Shinkai's reputation has been growing steadily with each new film he released, but I don't think he was properly prepared for the overwhelming success of Your Name. The problem with such a tremendous hype is that it's virtually impossible to follow up with a film that could match people's expectations, so it's no surprise that Weathering with You [Tenki no Ko] didn't quite match up for many. I can't say I quite agree with that sentiment though. While not among Shinkai's very best, I felt it's actually a small step up from Your Name.
While Your Name was a record-breaking film, it's not as snugly agreeable as most of, say, Miyazaki's films. It may have broken some box office records, but that only seemed to fuel more critical scrutiny. Shinkai (the man who started making animated features just by himself) didn't appear too keen on all the extra attention either, so I wasn't surprised to hear him say that the production of Weathering with You was heavily influenced by all the negative critiques. Rather than cave though, he decided to flip all his critics the bird and make a film that's even more quintessential "Shinkai".
The biggest difference with Your Name is probably the pervasiveness of the fantasy elements. Even though Weathering with You is still driven by supernatural events, the focus on them is much lower, with a lot of the film's attention going to the characters and their relationships. That means that people hoping to see a sprawling fantasy film will probably come out a little disappointed, something that seems to echo through many of the reviews I've read so far. Personally I think the balance here suits Shinkai a little better, as pure fantasy isn't really his thing and his work tends to excel when characters can stand front and center.
The story revolves around Hodaka, a runaway who made his way to Tokyo, hoping to start his new life there. Tokyo is an expensive place though and finding a job is hard without a student ID, luckily there are people who are willing to lend Hodaka a helping hand. Suga is running a small, independent publishing company and decides to give Hodaka a job, Hina is a young girl who finds herself in a similar situation as Hodaka and gives him the occasional supper. These two worlds collide when Hodaka is sent out to cover a story on "weather maidens", women who can presumable control the weather.
The visual quality of Shinkai's films has always been a major selling point. Even when he was making films by himself, there was a level of detail and finish that was rarely seen in even the most expensive of anime features. Over the years Shinkai has continued to hone his craft and while the leaps in quality seem to be getting smaller with each successive film, I'm still blown away every time I watch a new Shinkai. The level of detail here is stupendous. Every single frame is lush and rich, the animation is first-rate and the blend with 3D CG is seamless. Shinkai's also given special detail to the water (which feels appropriate for a film about rain), given it weight, presence and even character, in so far that is actually possible. This is no doubt another landmark release for Japanese animation.
As for the soundtrack, if you've seen other Shinkai films you should know what to expect. Most of the attention will no doubt fall on the J-Pop tracks, which will be a tough pill to swallow for many Westerners. I've grown used to them and even though I'm not a big fan, I don't think they're really in the way either. It helps that it's not just some cheap, sloppily produced J-Pop, but I'm sure that nuance will be completely lost on most. The purely instrumental tracks are nice though, with some neat sounds and rhythms to set it apart from similar scores. The original dub is quality too, then again that's also a given with most Shinkai films. The English dub on the other hand is terrible and way more offensive than any J-Pop score could ever hope to be. Avoid at all cost.
Shinkai isn't new to polarizing endings and Weathering with You is no exception. It's a difficult subject to talk about without spoiling too much of the plot, but it's safe to say that this is not the kind of ending you'll be seeing in any big budget US animation anytime soon. It doesn't really match the message most people wanted to get out of the film, which is little slice of irony I could well appreciate. We've grown so accustomed to seeing the same messages broadcasted and repeated in films, that many people seem to struggle with alternate takes or different viewpoints. I'm also pretty certain there's a bit of a Buddhist vs Christian divide going on in the readings, but my theology isn't quite up to snuff to comment about that in detail.
Weathering with You is a film that has plenty to offer. The animation is absolutely stunning, the balance between fantasy and romance is perfect and the ending is quite challenging, which makes it, at least in my book, a better film than Your Name. It's also a more divisive film though, so no doubt it's not going to match the success of Shinkai's previous film. If you want a comfortable and pleasant film, you might think twice about watching this one, but if you're a true animation fan there's simply no way around Shinkai's latest. The technical mastery on display is so impressive that that alone should be enough reason to go out and see this film.