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Anime Films of 2019 Are Concerned About One Thing: Climate Change

WARNING: The following article contains mild spoilers for Ride Your Wave and Promare.

On paper, some of this year's major anime movie releases -- Weathering With YouRide Your Wave, Promare, Children of the Sea and Birthday Wonderland, which were screened over the Glasgow leg of this year's Scotland Loves Anime film festival -- don't have much connective tissue other than their shared medium and country of origin. Spiritualism, romance and parallel worlds are the most obvious thematic similarities, but there's something else, something perhaps easier to miss, that runs through all of them: the weather, and more specifically, the rain and sea. All of them seek to dissect our relationship with the elements in both romantic and terrifying ways that are unmistakably timely.

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Weathering With YouChildren of the Sea and Ride Your Wave are, as you can plainly see in their titles, the most transparent in this. Ride Your Wave, the latest release from director Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, Devilman Crybaby) is a supernatural love story in the mold of Ghost. Though it's ostensibly a film about a relationship strong enough to cross the boundaries of the physical and metaphysical worlds, it's also a film about the changing nature of the sea: one minute a still body that you can dip your feet in, the next a cruel and unforgiving beast. This duality is also echoed by the fact that one half of the central couple is a fledgling firefighter: The same element that he almost drowns in as a child is now the very thing he uses to save the lives of others from burning buildings. Water is also lent mystical properties in the film, connecting -- like a ghostly telephone line -- two people separated by the realms of the living and dead, while also reflecting their grief right back at them like a taunting mirror.

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Mysticism is at the forefront of Weathering With You and Children of the Sea. The latter was adapted from Daisuke Igarashi's manga of the same name by director Ayumu Watanabe (Space Brothers) and producer Eiko Tanaka (My Neighbor TotoroKiki's Delivery Service). While Ride Your Wave only skims the surface of our relationship to the seas that dominate our planet, Children of the Sea grabs you by the ankles and pulls you down, deeper and deeper, into the darkest corners of the ocean floor until you can feel the claustrophobic weight of the water around you. It ties together the close link between the sea and sky -- represented by the presence of two brothers named Umi (sea) and Sora (sky) -- to remind us, in a sequence of increasingly trippy visuals, of our small but significant origin from the depths of an explosion in space, crashing down on a meteorite to the cradle of life on the Earth's ocean floor.

Again, the sea -- and its strange, almost alien inhabitants -- is shown as a bewitching, amoral force that, for all our modern ingenuity and innovation, we still know very little about. For the film's main female protagonist, a young girl called Ruka, who struggles to make human connections on land, tumbling into the ocean's tight embrace treads the line between a deadly nightmare and dreamlike rebirth. When she reemerges from it, like Jonah from the whale, her adolescent uncertainty has been stripped away, replaced by a greater sense of her place in the world.

Weathering With You, from writer/director, Makoto Shinkai (Your Name), is equally concerned with this connection, featuring a "weather girl" whose prayers enable sunshine to cut through Tokyo's increasingly dampening climate. Weathering With You is the most clear-cut in its attitude to humanity versus nature and its solution is something that's sure to divide audience opinion down the middle. The weather will always be one of the few things out of our control, Shinkai argues, and if it gets worse... so be it. The only ray of sunlight he offers to temper this bleak outlook is the endurance of the human spirit. No matter how much the rain pours, as long we can weather the storm together then togetherness is all that matters.

Birthday Wonderland, from director Keiichi Hara (Miss Hokusai), is, on first glance, a charmingly innocuous remix of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, but still fixes itself on meteorological issues. The magical world it takes place in is one afflicted by a drought. In the real world, the shortage of water is on the tip of becoming a global crisis, and while Birthday Wonderland offers a fairy tale solution, it's still one that requires important people don't shirk their responsibilities in favor of selfish and destructive pursuits.

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The film's divide between a pre-industrial paradise of lush fields and sunset-colored deserts -- where all the "nice" people live -- and a smoky, grimy city -- where the "not so nice" people live -- is reminiscent of the divide between the Shire and Mordor in The Lord of The Rings, a trilogy that has long been read for its ecological undertones: Sauron's hordes are the unnatural blight of heavy machinery that wreak havoc on the picturesque countryside, much like the fumes that our real-world industries have been coughing up into the atmosphere for decades. In both LOTR and Birthday Wonderland, preserving magic and restoring the peaceful status quo is akin to preserving Earth in a more natural, greener state.

Even Promare from Studio TRIGGER (Kill la KillLittle Witch Academia), which trades water for its elemental opposite, fire, demonstrates a tightening of the gap between humans and nature in the Burnish, a mutant subgroup of pyrokinetic people who appear to manifest as a response to the pressures of modern-day urban life. The story also evolves to reveal that a global catastrophe is about to consume the planet -- one that its occupants didn't see coming until it was almost too late.

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The history of depicting the power and beauty of the elements on film is almost as old as cinema itself. Biblical epics that bring things like the parting of the Red Sea and the story of Noah's Ark to life have been around since the late 19th Century and have as much to do with the natural elements as they do religion. The secular counterpart to these are disaster movies, which, as climate change has become more and more of a prevalent talking point, gives the age-old idea at the center of both of these genres -- humanity's self-destructive hubris -- renewed urgency.

This all goes to show that, while you might think movies about our changing climate were invented by Al Gore in 2006, the subject has been ripe for cinematic storytelling for as long as cinematic storytelling has existed. As an island nation, Japan has always had a closer relationship to the sea than many other countries, and its frequent battering by typhoons makes it a fraught relationship at that, only destined to become more so with rising sea levels.

The fact that so many of this year's Japanese animated features look to the skies and seas while telling such different stories speaks to how unavoidably prescient the topic has become for the country's storytellers -- as it has in other parts of the world -- whether it's right at the forefront or embedded in the subconscious of their minds.

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