Monday, March 11, 2013

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices) - Review

Year: 2011
Studio: CoMix Wave Inc.
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Synopsis: [ANN]
"The story centers 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."

Well, what can I say, this film was clearly Shinkai's attempt at capturing the Miyazaki magic in shape and form. Did it work? Sometimes, but other times it can be a little awkward in its endeavour. Shinkai's film has always been more about the deep, melancholic emotions it inspires than an actual plot with a clear message, a beginning and an end, and a cast of well defined characters we typically find in Miyazaki's films. In a way, watching Shinkai's film is like watching an artist splashing paint on a canvas, the shades of emotions come alive as each stroke of color is added. He's a man that does wax-poetic like no other. The lighting, the backgrounds, the characters on screen all serve the same purpose – to create a certain kind of ambiance that is capable of immersing the audience. More often than not, the connection between the characters and how it changes is more important than the characters themselves. Hoshi o Ou Kodomo takes a different direction from all his previous films, it incorporates  elements characteristic of Miyazaki's style, but all the while struggling to retain Shinkai's poetic vision. It's interesting experimentation for sure even if the end product is a little disjointed. 

The story begins with an encounter between a lonely young girl and a mysterious boy who saves her from a ferocious otherworldly creature. They find comfort in each other's company until one day Shun meets a tragic end, as if guided by fate. Asuna, devastated by the loss, looks into information regarding the land of Agartha, a place where souls can be brought back to life. When Shun's younger brother comes to the human world to retrieve Shun's stone, Asuna meets with him, and along with her teacher, they follow him into the land of Agartha where they discover a world hauntingly different from their own. 

Environmental exploitation is a central theme in many Miyazaki's past works, so it's not surprising Shinkai introduces a similar premise in his film – the destruction of Agartha at the hands of humans when they gained access to the land. As a result of numerous invasions, the few tribes still inhabiting the land are wary and hostile toward outsiders. However, the conflict is never explored in further depth, save for Shin's internal struggle after being ordered to capture Asuna. As the story evolves, I realize the more prominent theme here is not about setting aside prejudices and mending bonds with nature, but something more personal – coming to terms with a loved one's death and consequently one's own existence in the world. The conclusion the film arrives at is nothing mind-blowing, essentially, there could have been no better resolution given the direction of the plot. I suppose I should have seen it coming since the message "you cannot bring back a life without a tremendous sacrifice of equal value" is pretty much implied at the get-go, but I was confused where the story intended to go at the half way point when it invested a lengthy chapter in dealing with the broader conflict between Agarthans and Asuna's company, with Shin stuck in-between. I appreciate Shinkai's effort in trying to establish layers in the story, however the transition between themes was rather shaky and his lack of experience with this type of narrative structure probably accounts for it. In that sense, I think the ambitious ideas in this film would work better with Miyzaki's frame of mind.

The visuals are stunning, no question about it, as with all Shinkai's films. The dazzling sky, lush landscape and beautifully choreographed action sequences will have you constantly gawk at the screen. Interestingly, like everything else in this film, the character design is reminiscent of the classic Ghibli style, but with more off model issues. I always thought the character design in Shinkai's films doesn't match up to its exquisite sceneries, particularly in Voices of a Distant Star where the design can be considered downright ugly. It has improved with each of his subsequent films and Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, with all its Ghibli similarities, demonstrates the biggest improvement yet. 

I'm not a good judge of music, there are pieces I like better than others, but generally I'm not a critic.  All I can say is Tenmon's compositions carry the feels of Shinkai's film extremely well and this film is no exception. In my biased opinion, they are not as memorable as Hisaishi's pieces in Miyazki's films, but nevertheless they are soothing to the ears and heart. 

Shinkai has often been proclaimed as the "next Miyazaki", but I don't think it's fair to even compare the two as they have completely different styles and different intentions for their works. Well, for the most part anyways, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is Shinkai's way of experimenting with Miyazaki's style, which I'm perfectly okay with since I believe he did it out of admiration for Miyazaki, who according to Shinkai, is his favorite film maker and inspiration. Miyazki is the unrivaled master in bringing magic to life through incredible, hand-rendered details. The themes in his films are always transparent and straight forward, not unlike lessons taught through the fairytales we read when we were little. I can't emphasize enough, but it's the meticulous details in backgrounds, in character movements, in facial expressions, in every corner of every scene that makes Miyazki's films seem so real despite their detachment from reality as we know it. It's magical realism at its best, no other film director in my opinion captures innocent wonder as well as Miyazaki does and I believe that's the reason for his commercial success across the globe. Shinkai on the other hand is a poet through and through. His films have deep psychological implications and essentially, they make people ponder about their own existence and progression of life. They are not about specific places of events, but abstract symbolism and intangible feelings, channeled through philosophical monologues and dreamlike visuals. They are as elusive as Miyazaki's films are concrete. Even this film, which strays away from Shinkai's usual narrative pattern, embodies the poignance ingrained in all his previous works. That said, comparing to Miyazaki whose works are easy for the mind to digest, the formula of Shinkai's films may not click with everyone, in fact, I think the nature of his films may even hinder him from reaching a wider audience; however, as he gains more experience, I believe he has the talent to reach somewhere high.  

I already went over the issues I have with the film so I won't harp on them. 5 centimeters Per Second still remains my favorite work from Shinkai and it exemplifies what he is capable of as an artist. I look forward to seeing his next film and his growth as a promising young director. 

Overall Score: 8/10 

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