Entry: Shinkai Makoto
On Shinkai Makoto, Spiritual Imagination and Animation Ecologies
In response to the Assembly’s ongoing investigations on ‘life’ and animism in current animation practices, I would like to put together some preliminary speculations around animation, ecocriticism and Japan’s indigenous tradition of spiritual beliefs that came to my mind after watching Shinkai Makoto’s latest animated feature Weathering with You (Tenki no ko, 2019), a film released last year amidst national and international acclaim. Two aspects of this film stroke me particularly: first, its focus on environmental crisis seen through the eyes of two teenagers; second, its deployment of spiritual beliefs, related to both Shintō and Buddhism, as central elements in the unfolding of the narrative.
Shintō–or Japan’s indigenous tradition of animistic beliefs and cosmological imagination–has been most often associated with Japanese animation, not least because of the international success of Studio Ghibli and its environmentalist founding member Miyazaki Hayao, whom Shinkai is often referred to as a natural successor. Yet, while Miyazaki excelled in making hand-drawn animation in an era mostly characterised by analogue production, limited international distribution and local ecological struggles, Shinkai is fundamentally a digital native director, who has excelled in crafting anime through digital tools in an era of multimedia production and global distribution. In addition, environmentalism has also changed, shifting from a matter of local concerns to a diverse political movement globally united by the incumbent risks of climate change. As such, Weathering with You is a reminder not only of the great transformations that occurred to anime in the past few years, but also those that interested its diverse audience groups and the very world around them.
This film, therefore, seems particularly suitable to consider continuities and changes in recent anime practices, and see how it positions itself in relation to the spiritual and worldly connections that it explicitly evokes. In other words, if animation is about perceiving life in technically animated images, what does this film tell us about our own life at the time of human-made ecological crises? What then is the relationship between animate and inanimate, immaterial and material ecologies in contemporary anime practices?
As a way to articulate an answer, a bit of background will be of help.
Anime’s Material Ecologies
As it is known, Japanese commercial animation had an impulse in the post-war years of Japan’s rapid industrial growth, when the proliferation of innumerable new commodities bore the promise of a peaceful, affluent and convenient lifestyle. Like some of the commodities that were entering the market, anime was literally made out of plastic, in and out of the screen. Not only its drawing and shooting required plastic materials such as polyester acetates and vinyl painting, but its off-screen commercialisation–necessary to pay back its labour-intensive production cycle–made also extensive use of plastic in the form of collectable toys and licensed goods.
Animation and plastic shared another similarity, their intrinsic capacity for self-transformation. Sergei Eisenstein, for example, highlighted the plasticity and plasmaticness of Disney’s pre-war cartoons, in which characters constantly stretched, shrank, inflated, flattened and twisted as if they were “mocking at their own form”. Not differently from the demiurgic qualities often attributed to animation techniques, which different audiences perceived as imparting “life” to imaginary beings, the proliferating forms of plastic also gave man a measure of his mastery over matter, since–as Barthes famously put it–“the very itinerary of plastic gives him the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through Nature”. Yet, as animated characters stretched and transformed while never losing their semblance, so plastic objects persisted well beyond the exhaustion of their use value. In the 1960s and 70s, in particular, the polluting effects of plastics and chemical components became dramatically evident in Japan, as serious accidents and diseases caused by air and water pollution started to appear regularly across the country. Positivist notions of progress soon became intertwined with less optimistic anxieties about the harmful environmental effects of disposable plastic cultures, overdevelopment and toxic waste dumping.
