Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up.
I realize I've never actually reviewed any of his films on here, but know that I really love and respect the films of Makoto Shinkai. He's a terrific animator and visionary artist, and I like how his works are all kind of sad and tinged with longing. It gets to me. His latest feature, Children Who Chase Lost Voices (aka Journey to Agartha) is a bit of a change for him in that it is mostly high fantasy, and works much more in the Miyazaki vein than his other films, but it still retains some of his signature as a storyteller and artist. The plot revolves around Asuna, a hardworking preteen loner who briefly befriends a mysterious stranger. She discovers he is from a mythical land known as Agartha, a kind of underworld where all the old gods fled after people stopped believing in them, along with some human groups who followed them. Asuna unintentionally breaks into their world with her grieving teacher, who hopes to resurrect his dead wife with the land's power. He and Asuna move through Agartha, generally unwelcome among the locals but managing to pick up a couple of friends (and several terrifying enemies). Asuna is unsure of her ultimate goal, but feels it is important that she somehow find closure for both recent and long-ago losses.
It can't be avoided: this movie feels derivative of Miyazaki. Its imagery, its setting, its overall story and characters- they can all be easily related back to the influential Ghibli director. And I'll admit that was a little frustrating, coming from a filmmaker like Shinkai whom I associate with individuality and experimentation. It is also, however, in keeping with his general themes and mood, though aimed at a younger audience than his earlier films. Amidst the fantastical visuals and mythological creatures, the film dwells thoughtfully on issues of mortality and loss, and it is clear that Shinkai is using this somewhat over-familiar concept and unreal setting to underscore the realities of his characters. Their situation is unreal, but their resolution born out of grief feels true. Moving along at an easygoing pace, Shinkai develops their stories gradually while peppering in action sequences and memorably surreal surprises. For the most part, though, I think he just really wanted to paint the sky. There are a lot of lingering shots of breathtakingly gorgeous day- and night-time vistas here, and it just blows my mind how beautiful it all is and how soft and inviting and detailed Shinkai makes his worlds. It's the kind of film you can drink up and keep within you for a bit, instead of just watch.
Admittedly I didn't all-out love this film, it's overlong and just didn't have the spark of originality I was hoping for. I've seen some people calling it a rip-off, but I don't think that's fair. It's more just influenced by Miyazaki and they are both pulling from similar mythological/cultural sources. Overall it is a beautiful film, but the plotting is a little clunky at parts and a few narrative points didn't quite come together (like, where did Asuna's dad get the crystal key thing?). I do think it's an interesting addition to Shinkai's filmography, mostly because with Miyazaki's retirement there's some question as to how that void in critically-acclaimed, family-friendly fantasy anime will be filled, and I hadn't really considered him a candidate for that area. But he can obviously do it, and still add his own adult themes and visual flair. I'm definitely interested to see how his work advances, and will be revisiting his earlier films soon.
Pair This Movie With: A like-minded Miyazaki would be good, especially Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, or Nausicaa. Alternatively there's always room for more Shinkai, like The Place as Promised in Our Early Days or 5 Centimeters Per Second.