The Magical Realism of Makoto Shinkai

The acclaimed director’s latest feature stands out as a delightful modern-day fable.
By  · Published on February 4th, 2020

Acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai delivers an absolute masterpiece into our eyeballs with Weathering with You, his 12th feature and second US release. The film tells the story of Hodoka Morishima (Kotaro Daigo) and Hina Amano (Nana Mori), who start a business centered around the latter’s ability to stop the constant rain that has plagued the city. The film bears a number of distinct similarities to Shinkai’s previous feature, the body-swapping film Your Name, the most overt of them being its use of magical realism.

Hina can part the clouds (in Japanese, she is referred to as “天気の子,” or “Weather Girl,” the Japanese title of the film), which is a very decisive use of magical realism. It’s an inexplicable magic talent that just exists in this otherwise ordinary story. Shinkai takes great care to make sure the audience understands that his films are supposed to take place in a version of the real world. The Japan of his films, Tokyo in particular, is breathtakingly realistic, with gorgeously painted backgrounds based on real locations and background objects and props that are very deliberately real things, like McDonald’s, Maker’s Mark whiskey, and billboards for Haier and Forever 21. Anime fans were even going to the stairs from Your Name to take pictures long before Joker popularized the trend with its own location tourism.

Shinkai’s take on magical realism is rather unique. In his stories, the magic thing is a notable new element in the characters’ lives. In Your Name, Taki and Mitsuha (who also make guest appearances in Weather with You) must actively deal with the disruption of having someone else occupy their bodies on some days, and in Weathering with You, when Hodoka realizes how Hina’s power works, he starts an online business to profit off her. Magic appears in these characters’ lives out of nowhere.

Unlike most magical realist fiction, where the characters work around the magic or otherwise allow the magic to happen to them, the characters of Your Name and Weathering with You must actively interact with this new magical element in their lives. Hodoka goes as far as to try to make the magic work for him. While most magical realism keeps its magic unobtrusive and confined to emphasizing important dramatic moments, it is magic that drives the first leg of the narrative in Shinkai’s films. Hina’s powers as the sunshine girl and Taki and Mitsuha’s body-swapping kick the action of their respective films into gear. But the characters are rarely able to understand why or how this new magical element of their lives has come to be, or even the full scope of it. The most anyone can figure out is through vaguely mystical hints, presented to the audience as local folklore and mythology.

However, magic in Shinkai’s films eventually takes a step back to support the characters’ relationships, which are the true center of the films, allowing their decisions to carry the story to its conclusion. In fact, the same could be said of all the serious topics Shinkai alludes to in Weathering with You, from the tension of gun violence and homelessness to the extremely obvious climate change metaphor in the unceasing rain submerging Tokyo in the film’s epilogue. Shinkai’s magical realism shifts gears when things start getting serious to show that magic cannot save you from grim and often uncaring reality, which you must learn to weather on your own terms. Indeed, in Weathering with You magic is just another part of that grim and uncaring reality, deeply impersonal and unconcerned with human affairs. Hodoka’s ambitions have their own cost, magical in its own way, that leads to the film’s heart-wrenching climax.

Shinkai’s overwhelmingly real worlds are populated by young people doing their best to thrive. His work nods its head to little moments of beauty hidden beneath the crust of modern life. But reality is as reality does, and those magical moments aren’t there to serve us or make us feel good. Magic, as depicted by Makoto Shinkai, is just another fact of life, and like anything else, shouldn’t be relied upon to deliver happiness into our laps. It is our own responsibility as individuals to weather the bad times, make our own choices and deal with the consequences, and find what we want out of life on our own terms.

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Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy