When Variety magazine listed Makoto Shinkai as one of ten animators to watch back in 2016, it was a canny choice. Already, his features The Place Promised In Our Early Days (2004), Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) and The Garden of Words (2013) had earned Japanese filmmaker comparisons to the great Hayao Miyazaki. Then along came the stunning Your Name, which by 2017 was the highest-grossing anime film of all time, besting even Miyazaki classic Spirited Away.
Shinkai now returns with his latest, Weathering with You, a Tokyo-set tale of the blossoming friendship between runaway teen Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) and Hina (Nana Mori), a young orphan who appears to be able to manipulate the weather for the good of the population. Below, Shinkai expands on the serious themes of climate change that hide beneath this charming tale of adolescent love, and how he felt about the tremendous success of Your Name.
What was the starting point for Weathering with You?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: There were several things actually. The first is that in Japan recently, there has been a lot more rain and disasters caused by rain, so looking at that I thought the time was right to make a film about the weather. And then when I started thinking about this film, it was around the end of 2016. So we had President Trump, we had the impeachment of the Korean president, and all these political things started happening. And looking at all these political events, I started thinking I wanted to make something with a theme of sacrifice. So one person taking on the desires of the whole population, shouldering these and then having to be a sacrifice in order for the world to regain its harmony.
Since you started on this we’ve had the arrival of youngster Greta Thunberg, who has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of climate change. Did you relate her to your own character, Hina?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: It was actually the beginning of this year when Greta Thunberg started to hit the headlines in Japan, and so the film was mostly done by then. So there was no direct connection there.
Did she remind you of Hina, though, in any way?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I’m not sure if they are similar as characters. I don’t think they are. But in the sense that they have both shouldered something much bigger than themselves, by themselves, then maybe they are similar.
With protagonists like Hodaka and Hina, did you want to make something for young people that had a strong environmental message?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I should say first of all that my first idea with this film…I didn’t want people to think that it had a political message or it had an environmental message. I tried to remove anything that was obviously climate change or global warming from the film, because I wanted as many people as possible to be able to enjoy it as a piece of entertainment. It’s not a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth. I wanted young people to find it accessible and easy to go and see as a piece of entertainment. But it’s true it was inspired by climate change and I did want to have different views of the weather and climate in the film.
Trump has denied climate change. Do people in Japan agree with this?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: Well I don’t want to speak for Japan when it comes to climate change! But my instinct is that Japan isn’t as aware of what’s going on with climate change as you are here in the UK or in Europe. Despite all of the disasters we are seeing, I think we are less environmentally aware. That’s my feeling. But it was striking when we had a number of floods in the summer, and young people seeing that, ‘It’s just like Weathering with You! It’s happening in real life!’
In the film, Hodaka works for a magazine dedicated to weird real-life tales. Is that inspired by a real publication?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: It does exist in Japan. The content that appears in the film is my own content, but it’s a pretty well-known magazine about the occult. I read it a lot as a child, when I was in primary school! But it’s obviously fiction – it’s not like people read it and believe the spiritual and occult stuff that’s going on in that magazine. Though some people do!
The detail of Tokyo in the film is beautiful. How did you set about achieving this?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: Well I’ve lived in Tokyo for over twenty years now, and I wanted to depict the place I live in a beautiful way. There’s also the fact that I grew up in the countryside and I still remember that feeling I had when I first came to Tokyo. The sense of scale and these really impressive beautiful buildings, so that was something I drew on.
You feature McDonald’s at one point. Did you want to convey the city in an almost photo-real way?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I wasn’t aiming for photo-realism, but I did want the audience to recognise the places and recognise that this Tokyo is the place where they live. For global corporations like McDonald’s, there are actually a lot of restrictions about featuring them in animation. You need permission, for example, if you want to draw their logo. I approached McDonald’s Japan and asked them if I could feature McDonald’s in my film, because I thought it was essential as part of the real Tokyo that I wanted to show. They initially refused because there is a gun in the film, but I went back several times and I eventually managed to convince them.
Can you talk about Hodaka and Hina, and the friendship they form and the journey they go on?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: The film is told from the point of view of the young boy, Hodaka, so it’s about him finding and getting to know Hina, and finding and getting to know Tokyo, as the place where Hina lives. So just as to him Tokyo was the unknown and also a dream, Hina is the same.
Do you see it as a love story in some ways?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I see it as a boy meets girl love story and a lot of the young audience in Japan have taken it that way.
Hodaka is a runaway. Is that a particularly bad problem in Japan? Were you commenting on this?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: Young people running away from home is not that big a problem in Japan. You do hear about it sometimes. Someone will maybe be lured away by someone they’ve met on social media, but it’s not a big problem. I thought it would be easier for young audiences to sympathise with Hodaka and Hina if they were less affluent, if they were poorer, than if they had lots of stuff. I thought they would be more approachable characters for the audience.
You include various characters from Your Name in cameo roles. What was the reason behind this?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: The main reason was just a bit of fun for the fans – fan service! In Asia in particular – in China and Korea – the two main characters from Your Name were really popular and there were a lot of people saying ‘We hope they appear in the next film that Shinkai makes!’ I just wanted them to be there. And they all lived in Tokyo, so it made sense for them to be there.
The success of Your Name was remarkable. How did that feel?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I was just really happy. It was a big discovery for me, realising that I could make something that this many people would want to see. In a way it’s because of the success of Your Name that I was able, in Weathering with You, to make a film that made divide opinion. For example, the rain keeps on falling on Tokyo…people living in Tokyo might not appreciate that. Or for Hodaka in order to save Hina, he actually commits a series of small crimes. That’s something I was able to do because of the success of Your Name.
Did you feel any pressure in following up Your Name?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I didn’t feel that much pressure to make another successful film. I’m not someone who gets loads of ideas all the time. When I finish one film, I’ll tend to have a bit of a blank for a while, during which time I’ll spend six months going around promoting the film.
Musically, the score is by Japanese rock band Radwimps. Can you talk about your collaboration with them and how you first encountered them?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: I was a fan of their music to begin with. I heard about them about 11 years ago when I was living in London, and a Korean friend I made in London introduced me to this great Japanese band! And listening to their music, I felt it was very similar with what I try to do with my films: this combination of the individual’s feelings, on a small scale – the love and the sadness. And then, on the other hand, …the world and the universe and fate.
Do they score to the finished film?
MAKOTO SHINKAI: They read the script first and came up with a few pieces and then we worked on the storyboard together and some of the time the music would affect the story and the emotions of the character and some of the time I would ask for changes in the music, so we really did work very closely on this.
Weathering With You will open in cinemas on 17th January with both Dubbed and Subbed screenings.