There’s something in art that’s obsessed with romanticizing runaways. An even more niche population are the kids who left home to save the world, whether or not they knew they were going to. Often, the adults in these universes are hopelessly helpless or hopelessly evil. In Lemony Snicket’s 13-part book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire children are at the whims of incompetent caretakers and sinister guardians with a propensity for arson, until they’re forced on the lam and finally join the fight against fire. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang leaves home on his flying bison only to be caught in a storm, waking up 100 years later to find out that his people were killed in a genocide, and he has to bring balance to rest of the world. The Marvel comic series turned Hulu television show The Runaways is aptly named. A group of privileged L.A. kids leave their cushy mansions behind to stop their parents from nearly destroying Earth.
And now, in Weathering With You, acclaimed Your Name director Makoto Shinkai’s latest project, three kids once again live in a world on the precipice of disaster. Despite having no resources, no help, and — this is key — no adult supervision, they’re the only ones poised to save it.
Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) is sixteen when he meets Hina (Nana Mori), another fellow runaway who lives with her younger brother, Nagi (Sakura Kiryu). Hina has a special gift. She’s a sunshine girl, someone with supernatural abilities to bring blue skies to a perpetually rainy Tokyo. They run around the city bringing small spots of sunshine to flea markets, fireworks shows, family park days for a charge. It’s an easy and fulfilling way of making money off the grid as the three aren’t able to get well-paying (or any) work as unaccompanied minors with no experience.
The premise starts off sweet until it isn’t. Weathering With You is a beautiful movie, devastatingly scored for drama and rippled through with the same desperate energy from Your Name. But it’s also a near-apocalyptic reminder of what’s happening in Japan right now.
Tokyo is flooding. There’s an “underground temple” of drainage basins and reservoirs that is trying to keep the metropolis afloat, but it still doesn’t change the fact that water levels are rising, and people are dying as a result. Weathering With You gives this climate change crisis three fictional heroes. But in order to save their city, they have to make an ultimate sacrifice, a situation they grapple with in heartrending thoughtfulness.
Weathering With You poses questions for viewers: Is it a child’s responsibility to fix the mistakes of the generations before them? Do they even have a choice, given the fatal alternative? This is an era of youth activism, with teens all over the world championing for better gun control and climate change solutions. But the intergenerational tensions are illuminating. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s singular speech to the United Nations sums it up most succinctly: “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Weathering With You posits a situation where the hierarchies of responsibility across generations are subverted by a need for self-sacrifice by the only ones seeing with clarity: The adults that try to stop Hodaka, Hina, and Nagi are just doing their job. But it’s arguably their maturity and their inane need to stick to the rules that clouds their view, preventing them from believing in the myth of the sunshine girl.
Once again, this isn’t uncommon for stories about kid runaways. A lot of the adults in these tales are well-meaning but incompetent, or just bad people. That’s why so many of the kids in these fictions run away in the first place. Weathering With You, along with its thematic predecessors, tells us that responsibility can sometimes be cruelly unbalanced, and authority isn’t ever omniscience. Collectively, unintentionally, as the real world is on the brink of collapse, it feels like we’ve been training for this moment.
PG-13. Opens Jan. 17 at the Roxie Theater.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.