As the first Japanese environmental movements started to assemble around local anti-pollution struggles, a new environmental consciousness also streamed into anime. Ecological themes featured regularly in popular series such as Black Jack and Doraemon, while SF speculated on the catastrophic effects of ecological disasters, as in the anime TV series Space Warrior Baldios (Uchū Senshi Barudiosu, 1980), which ends with the total annihilation of life on Earth due to radioactive contamination and the melting of the polar ice caps. Yet, anime remained ambivalently embedded in complex plastic ecologies of tools, television sets and extended economies of licensed goods and toys. This was also true for those who, like director Miyazaki Hayao, had strenuously resisted the over commercialisation of animated works. In an interview originally published between 1994 and 1995, for example, he commented in this way on his conflicted feelings: “We think that cel animation is better than computer graphics, yet at the same time we face the problem of industrial waste, so we ask whether it makes sense to continue producing films with cels. But we end up leaving things ambivalent”. Some 25 years later, at a time in which both anime and ecological crises have assumed planetary dimensions, we might follow up on Miyazaki’s earlier concern and ask how computer graphics is actually dealing with the environmental problem.
Here is when the work of Shinkai Makoto comes to mind. First, because of his important role as an innovator, able to reinvent hand-drawn anime as a fully digital endeavour. And second, because of the open references, in his latest film and some of his other works, to Japanese spiritual and cosmological beliefs, which promise to open up a different way for imagining the relations between human, animal and spiritual beings.
Anime’s Spiritual Ecologies
As we have seen, a vibrant vitalism in moving characters has been repeatedly associated to early animation, so that different commentators have found in it the reflection of a sort of “animistic worldview, a world in which everything is endowed with life force or spirit, and maybe even soul”. Although anime has been historically characterised by a substantial reliance on law frame-rates–or techniques of limited-animation that tended to place less emphasis on characters’ movement–some spiritual qualities have been nonetheless attributed to Japanese commercial animation since the first anime series Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, 1963) aired on Japanese TV screens in 1963. For anthropologist Anne Allison, Shintō’s spiritual beliefs are key to understand such way of experiencing animated characters in Japan. In her study on Japanese media and interactive toys, for example, she coined the expression ‘techno-animism’ to refer to the unconscious beliefs underpinning the ‘polymorphous’ proliferation of spirits, creatures and machines blurring the human and non-human divide in fortunate media series such as Pokémon.
In recent years, the international success of works by Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki Hayao has also prompted associations between anime and animism. Miyazaki’s films evoke a sort of animism by staging, on the background of severe ecological crises, uncanny encounters with non-human creatures whose design very often resists any straightforward tendency towards anthropomorphism (for example, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984). Visually, the aesthetic feel of his films relies on artful and elaborate background paintings upon which are layered accurately animated but simply designed characters. According to Lamarre, this marked difference between characters and backgrounds produces a relative sense of depth, in which a luscious nature emerges as a central frame of reference without ever losing its dynamism thanks to an effective use of compositing. For these reasons, many commentators have seen in Miyazaki’s films a re-animation of Shintō’s immanence and vitalism through “experiences of wonder and intimate connectedness in nature”.
When exploring the relationship between animation and spiritualism, however, easy references to both Shintō and anime require careful consideration. For a long time, the legacies of Japan’s indigenous spiritualism have represented a taboo for critical scholars, particularly because of Shintō’s historical embeddedness in the political manoeuvres that, in pre-war Japan, harnessed its mythologies and principles in support of nationalist state ideology. During the post-war, a new popular discourse around animism and Shintō spirituality emerged in Japan through the work of intellectuals, journalists, artists, manga and anime creators that looked at it as a critique of the authoritarianism of wartime State Shintō. Still, as Rambelli observed, this diverse discourse could not avoid resorting to more or less explicit forms of national exceptionalism –for example, by reviving pre-war “debates on modernity (as westernisation) and the need to overcome it”  while idealising a pristine Japanese past allegedly characterised by peace and harmony with nature. Ambiguously positioned between wartime authoritarianism and post-war discourses of national uniqueness–nihonjinron, or “theories on the Japanese”–Shintō remained an uncomfortable object of study, often treated suspiciously and somehow reduced to a passive and necessary expression of cultural politics.
