Early Peak Above The Clouds: Makoto Shinkai’s New Movie [Annecy 2019]

Early Peak Above The Clouds: Makoto Shinkai’s New Movie [Annecy 2019]

We attended a meeting with the producer of Makoto Shinkai’s new film Tenki no Ko / Weathering With You and checked out the situation behind the scenes as well, so we can provide you an extensive summary of what to expect – thematically, visually, and production-wise too!


After Your Name‘s unprecedented success, Makoto Shinkai and the rest of his team thought long and hard about which direction to take next. Should they embark on an entirely different adventure to avoid getting overshadowed by their past accomplishments, or keep what their audience had clearly said wasn’t broken? The announcement of Tenki no Ko / Weathering With You seemed to imply that the latter was the case; a familiar scenario, immediately recognizable imagery and Masayoshi Tanaka character designs, plus a soundtrack – mostly composed based off finished footage from the film, unlike the standard procedure for anime – once again at the hands of RADWIMPS. But was that all there was to this new movie? As it turns out, not quite, so here’s a summary of what we were told by the team’s representative, as well as what we’ve been able to find out behind closed doors.

Weathering With You‘s main themes: Same old, but a more socially conscious Shinkai as well

You won’t be surprised to hear that the very first theme they brought to the table when pitching Shinkai’s new project was Clouds. Not only are they an inseparable part of his aesthetic, but they have become a genuine means of expression in the hands of a director who’s all about grandiose environmental storytelling. It’s not a secret that Shinkai loves vast landscapes with gorgeous clouded skies used to articulate the feelings of his characters. And while that’s hardly a unique trick, his shiny clouds are so beautiful that they’ve been an unusually important part of his appeal for quite a while.

He loves painting them, his fans love getting lost in them… and this movie is getting a whole lot of them because, one busy day amidst Your Name‘s production, Shinkai looked out the window and wished he could take a nap in the clouds. That led to questions like “What if there was life amidst them? What if there was a secret world thriving in the skies?” and ultimately to this film’s existence. An amusing anecdote for sure, though it’s obvious that it wouldn’t have spurred his desire to tell a new story if clouds weren’t something he was already enamored with.

That self-indulgent side to Shinkai is public knowledge as well, but rather than a weakness, he’s weaponized it to become an expert at dealing with the specific scenarios he constantly returns to; keep in mind that this comes from someone who was very much a Shinkai non-believer until Your Name, so I won’t be the one to argue against detractors who disagree about that statement since I used to be in their camp. What I will defend, however, is the idea that Shinkai’s highly-specific, straightforward interests aren’t at odds with more poignant ideas, whether he manages to capitalize on them properly or not.

As an example of that, we’ve got Weathering With You‘s second theme: Weather (duh). As it was explained to us, Shinkai thought about the inescapable, universal presence of weather in our lives. No matter where we live, how advanced our society is, the weather is still something we’ve got to keep in our minds. One of those things in life we can’t be completely sure about, as we all can attest after being betrayed by a forecast. Now that’d be a valid enough theme, but things took a more interesting turn when it was suggested that the actual source of Shinkai’s worries wasn’t exactly that, but rather Climate. Though the producer tiptoed around the term climate change initially, the emphasis on increasing natural disasters and extreme conditions we see nowadays made it rather clear that it was the theme Shinkai wanted to tackle. And surprisingly enough, when asked about climate change explicitly, even the careful producer acknowledged that it was indeed the case.

Following up on that we have the final theme: Survival. Now that makes it sound like an action-packed movie, but its real meaning relates to the fact that even in thriving cities like Tokyo, plenty of people struggle to make ends meet. In their own way, these flourishing metropolises are like jungles where the most vulnerable communities still struggle to survive; since the protagonists are a boy just moving to Tokyo from the countryside and a girl whose family doesn’t seem all that well-off, we can more or less guess how that theme will manifest. Either way, it was stated that these two heavier ideas that Shinkai has placed as the foundation of the movie come down to the same point: representing our current world, where younger generations have inherited an unfair set of environmental and economic circumstances that they’ve got to fight against. Even the team’s decision to cast entirely unknown, young voice actors for the protagonists is meant to reinforce the authenticity of that struggle.

Does that mean that you should expect the most poignant movie of the year? No. Implying as much would be misrepresenting the preview and what we know about the film. Though it never came close to the sad spectacle of gaming companies like Ubisoft denying the politics of their products, Weathering With You‘s producer still made sure to follow up every loaded statement with the remark that the movie aims to be entertainment first, regardless of the intended message. Shinkai’s early works already introduced thorny topics even if they weren’t put under the spotlight, so in that regard this isn’t a revolutionary event either.

