Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below (Hoshi o Ou Kodomo)
Date: Wednesday August 3rd 2011 [18:25] | Posted By: Eeeper
The story centres on Asuna, a girl who spends her solitary days listening to the mysterious music emanating from the crystal radio she received from her father as a memento. However, she embarks on a journey of adventure to meet a boy again, and thus comes to know the cruelty and beauty of the world, as well as loss.
Makoto Shinkai's new film comes with a different kind of beat to his last films. Voices of A Distant Star tackled love in the future. Place Promised in our Early Days took another sci-fi slant but with an alternative timeline. 5cm Per Second took a multi part storyline, which at first glance, seems to have nothing in common with each other. So, going into this new story, you really don't know how to take his films. But this reviewer was determined to give it his best shot.
Put simply, this story deals with the adventures of young schoolgirl Asuna, who through the finding of a mysterious music signal with the aid of a crystal radio set, sets her on the path to discover the resting place of a boy called Shun that she's come to like. On the way she deals with a shadowy organisation who want to know the secret of the mountain that Asuna frequents, a boy who looks remarkably like the child she encountered initially and an amazing world hidden far beyond human eyes.
First up, let's give context. The story melds, successfully I might add, elements of South American Mezo-American culture, Japanese rural life, Tibetan wisdom, Vajrayāna Buddhism and an almost Laputa, Castle in the Sky objective viewpoint. Now, I have to stress that the film has components that Studio Ghibli films have used effectively in the past so it's a credit to Shinkai that he tries not to indulge in those tropes as much as he can or could. So, when Shinkai throws out gods and deities from South American tribal roadmaps, he's not doing it for kicks. There seems to be an attempt to use these ideas in order to bolster a good story with a good backbone. Where the film misses a mark or two, is where the film in the middle and towards the final arch over indulges in sentimentality. These scenes go on too long in my opinion but I do grant that removing these would provide no pay off for earlier setups or later revelations. Taking with a few other podcasters and bloggers, I was told that by some they felt that characters were introduced only to be dropped just as quick or after the primary characters have used them in their quest. I don't agree with that and the reason I don't comes from a comment from Shinkai himself in the brief Q & A after the film was finished. He said that the character of Asuna is running toward a goal and can't stop till she finds her answer, good or bad. With that in mind, I take it that Asuna is running and as you know when you run in a public place, you pass by people in rapid progression and sometimes you recognise them, say hi and continue on wthout stopping. This is what I think is going on with characters being brought into the narrative only to have them disappear. The film starts this concept of running literally in it's opening shots which I feel are some of the best animated shots in recent memory. With a helicopter running shot, sweeping pans and a dense undergrowth steadicam shot all of this is done in animation only. I would be interested if these opening shots were achieved by reference video shot for the production or was it Shinkai and his team simply animating it with this kind of boldness in mind. Whatever the answer, it helps to start setting a tone that keeps going in the film and changes to suit the mood in the scene be it sinister, adventurous or comedic.
The world of Agartha, where Asuna and her teacher/adult with his own motives find themselves in is amazing to see. One part fantasy Eastern European country, another part Mezo-American belief system, everywhere this world goes it has the potential to do anything or explore anything. The world is described as the underworld where all souls go but there's nothing dark or Christian about this world. Endless cloudy blue skies, sleepy villages in forgotten pastures. On the other side of the visual divide, the ends of this world have bottomless pits into which the secrets of the universe might be found.There is a calmness in the population of Agartha that adds to the timeless nature of the world. The only thing I would say that I had a problem with was that the tribe or clan that Shin comes from seems to charge him with tracking down Asuna and her teacher after it's discovered that they have something that could be dangerous. The clan seems to have a larger role to play but it's never explored. This is a problem but it's not a really a crippling point. The above ground world is restricted to Asuna's rural hometown and this is an excellent choice as we spend just enough time there to determine that it's a nice town but it's not important. Sleepy hills, quiet country lanes all give us a sense of the morals of our heroine. She's a good person because the people and environment around her all give her spirit a lift.
Of the characters, I found myself linking with Shin, the brother of the boy that Asuna meets in the beginning. He's a good person but the weight of his brother's achievements and standing within the clan bears down on him like a boulder. Within any family, there are sibling rivalry, mine included. Not as bad as the plight Shin finds himself in, still I found myself understanding why he loves his brother but worrying about measuring up. Morisaki, the teacher who goes into Agartha with Asuna in tow is a man haunted by the loss of a loved one. This has caused him to ally himself with a group with ulterior motives for wanting in on Agartha. His story is one of loss and redemption and I welcomed him as a character who badly needs to understand his place in the universe and more importantly, his satisfaction at being in the universe. Asuna is a good leading character. She couldn't be described as childish nor naive. She is strong but there are some things that require an inner strength to overcome them. In that, she shares traits with Miyazaki's Sheeta from Laputa, Sophie from Howl's and Haru from the Cat Returns.
The similarities, between Ghibli's films and this, are a bit unfair. The two groups of films feature lead female characters, fantasy worlds beneath or below ours and have a sweeping adventure feeling to them. But Shinkai diverges from Miyazaki in that he has a deliberate quick pace to his film and also in Miyazaki's films the leading characters are in danger for most of the film whereas in this film the leads are in danger only in pockets and only get into serious trouble at the end. If I had to say which film/s Hoshi o Ou Kodomo share a common thread I would probably say it's Mamoru Hosoda's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in that the lead characters needs to overcome the idea of the loss of a loved one. I won't go any further than that otherwise the spoiler tag is coming out.
I came away from Children Who... with a lightness of being that can't really be described. It's kind of how you feel when you watch Blade Runner for the umpteenth time and finally something clicks or when you watch Neverending Story and just believe. The final shot of the film is one of the best shots in an animated film. It completes a circle that starts from the opening shot and one you subconsciously hope will be completed by story's end. I was gutted when Satoshi Kon passed away recently as I felt a really bright light had been extinguished and the room had gotten darker. But the light flickered back to life slightly with Hosoda's Summer Wars and Girl Who Leapt Through Time. But I watched Shinkai with interest. Would he grow and find his own voice once he was given access to studio facilities? Or would he have a temper tantrum and lose it all? With Children, the light is not as bright as when Kon was in the room, but it's steady and constant. Please understand, the talent that Kon had probably can't be recreated and I, for one, wouldn't want it to. but Shinkai is finally ready for the big time. And this is his big time debut. It comes with my highest recommendation.