For much of the world, the animated film Weathering With You, Japan’s top-grossing movie of 2019, came and went without making so much as a cultural ripple. As a result, the climate community has largely overlooked a film offering one of the more original and thought-provoking explorations of the human experience in the climate change era.
Note: this article contains spoilers.
We have been overdue for a fresh approach to the genre. Numerous Hollywood observers have rightly criticized the simplistic moralizing that characterizes most environmental films. Post-apocalyptic dramas like Snowpiercer or Elysium ask us to peer through dull-colored kaleidoscopes at the bleak futures awaiting our descendants thanks to our sins. Even Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classics Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind are ultimately moral fables in which the heroines avert disaster by restoring harmony between people and nature.
Some might interpret Weathering With You as just another cautionary tale about geoengineering, but this conclusion fails to grasp the film’s far more nuanced contribution to the climate filmography. Rather, Weathering With You rises admirably to Kate Marvel’s challenge to Hollywood in her Scientific American editorial that demanded more introspective, compelling stories about future climate. Where are the romantic comedies, she asked. What about the more relatable everyday of climate change?
This is where Weathering With You’s value as a climate film lies — in asking us what it means, emotionally, to live in an age of climate change and shoulder some of the responsibility for altering our world.
The gorgeously-animated film takes place in Tokyo during a period of abnormally-prolonged, uninterrupted rains. Boy meets girl — the boy a runaway from the countryside, the girl an orphan with the supernatural ability to alter the weather at will — and the ensuing romance tugs at the heartstrings as we have come to expect from director Makoto Shinkai. Yet along the way the film demands that we reflect on a more universal relationship: the relationship we all share with the weather we experience daily.
Weathering With You reminds us that there is more to climate change than the apocalyptic. Outside of hurricanes and raging wildfires, climate change will also drive gradual shifts in weather that carry an underappreciated potential to deeply alter our daily experiences. After all, weather isn’t just a phenomenon that we notice only during brief exposures between the metro, our apartments, and work. Everyday weather forms part of our culture — coloring our emotions day-to-day or dictating whether we can enjoy our activities and customs.
Throughout the film, both our protagonists and countless other characters live within the permanently-changed climate of an eternally-raining Tokyo. On a given day for us, a moderate rain might cancel a fireworks display or a trip to the beach, or drench an unprepared commuter. But as the rain falls for days, weeks, then months, life becomes diminished. Bad weather, even if it is harmless, sinks our hearts. During prolonged periods of bad weather, we find ourselves impatiently awaiting their end, wishing for just one warm, sunny day.
And so the protagonist Hina, adopting the nickname “100% Sunshine Girl,” starts up a business alongside Hodoka, the boy she meets. They travel around Tokyo, using her ability to make the skies clear in exchange for payment. Towards the film’s climax, we discover that Hina’s ability comes at a cost. Whether the needs of Tokyo — if not all of Japan — take priority over the pair’s own feelings and dreams becomes the dramatic focus of the final act.
Nobody is evil, but everybody is guilty.
Despite its supernatural premise, Weathering With You feels emotionally relevant to many aspects of the climate discourse today. Yet rather than dictate how we should feel, Shinkai asks us to more closely examine our own conflicting sentiments.
The disruptions Hina and Hodoka make to the weather are all well-intentioned. At the movie’s start, we see them struggling to find steady work, just a step away from living on the streets. Can we blame them for leveraging Hina’s abilities into earnings, for chasing better lives for themselves? Whether or not Makoto Shinkai intended the parallel, one might even see mirrored in the teenage pair the hopes of the developing world. Within the microcosm of affluent Tokyo, Hina and Hodoka stand on society’s bottom rungs, determined to climb out of poverty.
Nor can we begrudge any of Weathering With You’s other characters’ reasons for altering the climate. One client, a bride, simply wants an afternoon of sun on her wedding day. An elderly widow wishes for clear weather to make a burnt offering to the spirit of her late husband. A group of children have been waiting impatiently to play outside again. Their reasons for asking Hina to bring sunshine reflect the same reasons we burn fossil fuels today, whether to travel on honeymoon or to illuminate our homes — in short, to improve our lives and seek happiness.
So most viewers can’t help but cheer for the star-crossed couple, rooting for a perfect ending. And when the pair make a pivotal decision that affects the lives of everyone around them, a part of us cannot fault them for the choice they make.
In the end, however, good intentions are no excuse. No matter how well-meaning the dozens of weather wishes that Hina and Hodoka fulfilled, their result is an irreversibly-flooded Tokyo that leaves everyone worse off. In a simple yet powerful departure from most environmental films, Weathering With You gives us no antagonist to direct our hatred towards. Nobody is evil, but everybody is guilty.
Certainly, the film might still be criticized from a climate perspective. Weathering With You offers neither a coherent moral message nor solutions for today’s crisis. Some find the climate cost of its bittersweet ending difficult to accept. To others the concluding picture of Tokyo still seems overly positive, considering the flooding of the nation’s most populous city.
Yet these points should be no surprise to those familiar with Shinkai’s works — Shinkai has never been interested in providing answers or writing realistic stories. So what if the film’s themes are intangible? So too are human emotions. We do not live bound to single overarching narratives. Our feelings are often illogical, even self-contradictory. Perhaps Shinkai displays uncommon wisdom by exploring the climate change era through elusive feeling rather than moral lecture.
What Shinkai understands — and what many writers and directors have failed to capture — is that global warming is not just about monsoons, firestorms, and surging seas or pollution-loving supervillains. The more subtle shifts in our everyday weather will alter the fabric of daily life itself, driven partly by our own well-meaning desires. Weathering With You thus reminds us that climate change will be accompanied by emotional change — a collective reflection upon our role in ushering in a new era in the human experience.