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

Makoto Shinkai has been called the New Miyazaki for quite a while, and that’s some high praise. Shinkai has this knack for animating with such attention to detail that you can’t help but compare it to Studio Ghibli’s painstaking attention to detail when handcrafting their films and series. The penchant for evoking emotions is also there, but there are some major differences between the two. (Which I’ll get to later).

With Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, you’ll see that Shinkai is clearly paying tribute to Miyazaki. The film is rife with imagery that is clearly inspired by, if not outright stolen from, Miyazaki’s classic Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke. It also has shades of Shadow of the Colossus, a game which itself I consider to be derived from Miyazaki’s works.

So what is this movie about? Released in 2011, it’s garnered some rave reviews, but I just got around to watching it today, five years later. Why so late? Well I’ve never been a huge fan of Shinkai’s works. Two things really characterize Shinkai’s works for me: they are always about some kind of Separation, and they are always Boring.

Those are very loaded statements, so let’s just talk about the film and I may be able to explain them better.

The Train. If Shinkai were a religious man, he’d probably be praying at the Altar of the God of Trains. Japanese literature in general overuses trains, for some reason it’s such an integral part of their culture. While it symbolizes the resurgence of Japan as an Industrial Super Power after World War II, trains as a literary device also mark the beginning of a journey, and more poignantly, Separation. And Shinkai loves Separation, doesn’t he?

Opening Act

It opens with a girl who likes going out into the woods, climbing mountains and being away from her absentee mother and her dead father.  As she stays on a mountain ledge listening to her weird radio contraption with a curious blue stone acting like some kind of futuristic vinyl record, you get the impression that she is not entirely of this world, that she doesn’t exactly belong.

As we spend the first ten minutes watching this girl, Asuna, we simply get this strange feeling that she’s simply out of sorts.

This is further re-affirmed when a classmate offers to walk home with her, and she refuses curtly but politely, saying she is in a hurry, although it’s clear she is in no such hurry shortly after the fact. All she does is do some quick chores then run back off into the woods, where she encounters the only bump of excitement for the full thirty minutes of the opening act.

And in those thirty minutes, you’ll see exactly those two themes that characterize Shinkai’s works. The Sense of Separation Asuna feels with the world, and the unfortunate fact that Shinkai is horrible at pacing, liking to focus a little too much on the mundane details of life to the point that it gets excruciatingly Boring.

I realize some people may like that kind of attention to detail and slow style, but while it might work (debatable, but maybe it would) in Shinkai’s other works that are just shorts about the ordinary lives of two people (like in 5cm per Second), it really has no place in an adventure genre film like Hoshi Kodomo. You can see that Shinkai can’t resist but indulge in his masturbation of visual finery, which he truly is a prodigy at, but he needs to better integrate it into the narrative and not just have it gratuitously like we do for the first thirty minutes of nothing. You know it’s bad when Shinkai shows you a scene of two dragonflies having sex, for really no reason at all (except maybe to symbolize Asuna’s growing lust for the new man in her life). He is just gratuitously pining along with his visual imagery and mood creation. What he doesn’t realize is that it’s just flat out Boring and completely unnecessary.

In those thirty minutes we see another theme of separation — that of Asuna losing her newfound lover Shun almost as soon as they meet. This is typical of Makoto Shinkai works, probably because Shinkai has no idea how to actually write a relationship where the two people are, you know, actually together. He’s really good at depicting loss and separation, but you’ll see later on in the film that he is absolutely terrible at developing a narrative where people are together.

Asuna and her new lover Shun share a moment of intimacy in the picturesque wilderness. Beautiful.
Asuna and her new lover Shun share a moment of intimacy in the picturesque wilderness. Beautiful.

The act ends when Asuna meets her substitute teacher Morisaki, who reads a passage on the Separation of Japanese deities Izanagi and Izanami. Again, another theme of Separation, and Morisaki himself is another character who shows us yet another theme of Separation in this movie — that of a man separated from his dead wife.

The Rising Action

Thankfully, the boring part of the movie is all over. While there was a lot of groundwork to be laid out in the first part to set the theme of the movie, I can’t say it was artfully done, and if anything it put me to sleep for the sheer effort it took me to get through it. But now that it’s over with, we can introduce some new characters, like Shin, who bring a lot of dynamic energy into the movie.

The movie now kicks into gear heading into the wonderful land of Agartha, which is apparently really advanced in technology, but when we get to it we see a people so backwards that they still live in crude stone huts, with nothing but horses for travel and no plumbing or even electric lights. It’s rather laughable that Shinkai actually expects us to believe that these people were once so advanced that the great empires of our world actually raided it for its riches and its technology.

