Weathering With You: The Ending Explained

As I will be explaining the ending of Weathering with You (天気の子, Tenki no ko)—the 2019 anime directed by Makoto Shinkai—there are SPOILERS EVERYWHERE.

The movie is a romantic fantasy about a runaway teenage boy, Hodaka , who meets a girl who has the power to control the weather. The girl, Hina, has a chosen-one role. She is meant to save Tokyo from a non-stop deluge of rain by using her powers and sacrificing herself, thereby restoring balance to the world. Hina chooses to accept this destiny, but after she disappears from our world, Hodaka finds her and brings her back, dooming Tokyo in the process. At the end of the movie, Hodaka and Hina meet up again after three years, but much of Tokyo is now beneath the sea and there is no end in sight to the freakish non-stop rain.

In many of the reviews I have read, the writers stated that they found the decisions of the characters to be selfish and even immoral. 

I disagree, and this article explains why

Though Weathering With You also has themes related to love and the environment, in this article, I focus on  ‘choice’. Towards the end of the movie, the three main characters Hodaka Morishima, Hina Amano and Keisuke Suga all face tough choices that end up not only altering their lives but also changing the world. In my opinion, the movie is mainly about the choices we make and how those choices affect us (and the people around us).

How does the Weather Maiden magic work in Weathering With You?

Weathering With You: The Sky Realm

The movie Weathering With You employs a soft-magic system (i.e., one with vague, non-defined rules). It is not clear how Hina’s sunshine-making powers work. However, it is evident that there are greater forces at work—a god, gods or beings with technology so advanced that to humans it appears to be magic.

Let’s call them the External Forces

There are quite a few clues about the nature of the magic system in Weathering With You.

  1. Weather maidens can change the weather in a limited area for a short period of time. Hina uses her power via prayer.
  2. Weather maidens appear when there are extreme imbalances in the weather, and their purpose is to restore balance by sacrificing themselves. 
  3. Due to the legends about weather maidens that are mentioned in the film, we can assume that weather-maiden interventions happen from time to time. However, since little is known about weather maidens, these interventions must be rare.
  4. Weather maidens seem to acquire their weather-changing ability by visiting another realm (let’s call it the Sky Realm). Hina first enters this realm by stepping through a red torii gate on the rooftop shrine of an abandoned building. The torii acts as a kind of portal, but getting to the other realm seems to require faith and determination.
  5. It is not clear if weather maidens are GIFTED their abilities or if they have innate abilities that are ACTIVATED.
  6. The External Forces can manipulate the actions of people. Hina was drawn to the rooftop shrine (i.e., the portal) when clouds parted and a ray of sunlight illuminated the rooftop of a single derelict building—the building with the rooftop shrine—in the middle of Tokyo.  Even though her mother was dying, Hina appeared to be compelled to leave her mother’s bedside and track down the destination of the ray of light.
  7. This ray-of-light scene also shows that the External Forces have at least limited power to control the weather. It would have taken a while for Hina to walk to that building, yet the single ray of sunlight remained perfectly in place.
  8. Although the External Forces have some control over the weather, they are either unable or unwilling to fix extreme imbalances in the weather. A weather maiden is required for that.
  9. The psychic interviewed by Hodaka and Natsumi divides weather maidens into two categories: those that can bring sunshine and those that can bring rain. Hina has the power to control sunshine, but she is also shown to be able to summon lightning. Therefore, she likely can control other types of weather phenomena. Therefore, the dichotomy (sunshine girls vs rain girls) mentioned by the psychic may be a false idea (as a single weather maiden probably wouldn’t have needed to deal with more than one kind of weather disaster). 
  10. Weather maidens are ill-fated. Through using their weather-changing ability, they will eventually be consumed by their power and will disappear into the Sky Realm, with the sacrifice of their physical body serving to ultimately restore balance to the weather. 
  11. The weather maiden’s sacrifice is not an appease-the-gods kind of blood sacrifice. Hina’s sacrifice is more of a transformation, and her spirit, essence or energy, which enters and then resides in the Sky Realm, magically restores balance.        
  12. As a weather maiden uses her power, her body slowly becomes translucent. This implies that the eventual sacrifice must be done willingly. The weather maiden, even after seeing the effect the magic use is having on her body, would need to still be willing to continue to use her powers in order for her to complete the transformation. It seems that weather maidens gradually come to an instinctual understanding of what is going to happen to them (and Hina also receives direct confirmation of her fate from Suga’s niece, Natsumi). This implies that the self-sacrifice must be done willingly AND knowingly
  13. When weather maidens finally disappear into the Sky Realm, this is shown to many people in their dreams, perhaps as a way of acknowledging the sacrifice made.
  14. When Hina follows Hodaka back to Earth, thus reneging on her ‘chosen one’ self-sacrifice, there is non-stop rain for three years with no end in sight but no further appearances of any ‘Sunshine Girls’. This implies that a weather maiden is a one-of-a-kind, one-at-a-time role.  
Weathering With You: The Rooftop Shrine

When did Hina get her powers?