A recent call to reassess Shintō from an ontological, rather than ideological perspective, has come from debates on new animism emerged at the crossroad of anthropology and science and technology studies. As Casper Jensen and Anders Blok suggest, for example, Shintō has always been a historically variable placeholder for a multitude of practices and interests. In other words, the idea of a pristine Shintō with no relations with–say–Buddhist iconography, commercial cultures, the nation state and political ideology is only bound to recede into a deceptive myth of origin. While taking its historical legacies seriously, Jensen and Blok invite to reconceive Shintō as an open-ended and diverse formation, recuperating from its cosmological imagination “different modes of human-nonhuman cohabitation” that could infuse “new energy into the analysis of non-modernities outside the Euro-American orbit”.
Of course, if an ontological recuperation of Shintō practices and cosmologies is indeed desirable, the same is true for what concerns animation. In other words, in order to be fully effective, the project of broadening the imaginative spaces of non-Western modernities has to remain attentive not only to the diversity of Shintō practices and experiences, but also to the very diversity of Japanese animation techniques in which Shintō principles have often been claimed to find instantiation. In fact, a major risk implicit in this recuperation of Shintō would be to mechanically see it in every expression of Japanese animation, on the ground of the received association of life with animated movement. However, if we are interested in how Shintō practices and beliefs are always already embedded in broader material and spiritual assemblages, what is to be avoided is to conflate Shintō and anime together, as if they were flowing effortlessly from the same “ cultural worldview”–a cultural worldview consonant with stereotypical ideas of some intrinsic ‘Japanese’ harmony with nature.
In the context of this reflection, Shinkai Makoto’s latest film comes as a particularly interesting testing ground, as it deliberately stages a syncretic mix of Shintō and Buddhist beliefs in open relation to severe environmental disasters.
Weathering with You
Weathering with You narrates the romance and tumultuous coming of age of two teenagers in an era of dramatic natural disasters. Morishima Hodaka is a runaway child that reaches Tokyo from the countryside, while Amano Hina lives alone with her younger brother since the death of their mother. In a Tokyo afflicted by sudden climatic variations, Hina discovers to be a ‘girl of the weather’, a shaman whose prayers have the power to temporarily clear the sky from persistent heavy rains and exceptional weather conditions.
Hina’s power is intimately connected with a spiritual world of syncretic Shintō-Buddhist beliefs. The rooftop of the abandoned high rise building where Hina’s power manifest for the first time is indeed marked by two well-known religious symbols: a Torii portal usually found in Shintō shrines to demarcate the transition from human to sacred environments; and the aubergine and cucumber used during the celebration of the Obon festival to welcome the spirits of ancestors as they come back to visit their worldly families. If these syncretic elements anticipate the spiritual background of the story, they do not have necessarily benign connotations. As we later learn from the tale of an old Shintō priest, Hina’s power is actually a curse: girls of the weather traditionally appear during times of natural climatic disasters. As such, they are bound to be sacrificed so as to appease the spirits of the weather.
As the events precipitate and the prophecy is about to come true, Hina ascends to the top of a huge cumulonimbus cloud towering over Tokyo, where the spiritual and the natural unite in the same hybrid ecosystem. Against all the odds, Hodaka manages to rescue her from the sky before her body is dissolved into the watery environment. In this way, the course of events prescribed by tradition is overturned, and the two loving teenagers are reunited in the same earthly existence. The consequences of their actions, however, will have extreme consequences for the rest of the city. With no human sacrifice, rains keep falling over Tokyo, submerging part of its surface and dramatically changing the life of all its inhabitants.
If this dramatic conclusion avoids an otherwise banal happy ending, it simultaneously makes one wonder what kind of “cosmopolitics” is such a film proposing. If we want to answer, Lamarre suggests, “We need to look closer at animation as such, at techniques of the moving image, for it is here that life comes into play within animation”. In other words, if we are keen on pursuing an analysis of animation and animism, we should consider how the film’s simple narrative is materially enacted through particular animation techniques.
