Makoto Shinkai made a return to London yesterday for a screening of his latest work, Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below (or Children who Chase Long Titles, as I like to refer to it, or Hoshi o Ou Kodomo as I’d call it if I was serious about shortening the name) as part of this years London Film Festival. Since I clearly haven’t spent way too much time in cinemas recently, and certainly not far too long on trains travelling between them, I made the trip down to see it.
I’ll prefix this by saying that I’m not that big a Shinkai fan. I wasn’t particularly enamoured by Voices of a Distant Star, as impressive as it was for a one-man operation. 5cm hit me hard with the depression hammer, so whilst I guess that means I certainly found it effective, I don’t ever really want to see it again. I did really rather enjoy A Place Promised in our Early Days, though.
I was really looking forward to Children in that it looked to be something slightly different from Shinkai, though as it turns out that’s not quite the case. It’s heading at the subject matter from a somewhat different angle, but ultimately it’s still rather a movie about people yearning for people in a slow, ponderous fashion. That, and clouds.
The movie centres around a girl called Asuna, who I don’t think is ever specifically aged, though I’m inclined to assume is a third-year in Junior High (though it may well be even four years younger than that, the character designs being hard to place). She’s a bit of a loner who likes to sit up in the hills and listen for curious broadcasts on an odd, make-shift radio. One day, she’s attacked by an odd creature, from which she is saved by an older lad called Shun. Who promptly dies a few days later. This sets Asuna, along with her teacher, on a journey to Agartha, the mystical land of Shuns origin where it’s supposedly possible to be reunited with the dead.
The movie is a peculiar beast. There is certainly some credit to the Ghibli comparisons many have been making – theres elements of the movies opening act that are very reminiscent of things in Mononoke-hime (I’m largely thinking of the crazed boar-spirit in the movies opening), whilst other elements certainly betray the fact that Laputa is one of Shinkais favourite movies. At the same time, though, its still clearly a Shinkai film, dealing with the same things that Shinkai normally deals with.
Which is kind of the problem with the movie – it’s outwardly a fantasy movie, but it’s very slow to actually get to that content, and once it does it has a distinct habit of meandering off-point. Elements you expect to be brought back up as continuing threats are merely discarded, and things happen without little explanation or lasting consequence.
It actually feels a little disingenuous to be complaining about some of this stuff – a large part of the movies theme is loneliness, so that it only really follows that it’d be a very sparse, underpopulated movie, but that also means that it’s also a fantasy movie that’s kind of full of nothing particularly fantastical. There’s no lasting threat, no build of tension, and the conclusion really just feels like something that happens even though its what the movie was supposed to be building to.
I also kind of feel that some of Tenmons music, whilst nice in isolation, comes across as being rather overbearing when put in context, as it perhaps tries a little too hard to make up for the lack of gravitas to the situations which should have been coming from elsewhere.
Which isn’t to say that I’m incredibly negative about the movie – there’s things to enjoy about it. Whilst they do kind of feel like they’re in there just to justify the setting, the action sequences are certainly well animated and cut. It probably goes without saying, being a Shinkai movie, that there’s some very striking imagery – the distance shots of the final destination of Asunas journey are particularly stunning to look at.
It’s also really nice to see a piece of displacement fantasy which isn’t really about displacement – Asuna doesn’t stumble into Agartha by accident, the story isn’t anything to do with her finding her place or coming to terms with being there, and it certainly isn’t a movie where she is thrust into some kind of heroic situation or has such expectations placed upon her. Her quest just happens to be in that place, not that her quest is because she’s there.
For all my negativity, I still think it’s a good movie, it’s just not something I feel is a great one. It might just be because it’s not quite what I was expecting it to be, or it may have just been my impressions being effected by the fact that I’ve seen an awful lot of movies the last couple of weeks. I was just expecting a little more from it.
(On the super-plus side, there’s at least two Mikan Boxes in the movie prior to their arrival in Agartha. I might have to import the BD just because of that…)
(Also, it’s another movie that most festivals seem to be promoting with a picture of the protagonist running. Please stop that, it’s getting boring)