Major Spoilers to Follow
Before laying out my argument, I want to confess upfront that I don’t think reading certain scenes of Weathering With You as climate change denialist is necessarily wrong. It’s a completely defensible read of the surface text, especially in conjunction with the current political atmosphere and the film’s obvious incorporation of weather-related disaster as a primary metaphor. I was prepared for the film to have these unfortunately framed scenes. I knew about them ahead of time from twitter buzz surrounding the film’s previous releases abroad. When I walked out of the theater, though, I had a very different impression of those segments as well as the film’s thematic message as a whole than I thought I would have going in.
In the post-credits interviews that screened along with the movie’s recent US release, Director Makoto Shinkai confirms that the movie emerged out of both his desire to make a popular film and his reflections upon humanity’s most pressing global issue. He notes that the weather, in Japanese society, has always been a source of joy and beauty, and that the four seasons provided flavor to the passage of time. Climate change, Shinkai observes, has shifted our perspective of the weather from a source of daily pleasure into something hostile, and it was this experience that he wanted to emulate in his film. Does this constitute an address of climate change, however, and does viewing the film through this lens lead to a productive analysis of the film as a whole? Frankly, as someone who spent the bulk of their undergraduate literary career in eco-criticism, spending their senior year buried in the construction of an unruly thesis tying patriarchy to environmental degradation in medieval literature, and as someone who spent years of volunteer service in forests and marches to protect habitat and push for environmental justice, I find this reading a bit reductive – and I don’t add all that biographical info to brag or give my opinion weight. Having an interest or specialization in something doesn’t make one an expert. I just want to ensure you, reader, that I deeply care about both climate action and media criticism, especially where both are concerned, and this short essay is not a knee-jerk defense of the movie. I have my own problems with the film’s ecological philosophy, which I’ll get into shortly. All that said, I reiterate: I think there are important elements of Weathering With You that are overlooked when it’s dismissed as a piece of climate change denialism.
Let’s begin, then, with the scenes in question. While investigating the mystery of Hina’s sunshine power, Hodaka and company meet a quack priest who tells them the legend of the rain and sunshine girls. The old man stresses that human hearts and the sky have long been connected to one another, and that our understanding of the heavenly realm ultimately relies on a small sample of recent knowledge. The intention of the scene is to endow fantasy unto the universe of the story, but the old man’s words run uncomfortably analogous to the obfuscations we hear all too often from real-life climate change deniers: that is, the argument that science can’t know for certain whether climate change is human-caused because science itself a recent development. The truth, we know, is that numerous forms of fossil analysis (such as glacial ice cores, rock strata, and permafrost samples) have given scientists a wide-range of reliable data on climate spanning billions of years, with varying degrees of specificity. And we know that climate variation is the norm for planet Earth – the issue is that it’s never happened this fast before, outside of calamity, and that wildlife can’t evolve to adapt in time. Returning to the old priest, though, while the movie does undercut him as an old coot, I don’t think the context of the scene renders what he says as anti-science. Instead, I think it serves more to assert a conception of human-nature relations wherein nature exerts just as much influence over humans as humans do over nature. As Shinkai mentions in the interview, his chief fascination during the production of Weathering With You was how the weather molds subjective experience, and the film is not coy with this exploration. The word “Anthropocene” makes an appearance during the epilogue montage in a piece of writing Hodaka reads. In case you were unaware, “Anthropocene” is the name bestowed to the current geologic era we live in. The names of geologic eras denote the driving forces affecting Earth processes in their times, and the recent declaration of our era as the Anthropocene wasn’t without controversy in the geological community. In order for an era to be renamed, there has to be evidence of the phenomenon in the strata – that is, in rocks – that separates it from other eras, and there’s a wealth of identifiers we could point to: radiation in soil samples from nuclear bomb tests and the nuclear attacks on Japan, the oxygen boom caused from the explosion of plant life in North America after European diseases decimated Native American populations in the sixteenth century, or agriculture causing one of the highest spikes of surface nitrogen in the history of the planet, to name a few examples. The name signifies humanity has become the greatest factor determining the evolution of Earth’s systems. When Hodaka meets with the last requester of Hina’s sunshine service, an elderly woman – again, the film positions these characters as containers of wisdom – she tells Hodaka that Tokyo’s sinking is the city’s return to its previous form, back before the Japanese built it up out of the bay. It’s portrayed with a sense of poetic justice that the city, a centuries-long toil of humans, rejoins nature because of human choices. The relationship between weather and people is treated as reciprocal in Weathering With You. It doesn’t deny society’s effect on climate in the slightest.
