The intense, overwhelming, embarrassing love between teenagers is not an underused topic in fiction. From tales for the ages like Romeo and Juliet to lighthearted parodies like Not Another Teen Movie, the seemingly, crushing endless weight of young love has been dissected in fiction for millennia. At the time, for most, it feels like it’s the most important part of your life — you will never find someone more perfect than Sean from period two chemistry. But while mocking the self-seriousness of teen love is certainly the easy way out, I think that greater art has been made when teens are to be taken seriously by the world beyond them. Acclaimed anime director Makoto Shinkai takes this to the next level with romances between goofy teenagers that are, often quite literally, some of the most important events in human history.
If you’ve heard of Shinkai before, it will likely have been because of Your Name, his smash hit fantasy romance that currently stands as the fourth highest-grossing film in Japanese history, beating out several Ghibli ventures. In case you somehow haven’t seen the film (if you haven’t, please do as soon as possible), it charts the time and space bending romance of two teenagers, one from the rural Hida region and one from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, who one day wake up having randomly swapped bodies. The visual and cultural differences between the two locations create an awe-inspiring sense of scale and allow Shinkai to create some of his most beautiful images to date, many featuring the recurring motif of the mottled azure Japanese sky that unites them.
Through this supernatural chance meeting, Shinkai makes you feel as though these two normal teens are the most indispensable people in the world, as they begin to feel that way about each other. There are some electrifying twists that take this characterization even further, but ultimately, rather than getting tangled up in its science fiction elements, the film exists to materialize the otherworldliness of your first love.
Following his origins in more straightforward science fiction films, Shinkai has become one of the most consistent filmmakers working today, and you only have to look at some of his short films — A Gathering of Cats and She And Her Cat being two of my personal favorites — to see this for yourself. Most of these works are concerned with ‘what if’ scenarios; some are as insignificant as what your cat may be thinking, while others are as life-changing as meeting the love of your life on a routine train journey. In fact, trains are an omnipresent motif in his films, particularly in 5 Centimeters Per Second, which many fans see as a precursor to Your Name. In the film, a young pair are separated and begin communicating through letters, before eventually taking the train through a snowstorm to have their first kiss. Later on, the train is a symbol of what could have been between them, much like how the title refers to the speed at which cherry blossom petals fall, both representing how tragically fleeting these romances can be.
Japan is famous for its railways, which millions of people utilize on a daily basis, so as well as providing a strong cultural tie, the image of the train in Shinkai’s work is often used to represent opportunities arriving and leaving, and with them the ordinary coming into contact with the extraordinary. You never really know the people you commute with, and yet you have enough in common to be traveling along the exact same path.
Shinkai’s latest film, Weathering With You, takes this externalizing of small scale romance into large scale events to a new extreme. Without spoiling too much — you should definitely give it a watch when it arrives in cinemas this month — Shinkai once again follows a boy and girl brought together by bizarre, supernatural circumstances that are partially revealed in the beautiful opening scene. An unnamed girl is drawn to the roof of a building, coming across a shrine in the rain; when she passes through and prays, the rainfall miraculously starts rising back into the sky, as the extent of her unexpected power is established. We then cut to the main protagonist of the story, a teenage runaway, who we know will eventually come into contact with this girl through a romance that will irrevocably affect him for the rest of his life.
By employing the turbulent Japanese elements, characterized by storms and earthquakes, Shinkai perfectly invokes the crashing, all-consuming feeling of infatuation that the young couple are experiencing, as well as the beauty once the storm passes and, despite the damage, they are still left with one another.
You’ll find when attempting to convince someone to watch an animation with you that they may bring up the fact that what they’re seeing ‘isn’t real’ (a statement technically true of any cinema, but I digress). The suspension of disbelief is an essential component when watching any kind of animated movie, particularly those that are two-dimensional or overtly stylized, and I think that Shinkai has embraced this in his romantic creations. When you first experience infatuation, every little interaction is a leap of faith — an intense belief in the possibility of what may come from saying hello or sending a message. Shinkai captures this beautiful anxiety in his stunning metaphors, and while I might not be a teenager anymore, watching his movies always seems to make me feel like one.