WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Weathering With You.
Weathering With You, the new anime film from director Makoto Shinkai, follows the blossoming romance between teen runaway Hodaka Morishima and "Weather Girl" Hina Amano, whose prayers can bring about sunshine. If you know any of Shinkai's other films, you know he likes his lovers separated across time and space, but the separation in Weathering With You comes late in the film, and doesn't last very long. Hina, it turns out, is cursed to sacrifice herself to stop the extreme storms threatening to destroy Tokyo. Hodaka, however, won't let that happen, so he chooses to retrieve her from the other world... and causes all of Tokyo to be eternally flooded as a result of that choice.
In those last ten minutes, Weathering With You goes from a charming romantic popcorn film to an absolutely horrifying vision of the near future. It's impossible not to look at the images of a sunken Tokyo and not think of the death and destruction that's already begun under climate change and threatens to keep getting worse. In the context of a climate change metaphor, Hodaka letting his desire for one girl doom the planet can be read as a perceptive piece of horror in regards to how people would rather keep certain comforts than make the sacrifices necessary to prevent the worst case climate change scenarios.
But does Makoto Shinkai even see his film as horror?
The attitude presented in the filmmaking is weirdly nonplussed about this existential nightmare. The main focus is just on how romantic it is that Hodaka and Hina get to be together even if Hodaka's cursed everyone to eternal rainfall. Treating a character singlehandedly responsible for a massive environmental disaster as some sort of positive romantic hero feels off, to say the least. In the climate change metaphor context, the ending is like an Exxon Mobil exec making out with their partner at the site of an oil spill.
OK, maybe that's a bit harsh on Hodaka, who was only a kid when he made that decision and you could argue was trapped in a system that was already unjust in regards to the Weather Girl sacrifices. In that case, maybe it's fairer to compare him to the college kids from Cabin in the Woods. Like Hina, Cabin in the Woods' Marty was set to be sacrificed to prevent the Ancient Ones from destroying all of humanity, while his friend Dana was given the no-win "trolley problem" choice of either killing her friend or causing the apocalypse.
Cabin in the Woods, of course, is very clearly meant as a horror movie, and a dark satire with a clear misanthropic streak. The script by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon poses the question of whether humanity even deserves to survive if this is the system that's keeping it alive. Weathering With You, in contrast, is so lighthearted and dedicated to its romantic mood that it's unclear if the horrific parts of the movie are intentional.
Perhaps the closest tonal match in terms of combining lightheartedness with natural disasters would be Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. That 2008 film, whose most gorgeous scene sees the mermaid Ponyo causing a tsunami, probably couldn't have gotten made just a few years later in a post-Fukushima Japan. In context, however, Ponyo's somewhat cavalier attitude towards natural disaster is easy to make sense of as an extension of Miyazaki's radical environmentalist philosophy.
Miyazaki's films tend to have a begrudgingly positive attitude about humanity and a strongly negative attitude about modern society. Ponyo's father Fujimoto plays as a sort of self-insert for Miyazaki himself, initially wishing humans dead for polluting the seas but ultimately coming around to his daughter choosing to become human herself. The joyous portrayal of the tsunami tracks with Miyazaki's more cantankerous statements of excitement for the destruction of civilization. Talking to The Asia-Pacific Journal, he once said, "I want to see the sea rise over Tokyo and the NTV tower become an island... Money and desire -- all that is going to collapse, and wild green grasses are going to take over." But even with all of Miyazaki's cynicism, his films still show care towards human lives; it's significant that half of Ponyo is dedicated to showing people safely recovering from the disaster.
Weathering With You doesn't seem to care at all about any human beings affected by the flooding of Tokyo except for Hodaka and Hina, who are too in love to feel bad at the millions of people the former's decisions must have left either dead or homeless. It's a deeply solipsistic movie, and the purpose of its solipsism, whether viewers are supposed to be swept up in it or be horrified by it, is up for debate.
Shinkai's been called "The Next Miyazaki" by writers not thinking too hard about what that means ever since he broke through with Voices of a Distant Star. The nickname has always been wrong (Shinkai and Miyazaki make very different films with different strengths, and the one time Shinkai tried imitating Miyazaki with Children Who Chase Lost Voices he made his worst film), but it feels especially wrong in light of Weathering With You.
Weathering With You's extreme commercialism would certainly never fly at Ghibli; where Miyazaki said he would close Ghibli if it made too much money from merchandise, Weathering With You is so dripping with product placement that the main characters first meet at a McDonalds and a Big Mac is the hero's favorite meal. That commercialist impulse compounds the most dramatically anti-Miyazaki element of Weathering With You: its weirdly apathetic attitude towards the environment.
When a movie like this reduces the horrors of man-made climate change to the backdrop of a romcom and is also trying to directly sell you on products, is it also trying to sell you on the idea that climate change isn't worth fighting if it means making any personal sacrifices (which, just perhaps, might involve giving up said precious products)? Or, perhaps this is too harsh a reading and it's actually a horror film about that very idea.
Following Fathom Event screenings on January 15 and 16, Makoto Shinkai's Weathering With You will play limited release in US theaters starting January 17.