Makoto Shinkai’s “Weathering With You,” which tells the tale of a young boy who falls for a girl with the power to stop ceaseless rainstorms pounding Tokyo, marks the first time an anime has been chosen as Japan’s foreign-language Oscar entry.
The GKIDS release echoes an element of Shinkai’s previous anime, “Your Name,” a body-swapping story that was a global phenomenon, topping the box office that year in Japan and earning accolades on its way to a $358 million global haul. Nevertheless, that film earned Shinkai some controversy as well, for using a natural disaster (a comet strike) as the basis for entertainment. His follow-up invites the same criticism, an outcome the director had considered.
“I thought, ‘Should I make my next film so that I don’t anger more people, or should I make a movie that angers them further?’ And I chose the latter,” he says in an interview conducted via a translator.
At the core of the new film is the relationship between vagabond teens Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) and Hina (Nana Mori). Shinkai says animation should be made for young people, and that the story he’s telling is as much about family and friends as it is about finding first love. Still, he allows that emotion is central to the story. “What I really want to depict is how very strongly a young person feels for the first time toward another,” he says.
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Shinkai also was inspired by the impact of climate change on Japan, which has seen an increasing number of water-related disasters, including more rainfall each summer. “It seems like it’s only getting worse right now,” he says. “Of course we have to politically do something, but because we can’t change it immediately, that means a key question becomes ‘How is the young generation going to live in this crazy world that we’ve created?’”
The director uses both 2D and CG to animate the rain, which Hina, a young girl who works at a McDonald’s in Tokyo, has the ability to make stop — temporarily.
While “Your Name” had a science-fiction angle, Shinkai went for a more supernatural approach on “Weathering With You.” “I really wanted to depict a different world that might exist beyond the one we know,” he says. ”I didn’t want it to be 100% fantasy. I wanted to base it on the culture we grew up in and the religion that surrounds us and have a little bit more realistic element to it as well as a supernatural element, so that it’s a little bit more relatable to the young people.”
Pixar and Disney have found global success creating films with a rigorous collaborative creative process. But the approach in Japan is more auteur-driven. Shinkai says he’s not an animator himself, but he does write the script and storyboard his films from start to finish. The writing process includes feedback from the producing team, and he says it took about six months each to write “Your Name” and “Weathering With You.”
On “Weathering,” Shinkai again collaborated with the musical group Radwimps, which had completed the music used in the film by the time the script was finished. Shinkai drew the storyboards by hand over a period of 10 months. Then he created a previz version of the movie that included the music and sound effects he recorded into his iPhone. ”It’s a lot of work,” he says, “but it’s the most fun process.”
While “Weathering” may not reach the dizzying heights of “Your Name,” it’s nevertheless a commercial hit, grossing $126 million in Japan and $50 million in other territories, and Shinkai is bullish on the exportability of Japanese animation.
“People think Japan has a very director-centric way of creating films and that America has a more marketing-centric way of making films,” he says. “We do want to make films that are watched by many people, but I also have a lot of input in my movies. … I think we’re in the middle ground, and I’m hoping that this way could open up the future for Japanese animation.”