Interestingly, Hina was given her gift (or had it activated) almost a full year before the weird non-stop rain really got out of hand. At various points in the anime, news broadcasts mention the exceptionally rainy weather of the summer when Hina and Hodaka meet, but the broadcasts don’t say anything about abnormal rainfall during the previous summer—when Hina gained her powers—or the fall, winter or spring leading up to the super-rainy summer. This implies that the External Forces somehow knew that a weather maiden would be needed in the near future and that it was time to find and prepare one.

Destiny vs. free will   

The role of the weather maiden involves destiny (in that a chosen one is selected to be sacrificed) AND free will (in that the chosen one needs to knowingly and willingly accept that role). 

What is causing the extreme weather?

Weathering With You: Rain

The cause of the extreme weather is never made clear. At times during the movie, the rain is completely unnatural, first appearing as a mass of water suspended in the air before suddenly crashing down to earth. Thus, there seems to be a supernatural cause (or co-cause).

One of the minor characters references global warming and climate change when she states how it is unfortunate that kids nowadays can no longer enjoy  a comfortable spring and summer in Tokyo. Therefore, global warming may be a contributing factor but is definitely not the only cause.

Is it possible that Hodaka is responsible for the weird weather? Even the scenes set on his home island feature rain, with the establishing shot of his hometown school near the end of the movie showing a flooded campus. Hodaka could be an ‘ameotoko’, a man cursed to have rain follow him around. However, during the three-years-of non-stop rain in Tokyo, he is back in his hometown. If he were an ameotoko, wouldn’t the epicenter of the rainstorm follow him back to his hometown? Thus, to me, the possibility that Hodaka is a ‘Rain Boy’ remains just that—a possibility.

The Tokyo weather is at its worst when Hodaka and Hina are most distressed—after Hodaka gets kicked out by Suga and after Hina and her brother face getting picked up by the Japanese equivalent of Child Protective Services. There are four possibilities here:

  1. It is pure coincidence. Snow with lightning in August, though? That seems to be too much of a coincidence. 
  2. The ‘emotions’ of the natural world are mirroring the emotions of the protagonists. This is an ‘it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night’ kind of literary device. This device is often used for dramatic effect in stories,  but the technique doesn’t suit a story in which one of the characters can actually control the weather.   
  3. The severity of the bad weather is directly caused by Hodaka and/or Hina’s emotional state. This is possible, but we don’t really see this cause-effect relationship in other scenes where the characters are distressed.
  4. The severity of the weather is influenced by the External Forces, who are seeking to raise the stakes and push Hina towards allowing herself to be sacrificed. 

I would argue that the fourth possibility is the most likely explanation. This is because we have already seen the External Forces manipulate the weather in order to draw Hina to the portal/torii. This possibility raises an important question (one that I will come back to later in this article): to what extent are the External Forces manipulating events and people?   

Hodaka’s Choices

Weathering With You: Hodaka

About Hodaka: Hodaka Morishima is a 16-year-old runway from a small island town. He never reveals exactly why he ran away other than he wants nothing more to do with his hometown or his family. When we first see him, he has three bandages on his face. At first, I thought that he may have been the victim of bullying, but the dislike and disregard he feels for his family suggest that the bruises may have been the result of child abuse. For the first part of the movie, Hodaka is mainly concerned with survival as he is forced to live in the streets. However, after he establishes a business and close friendship with Hina and her brother Nagi, the thing he wants most is to just maintain that. He prays to the gods that the three of them be allowed to keep what they have—nothing more, nothing less.

Weathering With You: Nagi, Hina an Hodaka

As a decision-maker, Hodaka is sometimes full of doubt and sometimes impulsive.

He can be very indecisive when it comes to little things. When he is trying to decide what to buy for Hina for her birthday, he asks for advice from Yahoo Help, Suga’s niece Natsumi and Nagi. Even after spending a few hours at a department store jewelry counter picking out a ring (following Nagi’s advice), he is still unsure if he made the right choice. 

However, he makes big, life-altering decisions without much thought about the possible consequences. It is only after he arrives in Tokyo as a runaway, for example,  that he asks (via Yahoo Help) where a 16-year-old runaway might be able to find work. 

Towards the climax of the movie, when Hodaka wakes up after Hina’s disappearance and realizes what has happened, he makes a world-altering decision to try to save her without considering:

  1. Whether it is even possible to change anything  
  2. Whether it would better to respect Hina’s decision to allow herself to be sacrificed
  3. Whether it would be better for the world if Hina be allowed to sacrifice herself to prevent a natural disaster

When he rushes off to save Hina, he is just acting on instinct and is not considering the consequences. It is only through his sheer determination (and disregard for his own safety) that he gains access to the Sky Realm and brings Hina back to Earth. 

