Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Shapes of Water in the Films of Makoto Shinkai

January 10 2020

“A faint clap of thunder,
clouded sky.
Perhaps rain comes.
If so, will you stay here with me?”
- Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

In Japanese literature, seasonal imagery has a fundamental, codified importance. In poetry, where syllables dictate the rhythm of a composition, specific words or phrases associated with seasons are aptly disseminated to convey precise emotions. For example, when the rainy season controls the meteorologic calendar, lightning and rain, are just a couple of the natural phenomena that are used to indicate that a poem talks about summer. That’s why, mimicking tanka (a genre of classical Japanese poetry), in The Garden of Words (2013), Shinkai pens a couple of twinning poems for his lovers to recite in which water is the protagonist.

A naturally incredible plot-device, the rainy season is the setting for two of Makoto Shinkai’s films: the graceful drama The Garden of Words, and the upcoming, climate crisis inspired Weathering With You. (Metrograph hosted a Members Only sneak preview of Weathering With You ahead of its wider release this month.) Both films are set in Tokyo, and both are showcases for Shinkai’s trademark hyperrealistic aesthetics. Shinkai’s hyperrealism was at its peak in his hit Your Name (2016), in which both the sky and the urban landscape reach an unparalleled level of sophistication. Although viewers might be led to think that Shinkai’s visual style has always been the same since his first projects, his work has in fact shown a decisive growth. As they have developed from the botchy character designs of his early short Voices of a Distant Star (2002) to the spectacular scenery of his most recent, hugely successful films, Shinkai’s films have become synonymous with captivating teenage love stories that blossom under impressively wide and imposing skies.

Love stories are at the very heart of both The Garden of Words and Weathering With You while water ― here in the form of rain ― offers another point of contact between the two features. The Garden of Words is an atmospheric medium-length film mainly taking place in a fine-grained reconstruction of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Here, on a rainy day, a 15-year-old high-school student, Takao, meets Yukino, a 27-year-old woman who’s skipping work for personal reasons. Their encounter is immediately coded in romantic signifiers, but it’s the tanka that Yukino recites that gets something going. While rain bears the promise of another moment of shared peacefulness, their platonic love builds on the brief time they spend together until it’s ultimately ignited by the sunny days that keep them apart. Unable to move on until they give voice to their feelings, nature visibly vibes with Yukino and Takao’s emotions so when the rain finally stops, it’s the dawn of a new day to illuminate their paths.

Whereas water is a benign element in The Garden of Words, in Weathering With You, its implications are catastrophic. Unfolding during an eerily long rainy season, the film revolves around a couple of teenage kids: Hodaka, a runaway high-school student and Hina, who soon realises she can control the weather by praying. Setting off as a cheerful romantic comedy, Weathering With You fully embraces its bleakness before long. The constant grey sky and the incessant rain make for a depressing representation of Tokyo, which here stands as an uncaring city where people struggle to carry on with their lives. No longer an ally to the lovers’ cause, rain now represents the untamable essence of nature and, in its unfathomable agency, it fosters Hodaka and Hina’s relationship as much as it’s the gatekeeper to their separation.

Water assumes yet another connotation in Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011), the most Ghibli-esque of all Makoto Shinkai’s films. As the film revisits the myth of Izanagi and Izanami ― a Japanese variation on the Ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice ― fantasy brushstrokes add depth to an otherwise simple coming-of-age story. Asuna is a bright and lively elementary schooler with a thing for tinkering with a DIY crystal radio. One day, a fearsome beast attacks her, but she is saved by a mysterious teenage boy called Shun. In the blink of an eye, she’s initiated to the existence of Agartha, an underground, millenarian world that humans ― or rather, “top-dwellers” ― have exploited over the centuries. Agartha acts as both a fading El-Dorado and a dreamy underworld, home to the Gate of Life and Death that sits at the bottom of a cliff.

In creating Agartha, Shinkai envisions a utopian world where humanity and nature live in symbiosis, where all creatures are revered, and spirits are benevolent entities assisting and guiding humans. Such a world is perfectly complemented by a new element, the hybrid vita-aqua, which works like an upgraded version of water. A lake of vita-aqua ― “water of life” ― is the last post before entering the world of Agartha, and it requires a leap of faith to dive in. However, Asuna can breathe underwater, and when she travels through a huge pool of vita-aqua, she dreams of her own birth before emerging in Agartha. Shinkai’s visual metaphor is apt: this amniotic-like fluid not only sustains life but also participates in its creation. Later, Mr Morisaki ― Asuna’s substitute teacher, who accompanies her in Agartha ― finally gets to ask the Agarthian ultimate deity to bring his wife back to life. Before his eyes, the woman is formed from red strings of light resembling a DNA double helix, her body nothing more than an empty shell of vita-aqua. In one of the loveliest sequences in all of Shinkai’s work, Asuna becomes the vessel for this wandering soul; the human-shaped mass of vita-aqua enters her body, overwriting the young girl’s heart.

Water is eventually granted divine status in Shinkai’s fifth feature, the international phenomenon Your Name. In the film, water is everywhere, even hidden in the name of a main character’s family. For generations, the Miyamizus ― mizu means “water” in Japanese ― have lived in the fictional town of Itomori and have offered prayers at the Miyamizu shrine, whose peculiar location is at the centre of the crater created when a comet struck Earth hundreds of years ago. After the death of Mitsuha’s mother, performing rituals and preparing the sacred sake to offer the god is now down to the girl who, for this reason, bears a special connection with water. Playing with powerful spiritual forces that command the universe and the laws of space and time, Shinkai creates a fable where his star-crossed lovers need to understand the vital importance of one of the classical elements to unknot the intricate thread of their intertwined destinies. From water to sake, to the most humble grain of rice, in the universe of Your Name, everything is Musubi, the animistic deity that balances the whole world and connects lives. Unsurprisingly then, it’s when Taki drinks from the cup containing the sacred sake that Mitsuha’s entire life unravels. From birth to death, we see water lulling the red-string of fate that binds the two together, and by doing so, water becomes the ultimate element, one that gives and nurtures life.

Water takes the shape of whatever container it is poured into; the same happens in Makoto Shinkai’s films. Rain offers the perfect setting for a formative romance in the heart of Shinjuku, and it’s only one of the many manifestations of a natural deity governing time, but water suddenly turns into a calamity when people must the price for their actions. However, it’s in the surprisingly rich world of Shinkai’s Agartha that water is ultimately elevated: as water shape-shifts into memories of all the dear people we lost, so Asuna learns how to say goodbye to those she cannot reach. And it’s precisely when we accept that we must embrace the loss that the distances between us don’t matter anymore.

“A faint clap of thunder,
Even if rain comes or not,
I will stay here,
Together with you.”
- Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words