A shorter version of this review appeared at the Film Experience

The bulk of the American reception of Weathering with You, the newest film from animation director Shinkai Makoto, has centered on the question of whether or not it lives up to the standard set by his last and by far most successful film, 2016's Your Name. As though we can only have one Japanese animated film at a time, and if this is one is a molecule or two weaker than that one, we need to throw it out altogether.  As if Weathering with You was anything less than one of the best animated features of 2019; as if it didn't, in fact, manage to edge out Your Name. on a couple of points here or there.

Shinkai's career has been, to this point, focused with laserlike intensity on a few particular aesthetic preoccupations. One of these is rain and the way that each droplet catches and reflects the diffuse light of a cloudy day; one is the brilliance of sunbeams piercing their way into shady areas, with fuzzy, dusty edges blurring the difference between light and dark; one is the way that trains force a lateral flatness onto the perception of the rider, transforming landscapes into planes of action moving across each other. He also favors stories about the extreme emotional states of teenagers, starting with but not limited to youthful romantic passion, and these stories tend to end in lopsided sentimentality expressed with as much bullshit contrivance as a decent filmmaker would dare throw into an otherwise solid screenplay. Weathering with You has a scenario that couldn't be more finely-tuned to specifically enable the director to chase every one of those things as far as a person possibly could. It's about a near-future Tokyo where it's always raining, and a teen girl who has the ability to create localized pockets of rainless sunshine. She and teen boy form a business going from place to place - by train! - carving sunlight out out of the gloom, and in the process fall in love, leading to an absolutely ludicrous finale that's as deeply sincere as it is thematically incoherent and inane.

It is, in other words, a showcase for everything that Shinkai does best, and on a purely technical level, at least, Weathering with You is in some ways distinctly more impressive than Your Name. Consider that omnipresent rain. Water, I have been fond of suggesting here and there over the years, is one of the great focal points of animated art. It's something every one of us sees every day, so we know what it looks like and how it acts; an effects animator can't cheat and give us something water-like, but not really watery. But it's also amorphous and invisible, so it will always involve some kind of stylisation in putting it across. Do right by water, and in my eyes, you've won no matter what else happens. Weathering with You absolutely does right by water. The sheer multiplicity of shots involving water, either falling from the sky or gathered in puddles, makes this one of the most impressive feats of water animation that I think I can name, purely in terms of volume. The film is practically a compendium of different ways one can do water effects in animation, and it embraces this fact. lt routinely holds on a shot of some particular visual aspect of water - how it flows, how it sparkles, how it splashes - and just let us appreciate all of its beautiful fluidity for a moment, doing nothing but showing off. And yet such showing off! It puts up a strong fight to be considered the most altogether beautiful animated film of 2019; maybe the most beautiful film, period. That's not just because of the rain: it's also because of the lighting effects, which are almost as showy. The film's very story is about carving beams out of light out of storm clouds, after all. So rain, and light piercing through the rain, and sometimes this is viewed from inside a train car: it is the most Shinkai thing ever.

The second-most Shinkai thing ever: it's got a story that goes from charmingly generic in its first hour to openly dumb in its last 20 minutes. But it is very charming to start. Name. Teenager Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) is a runaway from some stultifying small town, who winds up in Tokyo with nothing but hope and innocence; he ends up working for an idiosyncratic publishing house that has only two employees, owner Keisuke (Shun Oguri), and reporter Natsumi (Tsubasa Honda), and focuses exclusively on tabloid-esque paranormal stories. Through this job, he hears rumors of certain young women who can control the weather, and how he meets one such magical person, Hina (Nana Mori), who lives alone with her younger brother, dodging child protection services. And here the plot basically stops developing for a good solid hour, as we watch Hodaka and Hina get to know each other while the cops fumble around in the far background, trying to track down both teens for different reasons, and force them out of their reverie. It's a love story, but sedate and soft; maybe more like an affection story, than a love story.

And then the ending happens. It is, in truth, not the weakest ending in a Shinkai movie; not even the weakest ending in a Shinkai movie that is obsessed to the point of madness with the aesthetics of rainfall (his 2013 featurette The Garden of Words fumbles its landing so badly that it looks like deliberate sabotage; random chance wouldn't have been so inept). In fact, it's more just that it's peculiar than bad. For a brief span, this beatific story of young love and the way that emotions and weather go together turns into an action-heavy chase movie; it's baffling, but not bad as such. The badness comes when it shifts again into inscrutable armchair philosophy and metaphysics, mixed with  pure, naked sentimentality. I would, at this point, almost be disappointed with Shinkai if he didn't make the turn into gloppy emotional kitsch for the finale of one of his movies; but that's not the same as excusing that gloppy kitsch, which is expressed in some very overripe dialogue. And while I would be a terrible person to give away what happens in the very end, I think I can at least state that it is astonishingly unsatisfying as anything other than a metaphor for how nice sunshine feels after a cloudy day. The film suggests early on that it's going to be a fable about climate change; the ending completely eliminates that possibility at all, presenting the idea of the complete collapse of the world in a watery hell with such a mild shrug that it seems obviously impossible to take the film at face value. It focuses solely on sentiment and symbolism: not on the weather, not on the metaphysics, and this raises the question of why the rest of the film asked us to care so much about it.

But, Shinkai's gonna Shinkai. This is a big-hearted, sloppy film, just like Your Name. and every other one of this filmmaker's projects; tidying it up would possibly make it more satisfying as a story, and would maybe give it some sort of coherent meaning beyond "ah, teen romance!", but it would surely rob it of some of its rich melodrama as well. And such rich melodrama it is: one of the great appeals of this filmmaker is his complete inability to express cynicism. His characters are desperately emotional and the movies containing them love that desperation without hesitation. If that means some lunatic turn at the end to keep cranking those emotions up bigger and hotter, than that is what the film is going to do. And there's something adorable about that. As a story, this falls apart much harder and more thoroughly thanYour Name., no question about it, but even as it falls apart, it's very generous and loving, and when that's combined with how breathtakingly gorgeous it is, the result is absolutely major work by a major artist, with its imperfects tending to give it character rather than weakening it.