It is a chilly Martin Luther King Day in America’s vacationland, and I am in a suburban multiplex with a couple of anime fans, and maybe a dozen anime apostates, all here for “Weathering with You.”
The latter group know enough to choose to be there, to buy tickets. But like me, they’re not given to swooning over something simply because it wears that “anime” badge. So while I laugh at some of the intentional gags — the 20ish journalist Natsumi who rides the young hero, 16-year-old Hodaka, with “Are you looking at my boobs?” — the rest of the audience is there to remind us of the silly, over-the-top gestures, emotions and facial expressions of this beloved Japanese art form.
This tale (in Japanese with English subtitles, dubbed in some theaters) is a romantic fantasy with a somewhat muddled environmental allegory at its heart. Writer-director Makoto Shinkai (“Your Name.”) and his animators deliver fantastical images — all manner of translucent “fish” which live in the clouds — attached to a story that otherwise could have been filmed with live actors on real sets in Kanto (the region around Tokyo).
But would anybody have given this a second thought if it wasn’t animated?
The story, which takes a solid half hour to set in, follows the runaway Hodaka from the ferry boat, which he almost falls off of during a storm, to the offices of the gruff 20something Suga, who runs a conspiracy news service for magazines, with the fetching Natsumi as his assistant.
“Are you looking at my boobs again?”
Establishing scenes offer a fascinating glimpse of how the down-and-out manage life in one of the most expensive cities on Earth — cubicle-sized apartments, cafes that feature shower services, cheap noodles eaten on the fly in a street-scene whirl of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Kent cigarettes and Suntory ads. The only words he hears from cops or potential employers are “Are you a minor?”
Tokyo is a minefield of exploitation (sex trade, etc.) for homeless minors.
A free Big Mac is how the hungry Hodaka stumbles into a doozy of a story. The McDonald’s girl who slips him the burger, Hina, has this weird gift. We’ve seen her climb to a battered rooftop shrine on an abandoned building after watching over her dying mother in a nearby hospital.
Hina’s prayers are for a break from Japan’s relentless run of rainy days. A beam of sunshine tells her, and us, that her prayers were answered.
A fortune teller relates that there are “Sunshine Girls” and “Rain Girls” who can control the weather. In the age of cell phone cameras and universal internet access, this ancient belief turns out to be easy to “prove,” and make viral.
Hodaka and Hina set up an online “Weather Maiden” service. Want to be certain your outdoor wedding or party comes off without a hitch? Need for it to be a clear day just long enough for your late husband’s spirit to come home on the anniversary of his death? Text her, pay her and she’ll make it happen.
The slice-of-Japanese life is one of the best features of anime, not just the photo-real streets, skyscrapers and neon. Traditions and superstitions of the “Spirited Away/My Neighbor Totoro” variety have their charms. You can lose yourself in that, here and there, in “Weathering with You.”
But that’s just background and subtext, and the movie’s text — the unconvincing love story it tries to set up, the melodramatic introduction of a handgun that falls into Hodaka’s hands, scaring off sexual exploiters but putting the cops on his tail.
There’s inherent pathos in the idea of a nation that worships “girls” to an almost creepy extent having these “Sunshine Girls” and “Rain Girls” who can, briefly, in the blush of maidenhood, influence the weather. What happens when they’re no longer girls is where the story attempts to take us.
But the storytelling is slack, and the moments of ditziness can take you right out of the film. The everyday “magic” (shades of “Kiki’s Delivery Service”) is only magical on first sight. The whole TV news broadcasting this or that bit of “conspiracy” or “magic” or proof of this supernatural belief in Japanese life is far more interesting than the meandering story and subplots Shinkai chose to develop.
It’s fanciful enough, but “Weathering with You” is too scattered with dashes of dullness making for many dead spots. It’s not on a par with virtually anything the anime master Hiyao Miyazaki made, and falls well short of the heart of “Your name.”
It barely passes muster as a time-killer on a chilly day in America’s vacationland.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for suggestive material, some violence and language
Credits: Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. A GKids/Fathom Events release.
Running time: 1:53