By Kaylee Beam
“Would you like this rain to stop?” a teenage girl asks the boy she just met, the two of them standing atop of an old building. Without waiting for a reply, she clasps her hands together, closes her eyes and sends up a silent prayer. Seconds later, the sky clears.
In the new animated movie “Weathering with You,” we see a Tokyo where rain has poured over city streets for months. The fate of the city, and whether or not the rain will let up, lies in the hands of a supernatural human and her friends.
This fantastical scenario is the climate-conscious backdrop to director Makoto Shinkai’s newest film, which debuted in U.S. theaters on Jan. 17. The movie grossed over $5 million during its opening weekend, according to Forbes Magazine.
Shinkai, who has expressed his desire to depict life truthfully on screen, began making short films in 1999. He gained international recognition when “Your Name” broke into American box offices in 2016, receiving high praise for its clean animation and touching storyline. The release of the film earned Shinkai a spot as one of Variety’s top ten animators to watch that year.
“Weathering with You” follows the story of two teenagers: Hodaka Morishima, a 16-year-old boy who runs away to Tokyo to escape a suffocating home environment, and Hina Amano, an 18-year-old girl who bounces from one odd job to the next to provide for her younger brother after their mother dies. Rather than stopping to reflect on their trauma, the two of them are determined to keep moving forward.
After their chance encounter in the streets of Tokyo, Hina leads Hodaka to the roof of an abandoned building. He watches in disbelief as she prays and the rain stops. This is how Hodaka learns that Hina is a “sunshine girl” — a mythical figure with control over the elements who can temporarily bring out the sun.
But as Hina’s popularity grows and she brings out the sun for more and more people — even clearing the sky for the city’s biggest fireworks festival— the repercussions of her power become apparent. Strange patches of glowing light start to appear on parts of her body, and her powers throw nature off-kilter. Hina, Hodaka and their friends must find a way to save her before her condition worsens, and the city before the elements threaten to sink it.
Scorching summers and strong typhoons have become the norm in Japan in recent years. In summer 2019, a heatwave killed 57 people and sent more than 18,000 to hospitals in just one week, according to The Japan Times. Typhoon Hagibis made landfall later that year, killing over 30 people and injuring nearly 200 others, NPR reported. Shinkai’s movies have shifted with the weather, previously depicting it as a breathtaking background element, and more recently as a force with destructive power.
“In my works up until now, I’ve always portrayed the weather as something beautiful,” said Shinkai in an interview with Crunchyroll. “But in reality, especially in Japan, the weather has become a real threat to humans.”
“Weathering with You” is a piece of work in a growing body of art that incorporates the human experiences of climate change and disastrous weather events. Experts say climate fiction, or cli-fi, will prove central in the fight against climate change. “I’m interested in how you can use this sort of long-form storytelling narrative approach to communicate complex ideas,” said James Jones, Associate Professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University, “because climate change is complicated … and there are lots of cascading consequences.” Jones is also a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and an avid cli-fi reader himself. Neuroscience studies of storytelling have shown that people tend to have a stronger response when information is presented in a narrative format, in part because a powerful story fully engages the reader or viewer through investment in the narrative and characters. For example, when public service announcements (PSAs) are engaging, oxytocin and a hormone related to attentiveness are released in the brain, and donations to relevant charities become 261 percent more likely, according to a study conducted by neurobiologist Paul Zak in 2015. Another benefit of achieving successful engagement is the activation of the body’s stress pathways, which can alter how audiences perceive the threat of climate change.
Human beliefs about the world are determined by what we see on a daily basis. If a city experiences a cold winter and a warm summer, for example, its citizens will have less anxiety about climate change because they’re not seeing clear evidence of it in their everyday lives. Known as the positivity bias, this psychological effect is considered a major barrier to raising climate change awareness.
But stress has the power to override it.
Cli-fi with a strong narrative, relatable characters and emotional plot lines can draw audiences in and activate stress pathways, erasing the positivity bias and making it possible for them to experience a shift in their thinking about climate change.
Another aspect of successful cli-fi is telling a relatable story where the characters are navigating everyday tasks and challenges, like finding a job and building interpersonal relationships. When elements of a changing climate are present, but secondary to these day-to-day concerns, audiences can first connect to the characters’ struggles. These initial connection points pave the way for the reader or viewer to start digesting a story’s deeper climate change themes — and see parallels to their own lives in the process.
The never-ending downpour depicted in “Weathering with You” seems fantastical at first. But Hina and Hodaka’s fighting to keep moving forward and helping each other along the way is such a human story that it becomes possible to connect with them and see parallels between their reality and ours. The rain that seemed purely fictional becomes a metaphor for unusual weather patterns. The absence of Japanese wildlife that usually thrives during the summer conjures thoughts of changing ecosystems. And the slow but constant flooding of Tokyo’s streets mirrors the reality of rising sea levels.
But there are positive parallels, too — Hina and Hodaka’s continued search for solutions reminds us that, even when something feels wildly outside of human control, like climate change, the situation is not completely hopeless. A cli-fi like “Weathering with You” is special not only because it raises awareness of environmental issues, but also because it reminds us that there is an active role we can play in fighting for a better future.