What is quite interesting, however, is how well Shinkai keeps a finger on the pulse of a generation he doesn’t even belong to. Many people all around the globe grew up with his star-crossed lover tales when they craved for something to satiate their teenage angst. And now that the situation worldwide seems on the brink of disaster and we can do with someone to nudge us forward, he’s moved onto offering more hopeful stories with the intention to convince the youth that only they can achieve positive changes. That’s Makoto Shinkai, whom I’m bestowing the title of honorary millennial director.

Genki Kawamura: TOHO’s most unusual hitmaker

I’ve been dancing around the identity of the producer who disclosed most of that information because he deserves more than a passing mention. You might know Genki Kawamura as TOHO’s producer for some of their bigger theatrical animation projects, like Mamoru Hosoda‘s works (Mirai, The Boy and the Beast, Wolf Children), Tatsuyuki Nagai and Mari Okada‘s upcoming successor to Anthem of the Heart by the name of Sora no Aosa wo Shiru Hito yo, and of course Shinkai’s modern output. Though readers of this site might not be as acquainted with his live-action repertoire, he’s also behind the planning of some mainstream hits in that field. Sometimes he’ll take more of a creative role on these projects too, such as when he wrote the script for the wildly successful Doraemon movie last year. And the reason he’s prepared to do that is that he happens to be a writer – novelist, scriptwriter, you name it – and even a bit of a director himself. As you can see, not quite the marketing-driven suit you imagine when you hear about anime producers.

Kawamura himself explained an anecdote that helped him internalize his unusual goals as a producer, which explains why he doesn’t do quite what you’d expect from someone in that role. One day while going to work, Kawamura saw a teddie bear placed on top of a post box. He found it unusual, as you would, but didn’t do anything about it. Then he saw it again, and again, and again, still sitting there every single day. It was when he decided to extend his hand towards the plushie and grab it that he realized his real goal: being a proactive figure who reaches out to ideas and creators everyone seems to notice but no one does anything about.

That’s patently visible in his TOHO animation projects, where he’s given a larger platform than ever to artists who already had fandoms that understood their unique appeal but were never given big platforms before; Shinkai himself, Sarazanmai‘s co-director Nobuyuki Takeuchi, popular utaite turned pro singer Eve and anime’s editing magician Nobutaka Yoda, and so on. Things don’t always turn out for the best – Rie Matsumoto only having directed one commercial recently is a bit of a tragedy – but his scouting’s great nonetheless, and is inspiring other producers at TOHO to start acting similarly.

We issue constant reminders that anime producers aren’t your friends. That they’re complicit if not outright to blame for protecting this industry’s cruel status quo, and that the only reason people believe they’re brave entrepreneurs fighting to protect creators is that producers have an airtight control of every official anime statement. Even an outlier like Kawamura shows his hand in that calculated way than someone whose job is selling a product would. But, as long as you keep in mind that you shouldn’t be idolizing him, it’s worth noting that he does care about the artists whose voices he tries to boost. All things considered, having him by Shinkai’s side doesn’t seem like a bad option… especially since Kawamura was the one who nudged him towards more hopeful conclusions.

Weathering With You’s production: Don’t panic, but…

But how come that Work In Progress presentation at Annecy was held by a producer like Kawamura as opposed to Shinkai himself? The director recorded his answer in a video, where he explained that he was so busy finishing up the movie he couldn’t afford to leave even for a few days. And let me tell you: he wasn’t kidding. Weathering With You is bound to finish its production a second before the final deadline, if even that. This is something we’ve been hearing whisperings about for quite a while, and it’s enough of a big deal that even a major producer-sanctioned event couldn’t beat around the bush too much. In another special video edited by Shinkai as an apology for not making it to the film festival, the attendees got to see a few minutes of footage from the early stages of the film. Some parts had unfinished composite, placeholder lighting effects, or missing CG elements. Others were still in key animation or even rough layouts form. About a month before the movie is due to begin its Japanese screenings, there’s a massive amount of work to do still.

Looking back on Your Name‘s production gives us some very specific reference points that illustrate how tight things are this time around. Shinkai’s previous movie was due August 26, whereas Weathering With You will premiere on July 19, so in theory each production stage should have been about a month ahead. Project dynamics aren’t an exact science so you shouldn’t try to apply exact equivalences, but you’ll understand there are reasons to worry when I say that Weathering With You is about 3 months behind its predecessor – meaning 4 months when you account for release dates. For example, while Your Name‘s layouts were finished by January, Weathering With You was still sending requests to draw layouts until April at the very least. The truth is that Shinkai only finished his previous movie a couple days before the deadline… but that’s because they’d decided to have an early screening for Anime Expo, 1.5 months before the real premiere. When it comes to Weathering With You, no early screenings whatsoever will happen, which isn’t a deliberate decision so much as an inevitable consequence of the state of the production.