He manages to save Hina, but heavy rain returns to Tokyo and never stops, leaving much of the city underwater after three years. During that time, millions of people would have lost their homes. It is not mentioned in the movie, but there would have been trillions of dollars of damages and there likely would have been deaths due to flash floods and landslides.  

Wouldn’t it have been better to sacrifice one girl to save a city of over 9 million people from disaster? Wasn’t his decision selfish? Is a teenage crush really that important?

However, if he had accepted Hina’s sacrifice, would he have been able to live with himself? When Nagi urges Hodaka to save Hina, he accuses Hodaka of being responsible for her disappearance. Nagi isn’t entirely wrong.

  • Hodaka was responsible for hastening Hina’s sacrifice/disappearance by starting the 100% Sunshine Girl business that made her frequently use her weather-changing ability.
  • When Natsumi brought Hodaka to the first interview with the psychic (before Hodaka and Hina had established their friendship), the psychic told them that weather maidens risked being consumed by their powers if they used their abilities too much. It is not clear whether Hodaka forgot about that warning or whether he played down the risk. In any case, he mostly ignored the warning. Although he was the one who eventually stopped the sunshine-bringing service, it was too late. 
  • The night she disappeared, Hina asked Hodaka if he wanted the rain to stop. Not fully understanding what Hina was asking, he replied that he did, an answer that only served to push Hina a little further toward accepting her sacrifice. 

In a best case scenario, if Hodaka had decided to let Hina go, he would have ended up like Suga (i.e., the version of Suga that was presented for much of the movie)— broken-down and barely functioning. There are a couple of times in the movie when Natsumi compares Hodaka to a younger Suga and says how similar they are. The broken-down version of Suga represents a potential future version of Hodaka   

In a worst case scenario, Hodaka literally wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. Tokyo would have survived unscathed, but he wouldn’t have.

In the drowned Tokyo at the end of the movie, Hodaka meets Suga, who, seemingly sensing Hodaka’s discomfort, tells him not to worry because the world has always been crazy.  Similarly an elderly woman tells him that much of what is underwater now was underwater two centuries earlier.

However, at the end of the movie, Hodaka finally understands that he instinctively made the right choice—not because the consequences weren’t severe— but because it was his choice to save Hina and in doing so, he kept to his wish for the three of them—himself, Hina and her brother—to keep what they had, nothing-more, nothing less. That was the only choice that would have allowed him to live with himself afterwards.  

Suga’s Choices

Weathering With You: Suga

About Keisuke Suga: Suga has a certain amount of rough charm that disguises the fact that his life is a mess. After the death of his wife, he not only lost custody of his daughter, but he has to beg just to be able to visit her on rare occasions. It appears that he doesn’t even have visitation rights. It is never revealed what happened to him, but the situation implies that he became such a wreck after his wife died in an automobile accident that he could not be trusted to take care of his daughter. He drinks heavily, his home-office is a mess and he barely works. The thing he wants most is to regain custody of his daughter. He is willing to make some changes to his life—such as giving up smoking (as keeping the habit would be harmful to his asthmatic daughter)—to accomplish this, but he is clearly struggling. 

Weathering With You: Hodaka, Suga and Hina

Suga helps Hodaka quite a lot, but when the police come to his home and tell him that they are trying to find Hodaka and that they may consider him a suspect in his kidnapping, he decides to cut ties with the teenager. He gives Hodaka a wad of cash and tells him to leave. This is incredibly bad timing, as at that moment everything is falling apart for Hodaka, Hina and Nagi. The police are closing in on Hodaka while Hina and Nagi are about to be taken in by the Japanese equivalent of Child Protective Services. Suga—the one person who might be able to help them—turns his back on them.     

Suga’s decision is reasonable. The thing he wants most in life is custody of his daughter. Harboring a sixteen-year-old runaway (who is also wanted on a firearms offence) would bury that dream.

He does what he thinks is best—cutting himself off from Hodaka—and then immediately tries to drown his regret in alcohol and he starts smoking again.   

The next morning, he is chastised by Natsumi, and when the police inform him of Hodaka’s escape and Hina’s disappearance (and he sees that sunshine has finally returned to Tokyo), he realizes the gravity of the situation and can’t hold back his tears. 

He changes his mind and decides to help Hodaka, intercepting him at the building with the rooftop shrine. His main concern here seems to be to get Hodaka to not attempt to save Hina, but instead to return to his parents.

However, after seeing Hodaka’s single-minded determination and then seeing the teenager getting manhandled by the police, Suga tackles the officers, allowing Hodaka to make his way to the rooftop. Suga will face a ton of trouble for doing that. This is a strange about-face as there is little chance of Hodaka being able to do anything that can change what has happened, while Suga himself is throwing away his chances of gaining custody of his daughter. 

So was it the wrong decision?

By standing by Hodaka, Suga is deciding that rather than focusing solely on trying to win custody of his daughter, he should focus instead on trying to be the kind of man deserving of winning back custody. 