Beyond the above-mentioned scenes and their unfortunately-poised dialogue, it’s impossible to ignore the ending of the film, as it’s the lynchpin piece of evidence in the case against it. If you read this film as a climate change analogy, of course Hodaka’s choice to save Hina over everything and everyone would come off appalling. It’s tough to swallow outside of that framework as well. Shinkai knew what he was getting into, noting in the interview that he would be interested in how American audiences react to it. He talks about the “stifled” social climate that the youth live in today, and how difficult it is to express one’s own ideas and wishes anymore – boomer talk to Western ears for sure, but perhaps Shinkai refers specifically to Japan’s cramped socio-economic conditions and the pressures young people there face to follow the disappearing corporate pipeline. Regardless, Shinkai’s work in Weathering With You recalls the vision of his bootstrap origins. The international mega-hit director’s career began with the pretty-much independently produced OVA Voices of a Distant Star, a project firmly nestled in a genre of anime called sekai-kei. In such stories, a powerless and average male protagonist becomes romantically intertwined with a girl who, in some shape or way, is humanity’s last hope. Usually, she takes the form of a pilot or a super weapon; regardless of the form, the girl takes on a sacrificial role, and her demise means the salvation of the human race. This presents the protagonist with a moral dilemma: the world or the girl. The protagonist, confronted with this horny trolley problem, runs away with the girl or tries to intercede, but, in the end, they are often caught, and the girl meets her fate anyway. The formula shifts with each piece of sekai-kei, but the core of the genre involves a male protagonist trying to foster a cold, mechanically-coded heroine’s humanity against a cruel societal machine. Predictably, this narrative structure doesn’t give the heroine much room for her own subjectivity. Flip the cyborg metaphor with a supernatural one, and this is already sounding familiar, isn’t it? For me, that’s the film’s most glaring ecologically-related blunder: not the awkward climate change discourse, but its union of the natural with the female via the rain/sun girl figure, a passive object that exists solely for the male protagonist. Though the film tries to show nature and humanity as mutual actors, it’s ultimately Hodaka who decides the fate of all, Hina foremost among them. Any agency the movie pretends to loan to Hina is obliterated by her admission to Hodaka that he “gave her life meaning.” Hina cannot make meaning for herself, nor can Hodaka be complete without using her – or nature, as represented in her – as a prop upon which to construct his own social identity. Nature and female are rendered as a unified Other to privilege a male subject. Remember earlier when I mentioned patriarchy and environmental degradation are linked? This is what I was getting at.
Weathering With You‘s thematic confusion stems from this strange marriage of climate change metaphor and sekai-kei. Hodaka’s choice isn’t between Hina and the world, but between Hina and the corrupt society that readily harvests its most vulnerable members. There’s a reason the film so meticulously portrays Hodaka’s struggles with homelessness and poverty in its opening chapters. Hina’s charity Big Mac might be greasy with corporate advertising, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most authentic moment in the entire film. Hodaka, a runaway completely outside the shelter of economic and state systems, is brutalized by seedy scoundrels and harassed by police at every turn, with only Yahoo! Answers to protect him. Meanwhile, Hina, an orphaned minor turned guardian, is nearly forced into sex work to provide for her younger brother. The film’s depiction of sex work is another conversation for another day (as is the film’s general treatment of its female characters) but Shinkai quite deliberately presents a capitalist structure that pulverizes the young and the disenfranchised. Even our adults, Kei and Natsume, are under financial duress throughout the entire narrative. Natsume’s generosity despite her predicament makes her the film’s most heroic character by far, and Kei, who becomes a father figure to Hodaka, moves from supporting character to antagonist and back because of the demands he faces to conform to standards of respectability, legal obedience, and economic stability in order to reclaim his daughter. The fact that his mother-in-law only allows him to see his daughter on sunny days sounds silly at first, but thematically it aligns him with what pyschoanalytical theorists call the Law of the Father – he becomes a stand-in for society itself, which willingly sacrifices Hodaka, Hina, and Nagi for its own benefit. Should Hodaka give up on Hina, turn himself into the police and return home, he would be following Kei’s example in “growing up” and becoming a member of this callous society, a choice both characters and the film understand to be wrong. And that is where the film’s themes on climate change ultimately come through: when Hodaka refuses the system of production that preys on the marginalized, he subjects Tokyo to the flood that had previously been dammed up through ruthless exploitation. Weathering With You doesn’t deny climate change, it denounces epistemic violence. It’s a message none too different from Promare‘s stance against eco-fascism, though certainly less well-articulated, and my first go-to with these types of stories is Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” anyway, although Cabin in the Woods is another apt example, come to think of it. Gen Urobuchi’s tendency to return to this thematic question, as seen in Fate Zero and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, have earned him the nickname “The Urobutcher,” as many of his characters have lost their lives to his high-stakes interrogations of utilitarianism. I’m digressing though.
To return to the topic at hand, I think it’s uncharitable but still entirely fair to call the film’s clumsy use of meteorological metaphors an irresponsible or passive response to climate change. Weathering With You is a personal film above all. It’s about choosing one’s own happiness above what’s expected of you. There’s a rugged optimism that I admire, though, apparent in the film’s closing moments. Yes, Tokyo is flooded. No, the rain will not stop. I don’t interpret this as apathy toward global action, however. When I was a sophomore in college, my student environmental organization attended a town hall featuring our congressional representative. He’s still in office, as it turns out. Fortunately, he has a solid record on the issues I consider important, like gun control and healthcare – a rarity in a red state. Rather than the usual inquiry about climate change prevention or mountaintop removal – my state’s former hot-button environmental issue – I asked him a question about governmental plans for climate change mitigation. I informed him that, even in a best-case scenario where all carbon emissions miraculously cease, the effects of pollution up to that point (2014, at the time) would persist for well over a hundred (or more) years. The congressman paused for a moment. I don’t think he’d ever been asked that before. He looked down at his shoes to hide his bafflement, then went on an evasive monologue about the importance of grassroots activism, cap for trade programs, green energy. And remember, this was a politician I liked. I still like him.
I don’t see the ending of Weathering With You as hopeless or indifferent. More than anything, it reminds me of the end of Princess Mononoke where all the townspeople, regrouped and huddling outside the ruins of Irontown, the forest burnt around them and the great spirits gone forever, declare that they’ll do things differently this time, that they’ll make “a good town.” I think the last minutes of Shinkai’s movie provide a surprisingly grounded fictionalization of the fact that we’re going to have to make real changes to the way our societies look and function, because the water isn’t coming – it’s already here. Look around and you’ll notice not all of us are staying afloat.