Agartha Beckons. This is the gate into Agartha.
Agartha Beckons. This is the gate into Agartha.

But at least we are now thrust into the actual adventure part of the story, which will draw shades of comparison to Miyazaki’s aforementioned works. Still, you’ll find that there are some major problems.  The first is the inability of the film to write meaningful dialogue between the expanded cast of characters. It becomes painfully apparent that Shinkai’s style of keeping a small cast of two characters (along with long stretches with little dialogue between the two, relying way too much on imagery, tension and atmosphere) has severely atrophied his ability to write group dynamics.

When Asuna, Morisaki and Shin get into a situation where they actually need to talk to each other and make it clear what their objectives are and resolve conflicts between them, all Shinkai can come up with is a lazy, “Katte ni Shiro” (Do as you like.) We’ll see this repeated again later.  Asuna and Morisaki are trying to get some kind of father/daughter relationship going on, and Asuna and Shin are trying to get some kind of lover relationship going, but none of them really know how to make it work, it’s not unlike two children who have a crush on each other but have no idea how to make the first move. The relationships between the characters are so childishly and naively handled, with no delicacy, believability or even sense that it’s embarrassing for someone of Shinkai’s stature to have produced such a mess. Or perhaps not? Shinkai’s relationships in his past works have all been rather the childish, immature views of people who just look at the object of their desire from afar, unable to really take the first step. This feels a lot like what’s happening here as well.

We’ll also see Shinkai’s penchant for separation theatrics over and over, something that you really start to get sick of in the two hours you’ll be going through this movie. The middle act ends with another separation as Asuna separates from her pet Teto, er- Mimi forever.

Yet another separation. The amount of effort put into the separation scene, panning in 3D-style, really shows you where Shinkai's loyalties lie.
Yet another separation. The amount of effort put into the separation scene, panning in 3D-style, really shows you where Shinkai’s loyalties lie. The level of absurd dramatic music profusely abused in this film is as preposterous as the ridiculous number of emotionally-manipulative depressive separation scenes that really don’t work.

The Final Act

I’ll try to keep from spoiling the climax, as it could have been a really good one. But as the movie attempts to resolve the conflict of Separation between the characters in the final scene, we’re left with a resolution that really just makes us wonder, “What was the freaking point of it all?”  I felt like the story went nowhere, everything was for naught and the film didn’t really have any meaning.  Asuna remains a character whose various themes of Separation are completely unresolved — her separation from the surface world, her mother, her father, her school life, from Shun, and everything else.

None of the themes surrounding her are resolved, the movie doesn’t even bother to try to tie it up. Why was she even chosen as the main character? They resolved Morisaki’s separation in a rather ugly way, but at least it was resolved. Asuna’s was left completely untouched, other than a quick scene crying over Shun that I suppose was supposed to “show” that Asuna had grieved and gotten over him. Which, you know, is really just stretching it and me trying to pretend that the movie even attempted to resolve the conflict there. The scene was brushed over almost as soon as it began, anyway.

The movie closes with an ending that is played throughout the closing credits, in a way similar to how Nausicaa’s ending played out. It’s much longer here, though, and there’s a post-credits scene that serves to close everything. I’m just greatly disappointed that the post-credits ending was a lazy, “and everything goes back to how it was, life goes on” kind of deal that really just reeks of third-rate storytelling.

I guess it’s all just so disappointing, because the movie looks so gorgeous and breathtakingly beautiful, but in the end feels like a hollow hack of greater films like Laputa and Mononoke.  It’s perhaps fitting that the ending of a Shinkai film is nothing but yet another Separation.

The ending scene of the film: A train track. Shinkai loves his trains.

Final Thoughts on Issues with the Movie

One of the biggest problems with the movie, other than the rather awkward story-telling and the sheer pointlessness of it all, is a huge glaring plot hole. Early on in the middle act Asuna is captured by a tribe of cursed monsters known as the Izoku. They drag her off in the night and when the next day comes it’s near sunset and Asuna wakes up trapped in a ruined building with a little girl.  As the sun sets, the Izoku once again show up and attack her, but the stupidity of this scene becomes apparent when we find out later on that the motives of the Izoku is to eat people like her (half breeds of topsiders — people from the surface world — and people from Agartha) and the little child.

This begs the question: why did the Izoku whisk her away only to leave her in the middle of the ruins for no reason, along with another girl who they were supposed to eat, whom they had also captured two days earlier? The Izoku spend the rest of the movie just trying to capture her again (and completely ignore the other little girl) and when they do they try to eat her on sight. So why did they leave the two of them out to dry in the ruins again and not just eat them when they were first kidnapped? It makes absolutely no sense by the laws dictated by the setting, and was just a stupid plot device used to get the already questionable plot to advance.

