WASHINGTON – Being selected to represent Japan in any industry is no small feat. But representing Japan in the foreign film category at the Oscars is particularly harrowing. The selection process to make the final five for the ultimate prize is arduous and definitely opaque. Who really knows what goes on in the Academy of Motion Pictures anyway? But the foreign film category is particularly contentious, given the patriotic fervor that prevails throughout the elimination process.
Japan’s ardent cinephiles and casual film viewers alike will be closely watching to see whether “Weathering With You” makes it through to win the top spot. The film by director Makoto Shinkai already has a few domestic firsts under its belt, including first Japanese animation since 1998 to represent the country in the foreign language film category, and raking in more ticket sales in its first three days at the box office than the director’s previous blockbuster. Still, the film’s biggest contribution may well be how it portrays a new form of Japanese identity and even leadership both on and off the screen.
Gone are the days when Japanese business practices and blue-chip companies inspired a generation of foreign students to study Japanese language and corporate culture. Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, it seemed to make financial sense as much as anything else to study Japan. Over the past two decades, though, it has been Japan’s soft power, most notably in anime, that has played a significant role in inspiring young people worldwide to learn about the country.
In short, money is no longer a driving force in the study of Japan. Rather, it is often the scenes depicted on screens, the clatter on the internet, music being streamed, sports celebrities and a love of Japanese food more than politics or economics that have turned people on to Japan.
But “Weathering With You” succeeds in presenting yet another dimension of Japan: its vulnerability to weather and in this case, heavy rain. Although teenage romance drives this coming-of-age film, persistent, torrential rain pummeling Tokyo is an integral part of the plot as well. While the sinister weather is a result of divine anger in the film, it’s easy enough for moviegoers to think about the impact of climate change and a sobering reflection on the vulnerabilities of a megapolis.
In a nutshell, the weather is as much a character as any, and the film can be a starting point to consider the implications of drastic shifts in weather patterns in any part of the world without being preachy.
It is the director of the film himself, though, who actually succeeds in promoting Japan’s evolving values the best. With his latest work following in the footsteps of his previous blockbuster “Your Name.,” Shinkai has emerged as a household name in the country, featuring prominently in multiple TV shows and interviews.
What is striking is that he remains a reluctant celebrity. Asked whether he could do a quick drawing and sign his name on his work on one program, Shinkai said that he didn’t like to do that because an animation production is the result of a large team of people working together, noting that over 800 people worked on his latest film.
For Shinkai, his creative process is a collaborative one that values and celebrates teamwork at a time when most global corporate executives promote their own personal brands and seek the limelight. The director’s approach to promoting his work reflects a more traditional approach to celebrating the Made in Japan brand, even when the animation industry is very much in the 21st century.
Still, the fact that a sizable number of Chinese and Korean animators have been an integral part of the production team may be what needs to be highlighted the most right now. There has already been plenty of speculation about how the Japanese animation film may do in the South Korean market in particular, given the tensions between Tokyo and Seoul, with no clear end in sight for a breakthrough in relations. Certainly, the movement within certain groups in South Korea to boycott Japanese products will hurt viewership in the country, if theaters don’t shy away from showing it in the first place.
As the competition for the 92nd annual Oscar foreign film shortlist heats up, the rivalry between Japan and South Korea will no doubt intensify in the world of cinema as well. With South Korea’s own nomination, “Parasite” by Bong Joon-ho, seen as a strong contender, the Oscars could be yet another battleground for heightened tensions.
Yet Shinkai’s message about environmental concerns including heavy rains not being anything new but actually transcending the millennia is a universal one. The fact that the message has been delivered all too forcefully as a result of cooperation among top talents going beyond national boundaries should also resonate with an audience hungry for strong narratives and detailed graphics.
All eyes will be on the Academy Awards next February.
Shihoko Goto is deputy director for geoeconomics and senior Northeast Asia associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.