At the film’s close, three years later, he is much more ‘together’. His business is doing well and he appears to have more access to his daughter (if not outright custody).

Had Suga stuck with the original plan—abandoning the three kids to their respective fates—would he have been able to live with that decision? Would he have gotten his life back together? 

He eventually made the only choice that would have allowed him to live with himself and that would help some of the people he cared about, though it took him some time to get there.      

Hina’s Choices

Weathering With You: Hina

About Hina Amano: When Hodaka meets Hina, she is a 15-year-old pretending to be 18. After the death of her mother a year earlier, and with her father not in the picture at all, Hina’s main goal is to take care of her younger brother—to keep what little is remaining of their family together.  She will do whatever it takes. She is fired from McDonald’s (possibly for lying about her age) and needs money to raise her brother, so when a sleazy man tries to recruit her to become a nightclub worker, she doesn’t resist very strongly. Without Hodaka’s intervention, who knows what would have happened? 

Hina initially chooses to accept her fate as a weather maiden—to disappear from the world in return for the weather to return to normal. 

After every prayer for sunshine, part of her body becomes translucent (something not fully revealed until quite late in the movie), yet she persists with her 100%-Sunshine-Girl job as she can see the happiness she brings to others. 

She keeps her deteriorating physical condition a secret from Hodaka and Nagi—likely to spare them from worry and to also ensure they wouldn’t interfere. She would have known they would have strongly opposed her and would have stopped their 100% Sunshine Girl service immediately if they had known about her condition. She also lies to Hodaka about her age—saying she is nearly eighteen—two years older than he is—when really she is only fifteen. This likely had the effect of making Hodaka less protective of her.

She seems to know instinctively that she will eventually disappear and she later gets confirmation of this from Natsumi. In her last conversation with Hodaka before she disappears, it is clear that she is resigned to fulfilling her destiny. She even asks Hodaka to take care of Nagi once she is gone. However, it is clear from her sadness that her self-sacrifice is something she is willing to do but is not something that she really wants to do. 

Her initial choice was not wrong. After all, she would have saved Tokyo. However, it would have come not only at the expense of her own life, but also would have deprived Nagi of her care and also of any good that would come from her own future life (and those of her potential descendants).

Sure, If the weather had returned to normal after months of non-stop rain, everyone in Tokyo would have been ecstatic…for a day or two. 

Sure, she could have prevented the flooding of Tokyo’s flooding problem, but Tokyo wouldn’t suddenly turn into a paradise of never-ending happiness.

At the end of the movie, the city is largely underwater, but life somehow still goes on for its residents. 

And it still goes on for Hina, who kept to what was her main goal all along—to raise her brother and keep whatever little was left of their family together.

Coincidence or Intervention?

Was it really Hina’s own choice to sacrifice herself or had she been manipulated by the External Forces into believing her sacrifice would solve everything? 

If I were a god and looking to recruit a weather maiden to help return balance to the world, she would be an ideal candidate for the job—naïve, relatively easy to influence, selfless, motivated to make others happy, willing to make sacrifices, secretive, soon to be without a parent or guardian to turn to for advice and emotionally fragile due to the impending death of her only parent. With the right incentives and a little push here and there, this is the kind of person who would be willing to make the sacrifice that I required.

In this movie, it is unclear what is coincidence and what is guided by the External Forces. However, a lot of events seem to lead directly to Hina choice to sacrifice herself:

  1. Hina seeing the shaft of light while she was at her mother’s deathbed–a light which seemed to draw her towards it.
  2. Her transformation into a weather maiden a year before a weather maiden was actually required.
  3. Hina finding someone—Hodaka—that knows about weather maidens and who might encourage her to use her powers and experience the happiness she could bring to others.
  4. Hina coming to understand and accept the tragic fate of weather maidens.
  5. Hina suddenly facing the prospect of losing Hodaka (who was thrown out of Suga’s home and was being hunted by police) AND losing her brother (about to be taken in by Child Protective Services) AND losing her freedom AND losing her home.       
  6. The sudden intensifying of the storm, making the self-sacrifice appear all the more urgent. 

It is almost as if the External Forces are saying “Here are your powers! Doesn’t it feel great to help others! You have the power to help everyone! Doesn’t that make you happy? Doesn’t that bring you satisfaction? Just let go. There isn’t anything left here for you anyway!  Your mother has passed away. Your brother will be taken away! Hodaka will be taken way! Your home is gone! Look how bad things are getting now! People are suffering! You have the power to help everyone! You can save them! Use your power! Save them!”

Spoilers for Donny Darko

The above situation is similar to what happens in the film Donnie Darko. In that movie, a teen is given powers that he must use to restore balance to the universe. However, it will require his sacrifice. Throughout the movie, external forces work to (1) encourage him to learn how to use those powers, (2) make him understand the need to make that sacrifice and (3) weaken his emotional ties to the world by doing things like having the girl he loves get killed.