The movie even conveniently glosses over her heritage, that it was not so subtly hinting at right from the start — that Asuna’s father was from Agartha and that he had died because Agarthians don’t last long in the surface world. I was totally expecting the movie to make something of it, especially since a good chunk of the movie is about the Izoku hunting her because she’s a half breed.  But again, the movie fails to do anything meaningful with that thread and just leaves it to lay in the dust.

So what exactly was the point of this movie? It’s about children who listen to lost voices, right? If we look at who the children are — Asuna, Shin and Morisaki, you’ll see that they all were listening to the voices of dead people (lost voices) and were looking to probably bring them back or otherwise gain closure. In the movie Asuna and Shin got some closure — albeit a really lazily setup closure, and Shin’s listening wasn’t even developed at all. It wasn’t even part of his character throughout the film, and yet he got that scene near the end, which just reminds us how lazily that scene was put together. Asuna’s closure was totally lazy. I’ll just cry about it and it’s done! Let’s move on. There was no objective correlative that occurred to show us how her conflict was resolved. Morisaki was the only one who had his conflict given proper time and effort to resolve, but in the end, it didn’t even matter. It was pretty disappointing.

You know a movie’s story is bad when its main “antagonist,” Morisaki, ends up being the main protagonist, and is the only one whose character conflict is actually resolved.

Shinkai vs. Miyazaki

And herein are the differences between Shinkai and Miyazaki.  First, while Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in general outright refuse to modernize and go completely old school hand drawing every single cel and frame of their works, Shinkai started off with CGI and continues to do so. However, this does not take away from either of them. I think it’s quite commendable that Miyazaki utterly refuses to go the path of CGI (although his son has no such compunctions, to disastrous effect), and I think that Shinkai has found a way to combine modern CGI with that hand-crafted warmth that makes his films and Studio Ghibli’s so special.

Second, Miyazaki understands the value of pacing. Had Miyazaki been the one directing this movie, he would have likely started it off thirty minutes in, and avoided that 30-minute mess at the start. He could have filled out the rest of the backstory somehow in a more compact package, and deftly handled the pacing and action as they went along to Agartha. Take for instance how Laputa kicked off, with a high-action chase scene in the air ending with a girl plummeting down thousands of feet to the ground. People may groan at the obvious hook, but hooks are important in storytelling for a reason, and this is something Shinkai does not understand. Miyazaki learned the value of this after working on movies that felt like they had plot deficiencies, but even a movie like Horus: Prince of the Sun started off with a hook. To make matters worse, Shinkai is unable to maintain a rising action throughout a long feature film as his characters keep dipping into stretches of morose lethargy.

This is the third major difference: Miyazaki uses playful interactions between characters that are meaningful even as they are often light-hearted and fluffy. This is because Miyazaki breathes life into his characters, not deflate them into emo caricatures who are nothing more than pity magnets. One of Shinkai’s greatest strengths is his ability to evoke sadness in a situation, but while this may work in certain genres that he has worked on previously, it just doesn’t work in a full-length adventure film. All throughout the movie, I never really felt a connection with any of these characters, other than to pity them for being sad, sorry human beings. I never admired them the way I admired Nausicaa for her nobility and bravery, or Pazu for his pure-hearted amibition, or Kiki for her hard-working attitude. They’re all just emo bumpkins I don’t really care about. Asuna, a female character, isn’t anything like the strong women who take the lead role in Miyazaki’s clearly feminist films. She’s nothing more than a token helpless princess who for some reason was slotted into the main role, despite being nothing but a whiny airhead who needs to be rescued time and time again. She had no idea why she even went to Agartha, and took nothing from the experience whatsoever.

Until Shinkai can conquer this penchant of his for drawing nothing but somber caricatures of people, he will never gain the versatility to really branch out into other genres.  He’ll also need to work on writing more than two characters; when he stars broadening the scope of his story, it just falls apart under its own weight.  He’ll get better for sure if he keeps it up, in fact I should check out his 2013 work, Garden of Words, just to be fair. But it looks like that film relapses back into Shinkai’s comfort zone of two characters, a short story and a theme of separation. This film, if anything just proves that Shinkai is nothing but a one-trick pony who can only do shorts about the sadness and separation between two people.

I don’t know if his 2016 work, Your Name, will be any different. Which is a shame really, because while Shinkai may have the talent to really produce visual tapestries of sheer awesomeness, he really can’t tell a story well enough to be the next Hayao Miyazaki.

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