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Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release date: May 7, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

After the intimate and realistic ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ (2007) director Makoto Shinkai embarked on an ambitious, long and way more fantastical project, which is ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’. The film remains an oddball inside Shinkai’s oeuvre and shows a huge Ghibli-influence absent from his other films.

The film starts realistically enough, with little schoolgirl Asuna exploring some gorgeous nature at the other side of a railway bridge and visiting a secret hideout there. But the fantasy immediately kicks in when she brings forth a strange radio-like apparatus based on some sort of crystal. The use of this device triggers a series of events that eventually leads her to no less than the boundary between life and the afterlife.

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ knows high production values. Like ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ the background art is no less than stunning to begin with, especially the views of and from Asuna’s hill are gorgeous pieces of mood and light. Other scenes are perfect renderings of a hot summer. And like in the previous films, some of these intricate background paintings are only visible for a few frames. Typically for Japanese films some shots are just short mood pieces, in this film surprisingly often depicting insects, like dragonflies and cicadas.

The animation, too, is excellent, as is the shading on the characters themselves. The character design, on the other hand, is less original, and remarkably reminiscent of Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s work at the Toei Studios during the 1970s.

But this is only one of the obvious Ghibli-influences. Asuna herself is almost a typical Miyazaki-heroin: living without a father and a largely absent mother she’s depicted cooking and caring for herself and doing all the household work. She’s thus one of those working children that crowd the old master’s films. She’s joined by a cat called Mimi, which immediately brings Jiji to mind from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989). There’s a villain that echoes colonel Muska from ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986), and there are some God-animal hybrids seemingly coming straight out of ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

Shinkai absolutely succeeds in painting Asuna’s world. It’s a pity that most of the film takes place in Agartha, a mythical place underground the design of which is less compelling and even disappointing. When compared to the fantastical works of Ghibli’s ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) Shinkai’s worldbuilding clearly is subpar. For example, this subterranean world knows blue skies, sunlight, clouds, and rain, which all go unexplained. Apparently, there are no stars, but that’s about it. The underworld characters live in some quasi-medieval society, but this too, is hardly worked out or explained to the viewer. Shinkai’s erratic handling of the underworld seriously harms its believability. After all, it’s hardly different from ours, and both its reason of existence and its purpose remain vague and undecided.

It doesn’t help that Asuna explores this world with one Mr. Morisaki, who is a member of some secret society, but who descends into the earth to retrieve his deceased wife. Both Morisaki’s background story and introduction make frustratingly little sense. For example, there’s a flashback which seems to indicate he was alive during world war I, and for no apparent reason and with little likelihood he poses as Asuna’s substitute teacher. The secret society is utterly unnecessary to the plot, which is too complex for its own good. Moreover, Morisaki remains a vague and unconvincing character getting much too much screen time, and he never turns into either the scary villain Muska was in ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’ or one of those cleverly ambivalent antagonists of Miyazaki’s other films.

In fact, the scenes in Agartha start to drag, and the film loses focus, when leaving Asuna to concentrate on one of the underworld’s inmates, a boy called Shin. In the end Asuna is an all too will-less pawn in Morisaki’s scheme and she lacks her own clear story arc. This is in fact the film’s core problem: this should be Asuna’s story, but the film loses her halfway. It doesn’t help that Asuna’s own relationship to her deceased father is hardly developed, if at all. Particularly puzzling is a scene in which Asuna suddenly utters that Morisaki is like her father. Now where did that come from?!

The roles of Shin and the mute Manna remain vague, too, and feel half-baked. For example, Manna is abandoned halfway the film not to return. Instead, they add to the complexity of the story, further obscuring Asuna’s story arc. During the finale, in which Morisaki finally meets God (!) and Asuna is even depicted in the afterlife (!!) the last traces of believability go out of the window. Compare this rather blunt and all too direct storytelling with the Orpheus myth itself, which is clearly one of its inspirational sources, and one regrets Shinkai didn’t go for much more mystery.

The aftermath, in which our protagonists wander all the way back home is even worse, done in a short montage the story deflates over the end titles, accompanied by a cheesy song. This is a disappointing ending of an overlong and poorly timed film, indeed. Add some unnecessary gore, a plethora of unresolved story lines, three all too forced explanation scenes, and one can only conclude that Shinkai utterly fails where Miyazaki succeeds.

Luckily, ‘Childern Who Chase Lost Voices’ remained a one-time experiment. With his next film, ‘The Garden of Words’ Shinkai returned to much more familiar terrain, with far better results.

Watch the trailer for ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release Date: March 3, 2007
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

5 Centimeters per Second © Co‘5 Centimeters per Second’ is a rather original love story in three parts. Central character is high school student Takaki, whose love interest Akari, moves from Tokyo to Iwafune, a distance three hours by train.

The first part consists of Akari’s voice over reading her letters to Takaki, accompanied by a lightning rapid montage of images of Takaki and his memories to his girl. When, after a year of exchanging letters, Takaki is about to move to the South himself, he decides to make a one time visit to Akari. This train journey through a snow storm, which delays him for no less than four hours forms the emotional highlight of the film. Nevertheless, Takaki and Akari are reunited in Iwafune, only to have to part again.

The second part is set in Tanegashima, a small island in the far South of Japan, and although set in October, its sunny images form a welcome contrast to the snowy images of the first part. This part is told by Kanae, who’s secretly in love with Takaki, but never able to tell him that. Like the first part, the second part ends with an opportunity lost.

The third part is set in Tokyo again. This part is the shortest, the most fragmentary, and the least satisfactory of the three. Sadly this episode shows that Takaki hasn’t really learned to love and to allow others near him, still longing for something else. Akari is seen, too, but her ‘story’ is touched on so little it could well be missed. Added to Takaki’s admirers is yet another girl, who is hardly seen, but as he declines her calls, her pain and loneliness are certainly felt. The episode ends with images set to the rock ballad ‘One More Time, One More Chance’ (1997) by Masayoshi Yamazaki, unknown to us Western viewers, but apparently instantly recognizable to the Japanese audience, and adding to the film’s nostalgic feel. The film ends undefined, and with its mere sixty minutes the feature feels a little incomplete.

Like many other Japanese anime, ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ needn’t necessarily be made with animation, as its characters and settings are highly realistic, and drawn from everyday life. But as it is animated, one can only marvel at Shinkai’s beautiful and engaging images. ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ is a story about distance and love, but despite being a story of emotions, the character designs and human animation, both by Takayo Nishimura, are not very impressive: the character designs are very generic, while the facial expressions never reach enough subtlety to draw one into the character.

No, the real emotional story is told almost exclusively by the background art. This film uses a multitude of shots, often lasting only a fraction of seconds, and in its in these extraordinarily beautiful images that Shankai tells his tale. Indeed, many of these images he drew himself. The images are highly realistic, but as Shankai tells in the interview included in the DVD, they’re drenched in emotional memory, and they’re never neutral. And neither is his staging or cutting, which are both highly original. All these background images, with their glorious colors and superb lighting (made in Photoshop) give the film its unique and poetic character.

With ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ Shankai proved to be a new important voice in the Japanese animation field, a reputation he steadied with his next films, ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices‘ (2011) and most notably, ‘Your Name’ (2016), which also deals with distance and love.

Watch ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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