As I anticipated, Shinkai is part of a new generation of Japanese animators who started to work directly with digital software and devices, making anime a new site of aesthetic transformations and experimentations. Shinkai is especially credited for producing emotion-oriented effects through a synesthetic combination of aural sources, oversaturated colours and digital lighting that punctuates the inner feelings of his characters. More generally, his style is characterised by an extreme use of photorealism, with everyday objects and natural environments often painted over real photographs and shot from a great variety of focal lenses, from detailed close ups to breath-taking wide angles.
This level of detail, combined with digital compositing smoothing the integration of animated characters and backgrounds, is not comparable to non-digital TV anime and its well-known tendency of compressing foreground and background elements on the same plane, what Lamarre has called “flat compositing”. In fact, it could be argued that Shinkai’s photorealistic settings bring to the extreme the sense of depth that we have already encountered in discussing Miyazaki’s artistic backgrounds, albeit with a relevant difference. In Shinkai’s work, we find much less emphasis on open compositing techniques that, by accentuating dynamism and difference between layers, allowed Miyazaki to resist the tendency, latent in his picturesque backgrounds, of fixing and reifying the natural world. On the contrary, Shinkai’s static shots of digitally painted pictures are always at risk of objectifying and aestheticizing everyday life through the photorealistic rendering of common objects, architectures and infrastructures. If these visual representations function as non-verbal, emotion inducing signposts for places and seasons, they simultaneously elevate as the main frame of reference the uniqueness of the Japanese experience of modernity, rather than opening it up to multivocal and contested experiences.
Seen from this perspective, Weathering with You seems particularly challenging for a view of animism as an alternative to both Japanese cultural exceptionalism and the divide between nature and culture dominant in Western thought. Indeed, the film seems rather interested in reinstating a nature-culture dualism by separating the man-made urban environment of Tokyo from the spiritual ecosystem on top of the cumulonimbus cloud. While there is definitely ontological continuity between these two ecosystems, boundary-crossing is ultimately undesirable for both humans and non-humans: on the top of the cloud, Hina’s body is almost turned into water, while the fishlike spirits that happen to fall from the sky dissolve immediately after touching the ground. In other words, the film does not provide any explicit solution to mediate between the different human and non-human ecosystems, and the fate of the world is ultimately reduced to a matter of individual choice. As in other films by Shinkai, the focus is entirely inward-looking and solipsistic; all that matters is the romance between the two main characters, all the more so if its endurance can be measured against a sublime environmental crisis. Indeed, through digital filters and lighting effects, atmospheric phenomena such as falling rain or water reflections become part of the dreamy aesthetics Shinkai’s films have become famous for. In this way, however, the incumbent issue of the ecological crisis is aesthetically and politically emptied out and displaced.
More than on an animistic cosmology, Weathering with You seems rather to hinge on an excess of liberalism. This is made clear, for example, by Hodaka and Hina’s individual freedom to act in defence of their own self-interest against principles oriented towards a common good. There is an uncanny parallelism between the fractal existence of the characters in the film and those living precarious lives in contemporary Tokyo, where everything, including one’s very body and soul, potentially becomes a means of economic exchange. This is what happens in the film, where Hina is almost about to get a job in the sex industry before finding out about her spiritual powers, which she then uses–thanks to an internet platform–to sell weather clearing services to paying customers.
What animates the filmic ecosystem of Tokyo is a network of physical and digital infrastructures for the fast circulation of commodities, services and global brands. Here, photorealism plays a more explicit objectifying function, as it permits, by means of explicit product placement, the inclusion of an extremely high number of real brands in the diegetic world of the film. The explosion of this commercial ecology–from the lived environment to the screen, and back again–is further enhanced by what digital animation production allows in terms of modularity. Lissy Jose has convincingly shown how Shinkai often recurs to various editing techniques that “accelerate the narrative pace while preserving the contemplative qualities of his films”. The result is a composition of fast-paced but still contemplative episodic segments that work well with different delivery platforms, from full-length theatrical releases to fragmented viewings on portable devices. In Weathering with You, this modularity is given a further commercial twist as some of the film’s scenes have been reedited and repurposed on different media as short commercial advertisements: for mobile phone companies (Soft Bank), instant noodles (Nissin), a job search platform for the rising gig economy (Baitoru), and more. After two decades of structural attacks on workers rights, the ‘freedom’ of striking the best product placement and licensing deals seems to have emerged in Japan as a natural value for a new generation of creative workers that, like Shinkai, have fought their way in the industry through tough competition, exhausting work shifts and flexible freelance contracts.
