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Seen from above, Queen Elsa looks frightened while using her ice powers to hold back an unseen enemy in Frozen II. Image: Walt Disney Studios

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Animation is taking the world’s climate anxiety seriously

Three recent animated films address the younger generation’s frustration over the world they’re inheriting

The centerpiece of Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You is perpetual, unrelenting rainfall, beating down on the city of Tokyo. From an early sequence in which protagonist Hodaka is nearly swept from the deck of a boat by a sheet of rain to a freak snowstorm in the middle of summer, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong with the weather. Desperate for a break in the storm, the city’s residents are willing to do anything for a spot of sunlight. In the midst of a climate crisis, that even means paying a teenager — cheerful “sunshine girl” Hina, whose prayers can wish away the rain — to bring about the odd moment of clear skies.

The film, which premiered last summer in Japan and is currently in American theaters, joins the ranks of several recent animated films that are preoccupied with climate change. While Weathering with You is a bit of a given, since it’s fixated on weather itself, two other recent releases draw on today’s climate anxiety as well: Studio Trigger’s Promare, and Disney’s Frozen II. All three films fixate on climate change and anxiety in nuanced ways, but they all do so by personifying a variety of climate-related phenomena that are striking back at humanity. In Weathering with You, it’s the indomitable rain. In Promare, it’s sentient flames. In Frozen II, it’s hostile, elemental spirits in an enchanted forest. Other recent anime films like Studio 4C’s Children of the Sea and Masaaki Yuasa’s Ride Your Wave, both of which have yet to be released in the United States, also dig deep into the elemental angst.

The idea of vengeful nature isn’t particularly new, especially in the realm of Japanese animation. Studio Ghibli’s films Princess Mononoke (1997) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) particularly hone in on adversarial relationships between exploitative humans and hostile forests and animals. However, more recent films feel like a symptom of the current moment, in which younger generations are forced to contend with the actions of both corporations and largely apathetic elders who won’t be held accountable for their impact on the planet.

In an image from the anime film Weathering With You, the camera zooms through a rainy city toward protagonist Hina, a young woman with a battered yellow umbrella, looking startled as water swirls around her.
Climate change comes at you fast.
Image: Toho

And in Frozen II, Promare, and Weathering with You, the young protagonists eventually defer control to nature itself, resulting in cataclysmic consequences that permanently change humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

[Ed. Note: major spoilers for Weathering with You, Promare, and Frozen II ahead.]

Weathering with You has the clearest climatic attachments out of the three. The film’s premise is relatively simple: in a Tokyo where the rain rarely ceases, teenage runaway Hodaka partners with Hina, turning her gift to break through the clouds into a thriving business. It comes at a price: as the latest in a line of tragic “weather maidens,” Hina must eventually be sacrificed in order to bring the sun back for good.

While the film’s animation is breathtaking, it’s clear from the get-go that Weathering’s rain is unnatural both in its persistence and its nature. In the film’s most magical sequences, it takes on the form of writhing fish and monstrous, dragon-like figures, turning from playful to menacing from one sequence to another. Tokyo’s climate crisis is supernatural in nature, but the onus for resolving it is placed unfairly on a single young woman.

Frozen II’s narrative works in similar ways, forcing royal sisters Elsa and Anna to atone for their ancestors’ crimes against nature and a group of people called the Northuldra, who live in an enchanted forest. After their grandfather, then the king of Arendelle, built a dam in Northuldra territory, conflict sparked between the two civilizations, causing the natural spirits to go haywire and seal off the forest.

To a certain extent, Promare raises a similar conflict. In a world where the Burnish, a group of mutated humans with the power to wield supernatural fire, are used as test subjects, magma from the Earth’s core threatens to boil over and consume the surface. The film’s primary villain, a politician framed as the savior of humanity, treats the magma as an unavoidable threat. Rather than working to fix it, he builds an ark with the capacity to save only 10,000 chosen elites, and powers it with the Burnish themselves. After the film’s protagonists — a powerful Burnish and a rookie firefighter — learn that the magma activity is tied to the Burnish’s pain, they’re forced to resolve a humanitarian and climate crisis all at once.

In the anime film Promare, a city burns with a lurid purple flame.
Fire insurance is probably pricy in Promare.
Image: Toho

Each of these disasters is emotionally raw and personal, playing to the sentiments of a generation of young people coping with unresolvable climate anxiety. A 2019 Amnesty International survey that questioned 10,000 18-to-25-year-olds across 22 different countries found that climate change was the most pervasive fear among young people. Even with young activists like Greta Thunberg leading the regrettably necessary charge, climate-change movements are accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness and lack of confidence in individual action. For the young people who will be around to feel the consequences of a warmer earth in 2050 and beyond, the looming reality of climate change is terrifying and numbing at the same time.

Animation offers a cathartic solution, staging climate disasters in fantastic terms, while inserting elements of our current reality. Frozen II attempts to turn colonialist exploitation of indigenous people and the environment into children’s fare, with middling success. It focuses on a younger generation attempting to atone for their forefathers’ crimes and restore the natural balance. It’s certainly no leap to read Promare about the rise of fascism in the midst of a climate crisis, as its protagonists vengefully tear down the ruling class that prefers to escape problems, rather than solve them.

In the most climactic moments of these films, the responsibility rests solely on young people who have to sacrifice what they love to set things right. In Promare, dual protagonists Galo and Lio guide a wave of benevolent, alien flame across the Earth, extinguishing its fires and leaving the Burnish bereft of their powers. In Frozen II, princess Anna decides to destroy the transgressive dam, even though she risks destroying her own kingdom in the process.

Weathering with You ultimately says the most about the current moment, channeling a generation who never asked to be responsible for saving the world. As the characters piece together the legend of the “weather maiden,” Hina’s life is initially framed as a necessary, unavoidable price to pay for normalcy. “If you could fix this crazy weather with one human sacrifice, I’d be happy. Everyone would,” Hodaka’s mentor Suga states, even knowing that Hina’s apparent powers mean the legends he’s citing are true, and he isn’t speaking abstractly.

In Frozen II, Queen Elsa and Princess Anna pause in front of a vast supernatural cloud that’s parting to let them through.
Into the unknown, again.
Image: Walt Disney Studios

In the end, though, Hodaka prioritizes Hina over everyone else, choosing to save her even though he knows he’s dooming Tokyo to disappear under floods of perpetual rain. Their current reality and happiness takes precedence. “I want you more than any blue sky,” Hodaka tells Hina as they tumble jubilantly through the clouds. “The weather can stay crazy.”

As a result, Tokyo becomes more and more inundated with water. Ferries replace subway lines. Suga moves from an underground office to a cramped space in a high-rise. A former client abandons her home after the neighborhood goes underwater. When Hodaka visits that particular woman three years after the rain starts and never stops, she provides a pearl of wisdom: “In old times, Tokyo was just a bay. Human beings and the weather changed it, little by little. So, well… I think it’s just gone back to its original self.”

Across the board in these animated films, nature wins. It’s allowed to reach cathartic, apocalyptic heights before a new normal is established. While these movies speak to the power of young generations in making choices about the future, they also speak to the fact that we never wanted this in the first place. Soon enough, the cataclysmic floods and raging infernos will be more than just animated eye candy — in fact, between events like catastrophic monsoon flooding in Bangladesh and the ongoing Australian bushfires, they’re already a part of our current reality.


Palmer Haasch is a New York City-based entertainment & culture writer. A former Polygon intern, she specializes in TV, anime, fandom, and internet culture. Find more of her work at palmerhaasch.com.