large city slowly sinking into the sea can’t help but conjure thoughts of climate change and environmental disaster.
But “Weathering With You” is no eco-thriller along the lines of “The Day After Tomorrow.” The haunting image of a sinking metropolis only arrives toward the end of this stirring animated feature from Japanese writer-director Makoto Shinkai (“Your Name”). Despite the torrential rains that occur throughout the film, a feeling of heavy melancholy is the real cloud that hangs over the story of Hodaka, a 16-year-old runaway who has fled his remote island home for Tokyo, hoping to accelerate his coming-of-age. If he ever achieves maturity, we’re led to wonder, will there still be a world in which to appreciate it?
After a cryptic prologue that only comes into focus later, we meet Hodaka on a boat, where he’s greeted by a dazzling urban landscape that’s quickly becoming one of Shinkai’s aesthetic signatures, brought to life by a combination of hand-drawn and digital animation. Glowing streetlights and digital billboards are warm and inviting, but the overwhelming bustle and the overstimulating corporate presence strike an unnerving tone.
Hodaka spends several days homeless, sleeping in an alleyway and spending loose change at McDonald’s, where a young female employee offers him a free Big Mac. He describes it as the most delicious meal of his life.
Eventually Hodaka is rescued by the eccentric owner of a small magazine who pays the boy a meager sum to work as an administrative assistant. Hodaka tags along on an assignment to cover the phenomenon of what the film calls “sunshine girls”: young women who are said to be able to manipulate the weather. One, named Hina, turns out to be the generous McDonald’s employee. She and Hodaka quickly form an intimate bond, but it’s tested by the demands of her supernatural powers and the looming threat that Hodaka will be picked up by the authorities and forced to return home.
Meanwhile, the rain battering Tokyo — and the notion of a young woman who can cause the sun to come out — alludes to the real-life climate crisis, although the film never mentions it explicitly. More transparently, “Weathering” presents its adolescent characters at a stage of development in which everything is possible, and nothing is ever enough. The harrowing threat of gun violence and the unexplained presence of mystical forces begin to drag the characters into unfamiliar territory.
Whereas “Your Name” built its central relationship out of two fully realized characters, “Weathering” stumbles a bit in that regard, failing to establish Hina as much more than Hodaka’s love interest, and a focus of our admiration and pity. Hodaka is more well-rounded, although the movie never reveals exactly from what he was so desperate to get away.
Released in Japan in 2016, “Your Name” was a box office sensation, out-grossing even the beloved films of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”), the country’s animation king. Although some have rushed to anoint Shinkai as a “new Miyazaki,” it’s a moniker that does a disservice to both artists’ strengths.
Both filmmakers share a deep concern about the natural world and the inner lives of teenagers. But Miyazaki abhors digital technology, while Shinkai embraces it. Miyazaki evokes a sense of innocence and wonder, while Shinkai digs deeper into his characters’ inner struggles.
At 46, Shinkai still has plenty of time to convince us of his gifts. “Weathering With You” may not reach the heights of “Your Name,” but it still achieves something impressive: It tells a story that, without sugarcoating the environmental challenges that lie ahead, manages to end on a hopeful note.
“Weathering With You” (3 stars)
A stirring animated feature from Japanese writer-director Makoto Shinkai. The animated film presents its adolescent characters at a stage of development in which everything is possible, and nothing is ever enough. It may not reach the heights of 2016’s “Your Name,” but the love story set against a backdrop of climate change, ends on a hopeful note.
Rating: PG-13, for suggestive material, some violence and strong language
Opening Friday: Marysville, Meridian, Thornton Place Stadium, Cascade Mall