End of spoilers for Donny Darko

In Weathering With You, there are lots of incredible coincidences: 

For example, Hodaka just happens to be saved from A SUDDEN EXTREME WEATHER event by Suga, who publishes OCCULT articles (despite having no belief in the supernatural) and who sends Hodaka and Natsumi (for his first job) to a psychic who informs the pair about WEATHER MAIDENS just before Hodaka finds out that Hina (the girl who gave him a Big Mac earlier and whom he recognizes when he SEES HER AGAIN, this time being dragged towards a nightclub by the SAME GUY who had pushed him out of a doorway, an act that led Hodaka to finding the revolver, which he then uses when rescuing Hina) is a WEATHER MAIDEN. 

You can interpret the events of the movie as a string of amazing coincidences. However, you can also view the events as at least partially the machinations of External Forces influencing things in order to come up with the required voluntary sacrifice of a weather maiden.

In this second interpretation, Hina’s initial choice to sacrifice herself is largely the result of manipulation. Her decision to return to Earth would reflect her true desire to live her own life, take care of her brother and be with people who care for her (her original goals)—a decision which the External Forces appear to respect by allowing her to return.

Thus, she makes the choice she feels is best for herself and the people around her and which is a choice that she can live with.

In this interpretation, Hodaka isn’t disrespecting Hina’s wishes; he is helping her rediscover her own true will. 

The Main Theme

Weathering With You: Hina and Hodaka

To sum up, when it comes to the main characters’ final choices in Weathering With You,  it is not a question of selfish desires versus the greater good. It is more about the individual characters making decisions:  

  • that help those around them, those they care about 
  • that they can live with in good conscience
  • that reflect their true goals.

I would argue that this is the best that we can expect of anyone and of ourselves. 

In Weathering With You:

  • Suga chooses to become a man worthy of regaining custody over his daughter
  • Hodaka chooses to make up for his mistakes and preserve the life of the one he loves 
  • Hina decides to live her life and continue to take care of her brother and keep what remains of their family together.

Thus, I would say one of the the main theme of Weathering with You is: 

If we can care about the people around us and act according to our conscience, the world will be a better place and we will be better people.  We might not fix this crazy world, but it will become a better place little by little.

And that is good enough.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about thoughts about their decisions? What are your thoughts on the film in general? Leave a comment below.

IMDB Page: www.imdb.com/title/tt9426210/

~ by longzijun

writing

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Film Scene Analysis: Cinematography and Mise-en-scène in American Beauty

The aim of this video is to demonstrate how cinematic techniques are used to show meaning and visually express moods and themes.

It uses two scenes from the movie American Beauty (American Beauty IMDb Page) —the two office scenes featuring Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Brad (Barry Del Sherman). I’ve kept the video short and simple, so it should be suitable for anyone interested in learning about movie making.

The cinematic techniques discussed in the video are mainly related to mise-en-scène collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2, which is the term used to describe everything ‘put into the scene’. You can think of this as being everything in front of the camera. The elements normally included under the umbrella of mise-en-scène include:

  1. The actors and their performance. This includes what the actors look like, what they are doing/saying, how they are doing/saying it and their facial expressions, body language and gestures.
  2. Costumes, make-up and hairstyles.
  3. Props.
  4. Blocking. In theater, blocking refers to how the actors and arranged on the stage (and when and how they move and how they interact with the props and set). In movies, there is one additional feature that is included: where the camera is positioned.
  5. The film set, indoor location or outdoor location. For indoor scenes, mise-en-scène would include the décor, furniture, interior design and whatever can be seen through the windows. For outdoor scenes, mise-en-scène would include things like buildings, scenery, trees, roads, cars and signs.
  6. Lighting. This would include natural lighting, artificial lighting and shadows.
  7. Space. This includes depth of space, which refers to how close the elements—e.g., people, props, décor—are to another and to the camera, and it also includes things like density. Density refers to the number of people and objects competing for attention in the shot.
  8. Composition. This is similar to the concept of composition in photography and painting. It basically involves how everything is arranged in the frame.
  9. Special effects that involve some in-camera work. For example, when shooting a scene of people in a car while street scenes are projected behind the people, that projection would fall under mise-en-scène.

In this video, I focus on décor, lighting and props, costumes, body language (e.g., posture, gestures and facial expressions), blocking and composition.

I also look at how these elements are framed in terms of shot angle and shot distance, which fall under the category of cinematography (filmanalysis.yale.edu/cinematography).

