Earth Day is a strange event. Despite the good intentions of promoting environmental protection, the sunny, optimistic vibes feel pretty at odds with the existential reality of our climate crisis.
But one movie perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance of both celebrating the beauty of our planet, while simultaneously living through what appears to be the end of our ability to inhabit it. Released in 2019 and streaming now on HBO Max, Weathering with You are explicitly described by director Makoto Shinkai (previously known for the acclaimed Your Name) as a story about young people coping with the powerlessness of wave after wave of unstoppable environmental disaster.
Weathering with You, while sunny and optimistic in its own way, is not interested in telling a story that promotes environmental activism. It offers no solutions, no moralizing, no heedful warnings. Instead, it offers something that’s much more messy, vulnerable, and : acceptance.
Set in 2021, the animated film follows high school runaway Hodaka as he tries to make it on his own in Tokyo. But a freakish, never-ending rainstorm begins to blanket the already unforgiving city, as the teen struggles to find work to make ends meet. Eventually, he meets Hina, a fellow runaway working at McDonald’s who also just so happens to possess the magic powers of a “sunshine girl.” Previously believed to be only an urban legend, Hina can coax the sunshine out by praying, making the torrential downpour stop for brief periods of time.
Being the industrious, financially fucked-over millennial archetype that he is, Hodaka figures out how to monetize Hina’s otherworldly abilities. He offers her services online to Tokyoites in need of some sunshine, whether for weddings or playdates. Turning the stuff of legends into a side hustle, the teens build a comfortable life for themselves. But as the weather grows more apocalyptic and they learn about the ancient history of sunshine girls — and the power’s personal costs — the two must choose between saving the world or saving each other.
The gorgeous art style retains much of the texture you get from hand-drawn animation, while also using the power of computer animation to ground viewers in the small details of real-world environments. The effect is akin to that of Pixar, with CGI that’s way too perfect to have been made by hand, but also still somehow has all the loving care of deeply human touch.
As romantic and fantastical as it is pessimistic and realistic, Weathering with You prioritizes emotional honesty over the responsible, neatly packaged messaging we’re usually force-fed about the climate crises. Sure, climate nihilism doesn’t help solve the issue. But for the generations living through this inherited catastrophe that we neither created nor feel any individual power to prevent, it’s the kind of human response you can’t really blame us for having.
This isn’t a movie set in a dystopian, post-environmental disaster apocalypse future, either. It’s our present reality — or, even more, ironically, a near-past when Yahoo Answers still existed. Like many young people, Hodaka turns to the notoriously unreliable online forum (and the internet at large) for all the help that the adults in his and Hina’s lives have failed to provide.
Weathering with You captures so much more than just the emotional toll of climate anxiety. More than anything, it explores the sense of generational betrayal, of a youth that feels in every way abandoned and lied to by the people who were supposed to protect us. Throughout the movie, adults are nothing but obstacles if not outright threats to the kids as they try to make the best of the awful circumstances left to them by said adults.
Unlike other movies that trade in climate change fear, it’s smart enough to pinpoint the real villain of environmental collapse: capitalism. Mother Nature itself isn’t the one we should fear or blame, and even the extreme weather in the film is depicted as beautiful. The real ugliness comes from the inescapable dehumanization of urban life, this rat race that has pillaged all our natural resources with reckless abandon by exploiting the labor of society’s most vulnerable people.
By design, it’s a system that ensures those vulnerable people will suffer the direst consequences of the climate crisis it created. After all, Hina might have supernatural powers gifted to her by nature itself, but she can still get fired from McDonald’s — or, worse still, intimidated into sex work.
Environmental disaster becomes the shark fin permanently circling water-locked Tokyo, more of a promise than a threat.
Despite the magic of Hina’s powers, Weathering with You is one of the most grounded and realistic depictions of what climate collapse will probably look like. There’s no single disaster or environmental tipping point that pushes Tokyo over the edge. It’s a slow and imperceptible burn, or more accurately, the prolonged suffocation of a city slowly drowning day by day, drop by drop.
Environmental disaster becomes the shark fin permanently circling waterlogged Tokyo, more of a promise than a threat. But that promise of disaster is never disruptive enough to make anyone stop going about their usual business, the city adapting to the endless storm as we adapted to other human-made disasters like poisonous smog without batting an eye.
The increasingly dire warnings about the storm are always kept in the background of the story, never more pressing than the everyday struggles of surviving the urban grind. Radio newscasters deliver updates on the freakish weather in the same composed tones, the main characters and fellow Tokyoites barrel on to keep up with the city’s break-neck hustle and bustle — only with umbrellas now. I mean, who has the time or energy to care too much about apocalyptic storms and magic sunshine girls when you still have to go to work, keep a roof over your head, pay your bills, put food on the table?
This casual response to world-ending climate-related disaster is pretty of a piece with what we already see happening in real life. Even in an island nation like Japan, which is particularly vulnerable to the fatal consequences of rising sea levels, officials admit that recovery from environmental devastations focuses too much on economic fallout rather than human costs.
Weathering with You flips that inverted sense of priority from the real world on its head. It shrinks the stakes of the global apocalypse down to a human scale. Saving the planet rests on the shoulders of two runaway teens — but maybe they’d rather flirt with each other and make good money instead. Who can blame them?
This isn’t a movie with clean takeaways or calls to action. It does not tell the hopeful story of how to save a planet. Instead, it shows the reality of how we’ve sacrificed our children. And how those children are frankly done sacrificing for the sake of the shitty world left behind to them.