As the film exploits these commercial opportunities while celebrating the value of individual choice, the Japanese national myth of a cohesive and homogeneous society collapses in the face of an ecological crisis that no one seems to be able, or willing, to fix. While the film succeeds in undermining the hierarchical pull of traditional authorities–including religion, which can only propose Hina’ sacrifice as a viable solution–it fails in substituting it with anything other the young, entrepreneurial and self-centred subjectivities of the two main characters. As animism and the environmental crisis are only deployed as aesthetic and narrative devices, the only ecology we are left with is one of brands and goods crossing over physical and digital forms of engagement.
In the context of current discussions on new animism and ecocriticism, Weathering with You is a reminder that different aesthetics and techniques afford different relationships between animation and animism, spiritual and worldly ecologies. In studies of Japanese animation, the received association of animism with animated movement has often given a certain currency to the culturalist idea that Shintō principles could be somehow found in anime. In this respect, the juxtaposition of spiritualism and animation techniques in Shinkai’s latest film allows to readdress this claim by reconceiving, on the one hand, Shintō as “a multivalent formation in ontological, political as well as affective terms” and, on the other, anime as a diverse technoaesthetic and technosocial undertaking.
As Lamarre once wrote “Animation entertains distinctions without calling for a foundational bifurcation of nature. Even if it proposes contrasts between human and animal, between organic and inorganic, or between organism and mechanism, it tends to generate entities falling between, defying the onset of strict opposition”. Shinkai’s film does certainly do this, at least to a certain extent. For example, it still entertains the idea of some possible interactions between humans and spirits, and refuses anthropomorphism in depicting otherworldly creatures. Yet, other aesthetic choices tend to foreclose, rather than open up, this promising vision of a common and dynamic field of existence for living creatures, gods and inanimate objects in the context of an incumbent ecological crisis.
In particular, Shinkai’s photorealist aesthetic is used to add dreamy qualities to real objects, places and atmospheric conditions, imbuing them with spiritual and emotional resonances that are reportedly internalised by the viewers. While digital filters heighten these affective responses, they simultaneously objectify them as commodities available for human consumption. This reification is at once metaphorical and material, since the modular advertisements derived from the film relay its effects transmedially, contributing to a faster circulation of commodities in the non-diegetic world. From the promise of an animist worldview able to reconnect the viewers with a human-made ecological crisis, we are left with a real, too real material ecology of capitals and goods in circulation.
And yet, fictional or not, the spectre of the crisis persists, haunting the characters of the films as well as the very lives of its audience. Early this summer, with striking similarity with the final images of the film, the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū was afflicted by record-breaking heavy rain that caused flooding and landslides, submerging millions of buildings and killing more than 70 people. We might think, like the characters in the film, that no connection exists between spiritual and worldly ecologies, between our individual lives and these tragic environmental disasters. Or we might take this as a wakeup call, a shocking reminder that–unlike what happens in the film–some connections might actually exist between our lives and the forms of circulation that we enact, between animation techniques and “the divergent, layered, and conjoined projects that make up worlds”.
 Bigelow, 2009, among others. Bigelow, Susan J. “Technologies of perception: Miyazaki in theory and practice”. Animation 4(1) (2009). SAGE Publications, Sage UK: London, England: 55–75. DOI: 10.1177/1746847708099740.
 Weathering with You, for example, is distributed internationally by Netflix.
 Eisenstein, 1988: 5. Eisenstein, Sergei. On Disney. Edited by Jay Leyda, translated by Alan Upchurch. London: Methuen, 1988.