Elements that make up cinematography include:

  1. Shot angle (e.g., eye-level shot, high angle shot, low angle shot, overhead shot, Dutch angle shot, etc.), type of shot (e.g., POV shot, over the shoulder shot) and shot distance (e.g., long shot, medium, shot, close-up, etc). Shot angle, type of shot and shot distance are closely related to the ideas of blocking, space and composition that are mentioned under mise-en-scène. For more information refer to: www.studiobinder.com/blog/ultimate-guide-to-camera-shots/.
  2. Camera movement (e.g., tilt, pan, zoom, track, steadicam, etc.).
  3. Depth of field. If you have a very shallow depth of field (using a large aperture), the thing you are focusing on will be clear, but everything in front of it or behind it will look blurry.
  4. Focus. If you are using a shallow depth of field, what are you focusing on? Will you gradually change focus while filming—using a technique known as rack focus—so that you end up focusing on different things in the same shot?
  5. Lenses and related settings. For example, using a zoom lens will make objects appear even closer together than they really are.
  6. Aspect ratio. This is the ratio of width to height of the frame.
  7. Exposure and ISO settings.
  8. Color balance settings.
  9. Format settings (for digital formats) or film stock* (for film cameras). Different kinds of film stock will create different effects. For example, Technicolor films had a particularly vibrant look. In the digital era, however, this kind of effect is often done in post-production processes such as color grading.

*Film stock: Many people include film stock under mise-en-scène. However, I prefer to put it under cinematography. This is because mise-en-scène typically describes everything put in front of the camera, while cinematography refers to choices involving the camera itself.

In reality, there is quite a lot of overlap between mise-en-scène and cinematography. For example, if a director wants an actor to slowly emerge from the shadows the set designer, costume designer, lighting director and cinematographer would have to work together to get the right look.

1st Scene: Lester’s Performance Review (Focus on Lester)

1st Meeting: Lester
1st Meeting: Lester

The scene appears early on the movie. At the beginning of American Beauty, the protagonist, Lester Burnham is disillusioned with his life. At home he and his materialistic, ambitious wife can barely stand each other, and his sullen teenage daughter cannot stand either of them. At work, he is going nowhere, trapped in a thankless and meaningless job writing for a media magazine.

In this scene, Lester is having his performance reviewed by Brad, his company’s recently hired efficiency expert. Brad tells him that his work is not up to standard and that if he wants to keep his job, he will have to start performing. What’s interesting in this scene is how differently the two men are presented visually.

Let’s look at Lester first. As this is a wide shot, Lester occupies a small portion of the frame, which makes him look small. This shot is also a high angle shot, which makes him look even smaller. He is in the middle of a mostly empty room, totally exposed. His body language—slouched in his chair, legs spread—gives off an aura of weakness and resignation, and his facial expression shows his exasperation and frustration. He can’t even keep his tie straight. He looks powerless and vulnerable.

This shot is a like a point-of-view shot, as if we are looking at Lester from Brad’s position. However, the downward angle is exaggerated. Rather than looking at Lester strictly from Brad’s physical point of view, we seem to be looking at him from Brad’s mental and emotional point of view. We are looking at a small and unimportant man.

In terms of décor and lighting, the room itself is ugly, utilitarian, dimly lit, poorly decorated and is horribly dull and grey. Behind Lester, there is just a dying plant stuck in a corner and a painting that is too small for the wall. The décor reveals what kind of organization Lester works for—one that sucks the life and light out of its employees.

In terms of composition, the framing of the shot is ugly as well. Lester is positioned in the center-bottom of the frame, which is a strange place to put the main subject. There is far too much headroom above him, his feet seem to be cut off and a ceiling light juts down into the top of the frame. It’s an ugly shot in a dark, ugly room; it serves as a visual manifestation of Lester’s discontent and unease.

1st Scene: Lester’s Performance Review (Focus on Brad)

The following image shows how Brad is presented in the same scene.

1st Meeting: Brad
1st Meeting: Brad

Here the shot is a mid-shot, and Brad occupies a large portion of the frame. The low angle mid shot emphasizes his power, especially when juxtaposed with the high angle wide shot of Lester that we just looked at. When Brad stands up, the low angle shot is further emphasized.

Visually, Brad is presented as being dominant. His posture his straight, he is younger, he is dressed more fashionably and his facial expressions reveal smugness and contempt.

Behind him, the vertical Venetian blinds create a visual pattern that brings to mind the bars of a jail cell or cage. To Lester, his job is like a prison.

Note the furniture and props positioned around Brad: his desk, his brightly shining nameplate, the gold pens, the paper holder, the portrait behind him, the Venetian blinds. Almost everything is straight edges, angles and points. Everything is hard and sharp. You can think of this scene as a battle: Brad is protected by his desk and is surrounded by his sharp edged weapons; Lester has…a dying plant. There will only be one winner in this battle.

In terms of lighting, the room is brighter where Brad is. Brad’s career at this moment in time is certainly outshining Lester’s.

In short, the visual elements in this scene work together to emphasize Brad’s dominance over Lester, the soul-destroying nature of Lester’ workplace and Lester’s sense of hopelessness and disappointment.

Beware of Oversimplification

Before moving on to discussing the next scene, I would like to clarify one point. The use of a single film technique in isolation doesn’t carry a specific meaning. A good example would be the low angle shot of Brad. A low angle shot does not necessarily imply power; it could also be used to establish a point of view (e.g., from the point of view of a character lying down and looking up at someone or from the point of view of a shorter person or creature), to create a comical, grotesque and/or ironic effect or to exaggerate a physical action such as jumping or hurdling.