A rough theatrical cut is very much in the cards at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the movie’s doomed forever. Whenever the team gets to finish their work up to their standards, the truth is that the result’s bound to be very impressive, even though they’ve got quite the high bar to clear. Keep in mind that Your Name happened at exactly the right time to benefit from the post-Ghibli wave in the theatrical space. Even the least fortunate events back then, like Masayoshi Tanaka being too busy on another project – something that has occurred once again – to supervise his designs led to an exceptional artist like Masashi Ando helming the animation for the whole film. His meticulous acting principles granted the movie a level of character expression that no Shinkai movie had before, grounding his grand sentimentality in a more humane way.

Having lost Ando, Weathering With You did the smart thing and found a style that fit the talents of the new crew better. While Your Name got away with fairly rigid character art because of how well acted out every scene was, Atsushi Tamura – another animation director with extensive Ghibli experience – is opting for more exaggeration. There’s no hoping for the precision of its predecessor’s animation, but this new movie gives a different, slightly looser life to Tanaka’s original concepts, in a way that I find very charming. And at the same time, the 2DFX animation is genuinely out of this world, plus a handful of scenes retain the impressive physicality from Your Name‘s highlights, so we’re bound to be served with the best of both worlds. Realism and fantasy, hand in hand.

In terms of general presentation, the movie’s also aiming to mix and match ideas present in previous Shinkai movies – not to reassemble previous visuals, but to piece together new sights. Kawamura explained that Shinkai had previously focused on the depiction of singular elements. During Your Name, it was the portrayal of light. In The Garden of Words, the focus was rain. Even back in The Place Promised in Our Early Days, he already fixated on clouds. All of these will be making a return in Weathering With You, but the staff will be ditching that singular approach for a more holistic expression. Their goal is to make each of those elements interact with each other. How can light trickling through the clouds be depicted in animation? How do you imbue a water drop with the warmth of the sun? These are the kind of questions that Shinkai’s team are tackling with this production, and if things go well, they’ll figure out some stunning answers.


And that’s about it! There’s no denying that in many regards, we’re getting the same old Shinkai; when prompted about whether complicated romantic relationships would be an important factor in the movie, Kawamura couldn’t hide his laughter as he confirmed that it would indeed be the case. We’re dealing with a director who’s got very well established patterns and no intention whatsoever to discard them. At the same time, though, the ideas that have piqued his interest this time to complement his formula have strong potential, so I’m quite interested in seeing what this more socially conscious Shinkai has got in store for us. Here’s hoping that the staff get to finish it without suffering too much!


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Kougeru
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Kougeru

“Same old” Shinkai is exactly what I’m looking for. So I’m hopeful. Production issues sound like a nightmare for him but I have faith it will be worth it. I hope he can rest awhile once he’s done. Tackling more socially conscious themes is a good idea, IMO.

scytheavatar
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scytheavatar

“When it comes to Weathering With You, no early screenings whatsoever will happen, which isn’t a deliberate decision so much as an inevitable consequence of the state of the production.”

It’s almost certainly a deliberate decision, the production was originally scheduled to end in July, so someone in Toho is playing games with Shinkai by giving him that July 19 release date. No one in the team was expecting a summer release of the movie, let alone a July release.

old man
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old man

Shinkai is 46 but his disposition as a Japanese filmmaker probably puts him ahead of the generational curve globally. Nothing needs to be honorary about that title.

Adrian
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Adrian

Two points I might be misremembering from the meeting:
* I was under the impression RADWIMPS wrote the music early in the project, working off an outline (arasuji). I remember Genki mentioning that the lyrics then influenced the script writing stage.
* I wondered about this already during the meeting but I thought I heard Genki saying that the boy ran away from home (iede), which was then translated as just moving to the city. That would be kind of an important detail but maybe I just misheard with my basic Japanese.

odyi
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odyi

Considering that we are in the anime film boom now, what’s generally the situation with film productions overall? Do they tend to get the time needed to let everything come together well? Other than this situation with Shinkai (who should have earned some trust with your name to get some kind of time extension, the hell!), I think that Promare might have suffered a small push back, considering an illustrated note from New Year’s Day with the numbers 2019 4 on it (propably adding to it are the facts that Imaishi did a bunch of key animation for the first… Read more »