 Jenkins, 2014. Jenkins, Eric S. Special Affects: Cinema, Animation and the Translation of Consumer Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
 Barthes, 1972: 97. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1972.
 Gabrys et al, 2013: 5. Gabrys, Jennifer, Gay Hawkins and Mike Michael (eds). Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic. Abingdon (UK) and New York: Routledge, 2013.
 Hase, 1981. Hase, Toshio. “Japan’s Growing Environmental Movement”. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 23(2) (1981). Routledge: 14–36. DOI: 10.1080/00139157.1981.9933109.
 Miyazaki, 2014: 426. Miyazaki, Hayao. Starting Point: 1979–1996. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2014.
 Lamarre, 2013: 117–8. Lamarre, Thomas. “Coming to Life: Cartoon Animals and Natural Philosophy”. In Pervasive Animation. Edited by Suzanne Buchan, 117–42. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.
 Steinberg, 2012. Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
 Allison, 2006. Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
 Lamarre, 2009: 104–5. Lamarre, Thomas. Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
 Jensen and Blok, 2013: 101.
Jensen, Casper Bruun, and Blok Anders. “Techno-animism in Japan: Shinto cosmograms, actor-network theory, and the enabling powers of non-human agencies”. Theory, Culture & Society 30(2) (2013). SAGE Publications Ltd: 84–115. DOI: 10.1177/0263276412456564.
 Rambelli, 2019. Rambelli, Fabio. “Introduction: The Invisible Empire: Spirits and Animism in Contemporary Japan”. In Spirits and Animism in Contemporary Japan: The Invisible Empire, 1–16. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
 Rambelli, ibid. 8.
 Jensen and Blok, 2013: 93.
 Jensen and Blok, ibid.
 Jensen and Blok, ibid. 92.
 Jensen and Blok, ibid. 104.
 Asquith and Kalland, 1997. Asquith, Pamela J, and Arne Kalland. Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997.
 Stengers, 2005. Stengers, Isabelle. “The Cosmopolitical Proposal”. In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Edited by Bruno Latour, and Peter Weibel, 994–1003. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
 Lamarre 2013: 120.
 Lamarre, 2009: 126.
 Allison, 2013. Allison, Anne. Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University, 2013.
 Jose, 2015: 13. Jose, Lissy. “The Multiplicity of Screens and its Impact on Filmic Narration: A Study on the Feature Films of Makoto Shinkai”. Singularities: An Transdisciplinary Biannual Research Journal 2(1) (2015): 11–6.
 Ito, 2005. Ito, Makoto. “Assessing Neoliberalism in Japan”. In Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader. Edited by Alfredo Saad-Filho & Deborah Johnston, 244–50. London; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2005.
 Mori, 2011; Yamamoto, 2014. Mori, Yoshitaka. “The Pitfall Facing the Cool Japan Project: The Transnational Development of the Anime Industry under the Condition of Post-Fordism*”. International Journal of Japanese Sociology 20(1) (2011): 30–42; Yamamoto, Kenta. The Agglomeration of the Animation Industry in East Asia. International Perspectives in Geography, AJC Library 4. Tokyo, New York, London: Springer, 2014.
 Jensen and Blok, 2013: 96.
 Lamarre, 2018. Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Ecology: A Genealogy of Television, Animation, and Game Media. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
 Lamarre, 2013: 132.
 Tsing, 2017: 22. Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Dario Lolli (PhD, University of London) is Assistant Professor in Japanese and Visual Culture at Durham University (UK). Prior to that, he was postdoctoral fellow at Keiō University (Tokyo), where he worked on a Japan Foundation-sponsored project on the morphology of the Japanese licensing industry. His in-progress monograph, Dispositives of Extension, investigates the ecologies of affect, creativity and value established by anime franchises as they move across territories, technologies and contexts of use. He is a permanent member of the Archive Center for Animation Studies in Niigata, Japan, and has published for the Cambridge Companion to Manga and Anime, Convergence and Media Culture & Society.