In the scene from American Beauty, the low angle shot works TOGETHER with a variety of different elements to create the effect of dominance:

  • The plot (Brad is threatening Lester’s career)
  • The acting (Brad and Lester’s body language, their words and their intonation)
  • The elements of mise-en-scène mentioned above (lighting, decor, props, wardrobe)
  • The contrasting shots of Lester (high angle wide shots, dim lighting, ugly decor, etc.) that precede and follow the shot of Brad.

If you are analyzing cinematic techniques, it is important to consider them in context.

2nd Scene: Lester Quits

Mid-way through the film, the two men meet again. By this point in the movie. Lester has decided he needs to make a change. In this scene, Lester is quitting his dead-end job AND blackmailing the company into paying him off. Emotionally, he is in a very different place.

When the camera is looking over Lester’s shoulders at Brad, Lester‘s head dominates the screen.

2nd Meeting (Lester Quits): Brad
2nd Meeting (Lester Quits): Brad

When we go to the reverse angle shot looking over Brad’s shoulder, Brad’s head is out-of-focus and slightly off-screen.

2nd Meeting  (Lester Quits)
2nd Meeting (Lester Quits)

Lester dominates the screen in both shots. Brad is no longer so important, no longer so powerful. And all those sharp edges, the pointy gold pens, the massive nameplate—those have become small, unnoticeable, unremarkable pieces of stationery.

Lester’s posture is now relaxed and confident. He is in control.

The room is brighter. Lester is no longer trapped in gloomy darkness.

The shots are now more aesthetically pleasing in terms of composition and framing. For example, the shots of Lester are composed so as to follow the rule of thirds. This more attractive (and more conventional) composition reflects Lester’s newly found feelings of being at ease.

Everything has changed. The whole look is different.

Conclusion

In a commentary by the director Sam Mendes and the cinematographer Conrad Hall, the two men discuss how they tried to show Lester’s emotional growth by making him look bigger on screen as the film progresses. And we can see that growth clearly in the two examples. In the first scene, the cinematic techniques that were discussed reveal the power differential between Brad and Lester and show Lester’s disappointment, frustration and vulnerability. In the second scene, they show how Lester has become emotionally stronger and more hopeful.

In this video, I have only touched on a few cinematic elements related to mise-en-scène and cinematography and have not touched upon things like dialogue, editing, sound or music. I have also left out things like blocking , cameras level, depth of field, film stock, keying (e.g., high key versus low key lighting) aspect ratio, tonality, camera movement (e.g., zoom, pan. tilt, tracking shots, etc), shot duration and editing.

There is a lot more to discuss when interpreting a scene , but hopefully this video can give you an idea how different visual elements can work together to help tell a story.

Why American Beauty?

I chose to use American Beauty, because the director (Sam Mendes) and cinematographer (Conrad Hall), who both won Academy Awards for their work on this movie, did an amazing job visually presenting the story and its themes. You can see that each shot has been set up, framed and shot to bring out a plot and/or thematic element. Personally, I think that in some of the shots, this is done too obviously, but that helps when it comes to learning about cinematography.

The only problems with using this film as a teaching aid is that many of the scenes contain swearing or coarse language (which is why I didn’t show the entire meetings in this film analysis video) and there are sex scenes.

Related Videos

This is the second video in my film analysis series. You can view the first one here:

Fight Scene Cinematography in Hero and The Bourne Identity.

This features an analysis of the different ways filmmakers strive to capture a sense of realism in action sequences.


~by longzijun

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Loss of Innocence in All About Lily Chou-Chou

Movie: All about Lily Chou-chou (Riri Shushu no subete)
Director: Shunji Iwai

lily-chou-chou-2

With its shaky hand-held cinematography, chrnologically disjointed plot and nihilistic portrayal of youth, the Japanese movie All about Lily Chou-Chou (2001) is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film. Usually I prefer movies that are more linear, less experimental; however, the imagery and themes in the movie resonated with me long after I watched it.

Read More »

Fight Scene Editing and Cinematography: The Bourne Identity and Hero

Let’s looks at the cinematography and editing of two very different style of movie fight scenes. The first clip is from Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (featuring Matt Damon). The second clip is from Zhang Yimou’s Hero (the sword vs spear fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen). I won’t be looking at the differences in fighting style; instead I will be concentrating solely on camera techniques (especially the kinds of shots used) and editing.

In these two excerpts, only cuts are used in the editing (i.e., there are no fancy edits like dissolves or wipes or anything like that—each shot just cuts straight to the next shot), so the focus here will be on the rhythm of editing and not on types of edits.

1. Procedures

I did a kind of quantitative analysis, selecting one minute from a fight scene from each movie and counting the number of shots (basically the number of edits) and calculating the average shot length as well as identifying the shortest and longest shot. I also counted the number of each type of shot:

  • Wide shot (the whole body can be seen)
  • Mid-shots (most of the body can be seen)
  • Close-ups and extreme close-ups.

