Makoto Shinkai achieved international prominence following the release of 2016’s Your Name. The movie broke records and put Shinkai on the map as the heir apparent to Japanese animation legend and Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki. Despite this recent worldwide renown, Shinkai has been making films for the better part of two decades. His movies are well known due to his animation style and continuous adherence to particular themes and subjects, including distance between souls, adolescent love, and Japanese myths. His newest movie, Weathering with You, addresses many of these same themes while simultaneously exploring how we influence our environment.
Shinkai’s first project was a black-and-white five-minute short, She and Her Cat. The film features a cat that narrates different periods of his life with his owner. It introduces the theme of distance between souls. His next work, the science-fiction short Voices of a Distant Star, employed the same theme to depict the enduring adolescent love between two youths, one of whom is traveling through the depths of space. Their only contact is a mobile phone that becomes increasingly unreliable as a form of communication; the further the teenage girl goes into outer space, the longer it takes for her text messages to reach Earth. The movie explores how precious such contact can be when people are separated by an almost immeasurable distance. In Your Name the protagonists are separated not only in space but also time, by a period of three years.
Shinkai is fascinated with the idea of overcoming boundaries. Weathering with You once again focuses on two teenagers: a young man, Hodaka, who is a runaway in search of a new life in the city; and a young woman, Hina. While her mother is suffering from an illness, Hina discovers a shrine that gives her the ability to make the sun shine through the rain in any situation, earning her the moniker “sunshine girl.” Hodaka and Hina exploit her newfound ability as they bring joy to those in need.
Japanese myths play an important role in Shinkai’s filmography; myths explained many of Your Name’s most unlikely plot contrivances. For instance, the village at the center of the movie is inhabited by a guardian god who rules human experiences and connections; this godly essence allowed the young adults to switch bodies. The film also recalls the tradition of Kuchikamizake or “mouth-chewed sake.” This comes from an earlier period in Japanese history when sake was made, ideally, by a virginal girl who would chew cooked rice and then spit the liquid into a container. In Your Name the male protagonist uses the sake to go back in time to save the village and his love interest.
Weathering with You explores the “sunshine girl” myth. According to the myth, a sunshine girl will come once in a generation, yet her existence will result in endless rainfall in Japan. In the film, Hina’s continued use of her gift will weaken her, making her disappear from earth and return to the heavens. Once she is gone, the sunshine will return, halting the effects of climate change. Hina accepts her fate and disappears, although her sacrifice doesn’t make everyone happy — Hodaka will have to travel to the sky to reach her once again.
In addition to his existential and mythological themes, Shinkai’s films address our world and climate change. Your Name was influenced by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the eastern coast of Japan in 2011. This became one of the primary criticisms Shinkai received about the movie. Many critics believed that he should not have drawn inspiration from a recent catastrophic event. In a conversation with Vice, Shinkai discussed his interest in the earthquake: “It was the largest in a thousand years, and there was something similar 1,000 years ago, which we all forgot about. But if you look closer there were warnings … when we have a disaster in Japan, I wonder, how can we prevent our lives and traditions and history from the disaster.”
Shinkai’s movies, such as Weathering with You, entreat the world to pay attention to the climate emergency. The film treats constant rainfall as a punishment from the gods. Hina’s amazing ability comes at the cost of significant climate change; the rainfall continues unabated for months, with the only glimpse of sun available because of her prayers. While Weathering with You places the blame for these historic weather events on the shoulders of the adolescents, Shinkai is warning us that the world needs to pay attention to our impact on the environment to avoid irreversible and disastrous changes.
It is hard for anyone in the Japanese animation industry to escape the legend of Miyazaki. But Shinkai is paving his own path and he expands on the success of Your Name with Weathering with You. He asks us to look at our world to see the beauty in it, and also to keep our myths and history alive. Because what good is all this wonder if we don’t do our best to preserve it?
Weathering with You, directed by Makoto Shinkai, opens in US theaters on January 17.