I also roughly observed the kinds of camera movement used and noted any point-of-view shots (a POV shot is when the camera seems to be taking the physical—and psychological—position of one of the actors/characters).

2. Findings

These following table refer sto the two 60-second excerpts shown in the video.

Shots and Camera MovementThe Bourne IdentityHero
Total number of shots (60 sec.)6323
Longest shot3.6 sec8.2
Shortest shot0.4 sec0.8 sec.
Average length of shot1.0 sec.2.6 sec.
No. of wide shots (whole body onscreen)27
No. of mid shots (most of the body onscreen)14.55
No. of close ups (incl. medium
and extreme close ups)
46.511
Type of camera movementAll shots are hand-held
and all are moving
Combination of stationary
shots and pans, tilts, dolly
shots and zooms (with some oblique angle shots)
No. of obvious POV (Point of View) shots4None

2.1 Shot length

There is far more editing going on in the Bourne Identity scene, with 63 shots in one minute compared to 23 shots in the Hero scene. The average shot length in the Borne identity scene over two-and-half times longer than the average shot length in the Hero scene.

The shortest and longest shots in the Bourne Identity scene were at least half the length of their counterparts in the Hero scene.

2.2 Type of shots

Around 30% of the shots in the Hero scene are wide shots (in which you can see the entire body of the actor). In contrast only 3% of the shots in the Bourne Identity are wide shots.

The Bourne Identity scene features far more close-ups (74% of the shots are close-ups) than the Hero scene (in which 47% of the shots are close-ups).

The proportion of mid-range shots in both scenes are quite similar (just over 20% for each film), so the difference is found in the use of wide-shots and close-ups.

2.3 Type of camera movement

In the Bourne Identity scene the camera is handheld and is always moving. In contrast, in the Hero scene, the camera is either still or smoothly moving with and pans (left to right and vice versa), tilts (up and down), dolly shots (the camera is moving along on a track) and zooms. There are also some very noticeable oblique angle (which are used to show the scene is (spoiler alert)

not actually real and is only taking place in the mind of one of the protagonists

(end of spoiler).

2.4 Use of POV shots

Only the Bourne identity scene features point-of-view shots (there were 4 POV shots).

3. Editing & shot choices in the Bourne Identity

In this clip from the Bourne Identity, the rapid-fire editing of hand-held close-up shots creates a frantic, chaotic and exciting feel—almost as if you are one of the combatants taking part in the fight. There are 63 separate shots in one minute. This frantic feeling is reinforced through the occasional use of shots in which the fighters are out of focus and through POV shots. In the Bourne Identity clip, everything is moving fast and you are not always clear what is going on.

4. Editing & shot choices in Hero

The clip from Hero, in contrast, features far fewer edits, longer shots and a much greater use of the wide shot, in which you can see the entire body of each actor.The use of long and wide shots makes it easy to appreciate the martial arts skills of the actors. Even though there is some wire work in this scene, it is clear that the actors, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, are highly skilled. The camera work is this scene is generally very smooth and makes use of stationary shots without any camera movement and other shots that feature pans, tilts, zooms and tracking shots, quite often in combination.

If you are wondering about the use of black and white in the Hero clip, these scenes represent the fight as it takes place inside the swordsman’s mind as he envisions will happen in the coming battle.

You may also notice that, except for a few frames, Jet Li is always on the right and Donnie Yen, wielding a spear, is always on the left. Even when their weapons are shown in close up, the sword is coming from the right and the spear from the left. This regular positioning of the actors, combined with a more extensive use of longer and wider shots, helps to make it very clear who is doing what to whom at any given time.

5. Rhythm

One thing the two excerpts have in common is that they both have a similar rhythm to the editing. While the editing rhythm in Hero is much slower, both films take brief breaks in the action. In the Bourne Identity, this is done with the use of slightly longer shots during short breaks in action, while in Hero this is done with the use of a series of relatively still close-ups as the characters prepare for the next move.

6. Different Approaches to Realism

To sum up, the camera work and editing in the Bourne Identity creates a sense of realism—as if you are right there with the characters, whereas the cinematography and editing in Hero, as with many Chinese martial arts movies, is better at revealing the real skills and techniques of the actors and in allowing viewers to clearly see and understand what is happening.

Both films are striving for a sense of realism but are focusing on entirely different aspects—the Bourne Identity on the real feeling of being in a fight and Hero on the real abilities and skills of the actors.

Background

This is a video I put together to show how film techniques can be used in different ways and for different purposes for a similar kind of scene—in this case, a fight scene.

Related Video

This is the first video in my film analysis series. You can view the second one here:

Film Scene Analysis: Cinematography and Mise-en-scène in American Beauty

This features an analysis of the how filmmakers use cinematic techniques to show meaning and visually express moods and themes.


~by longzijun

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