The other film I saw at the Leeds Film Festival this year, after In the Forest of Firefly Lights, was Makoto Shinkai’s new film with the incredibly long and convoluted title: Children Who Case Lost Voices from Deep Below. Here is where I admit that I don’t really like Shinkai’s films (understatement much). They have been characterised as being long dull conversations between two people with no personalities talking about the weather while the camera focuses on clouds. Hence I was wary going into this film, but was cautiously hopeful as I’d heard this was Shinkai attempting to do a Ghibli film. And that’s exactly what this is. Asides from his continuous fascination with clouds, Shinkai’s new film is a Ghibli pretender through and through, and does a surprisingly good job at it too.
The story is about Asuna, basically the female lead from every single Ghibli movie ever, a bit of a loner girl who spends her time sitting on rocky outcrops listening to her makeshift crystal radio. One day she is attacked by a monster, who got lost on his way to a Princess Mononoke audition, but is saved by Shun, who is basically the pretty boy male lead from half of every single Ghibli movie ever (don’t worry, the other half of the pretty boy male lead is role is taken up by Shun’s younger brother). But then Stuff Happens that I don’t want to spoil, so Asuna has to travel to the magical land of Agartha with her mysterious substitute teacher, who is basically the villain from every single Ghibli movie…wait, actually he’s not. He’s more nuanced than that, and was far and away my favourite character of the movie.
I’m sure the clever ones amongst you must have caught on by now that this movie is rather derivitave. Yes the movie takes many cues from Ghibli flicks, particularly Laputa which Shinkai has admitted to being a big fan of, but it plays around with the formula in enough new and interesting ways to stand out from the pack. Asuna, our female lead, does start out as rather irritatingly perfect, but as the movie goes on her loneliness and fears begin to come more to the surface. Plus it does this without ever being in your face about it. Yes, the characters sometimes have to point out the direction their character’s development is going in, such as when Asuna admits to her substitute teacher acting a bit like her father, but it flows well with the dialogue and doesn’t feel the need to retread these same points over and over again.
Then there’s the substitute teacher, Morisaki, who I’ve already eluded to as being my favourite characte. He starts off appearing like he’s going to be the standard deluded villain, intent on destroying all in his path to get to his goal. This is sort of what he is, but his reasoning is sympathetic and he doesn’t act pointlessly evil for the sake of things. He’s quick to draw his gun, but it’s for his own safety and not because he just likes shooting things. His reasoning for going into Agartha makes him sympathetic too, rather than just being power-hungry or driven by sheer greed. But what makes him great is he also brings out the best in Asuna, elevating her to an interesting character in their own right. As the two travel through Agartha, they strike up a rapport like that of father and daughter, which was very fitting given what the two of them had lost in their lives. They became the family neither of them ever had and, while he was often harsh to Asuna, there was still the strong sense that Morisaki grew to care for her immensely. He’s a human character with real flaws, as was Asuna, and their relationship was the real highlight of the movie.
Animation-wise, the movie is stunning. OK, this is still Shinkai, and his tendency to focus on clouds remains completely baffling, but the world of Agartha is beautiful. It’s essentially the same as earth, but there’s enough touches here and there to make it seem alien. Morisaki and Asuna travelling through the countryside had this almost Lord of the Rings feel to it. The world can feel a bit barren at times, lacking magical towers and sparkles at every turn, but it fit the feel of the world. It was supposed to feel empty and dying. The other thing this movie nailed was the sheer scale of some of the set pieces. Where Ghibli films excel is in the fine detail, which I don’t think Shinkai got quite as well in this film, but the scopes of some of the set pieces were jaw-dropping. Particularly I have to mention the giant hole in the world that book-ended the film and that multi-eyed monstrosity that was meant to represent the god of this world. And hey, since we’re talking about monsters, special mention has to go to those skeleton-like creatures that swam on the ground like sharks of the shadows. They were flat out creepy.
It’s far from a perfect film though, and I particularly have a bone to pick with the music. The sweeping orchestral score has all the subtlety of a child smashing a spanner on a table to get attention. Because the same score is used for almost every single slightly dramatic scene, it robs the music the intense effect it’s supposed to have on the more dramatic scenes. It’s also a bloody long film, about 2 hours long, and takes a while to get going. It doesn’t really pick up until the characters visit Agartha, and that takes almost an hour. This is partly down to Shinkai spending far too much time setting the scene, showing off the landscape of Asuna’s home town. Which is fair enough, highlighting the ordinary world so it makes the contrast with Agartha that much stronger, but he really spends too much time on it. I really didn’t need that shot of dragonflies having sex Shinkai, and could you please stop it with the bloody clouds? Yes, these scenes are incredibly important to establishing Asuna’s character for the development that occurs later on, but it doesn’t stop the scenes from being boring. And no, sticking in the fox-cat from Nausicca won’t make these scenes that much more tolerable. That’s just cheating.
Plus since it’s basically Ghibli, it carries over not only the strong points of magical worlds and amazing attention to detail that these films have, but also carries over the warts too. Towards the end it really starts to get a bit silly, especially when the giant monster thing swallows the main character and jumps down a bizillion foot drop in order to transport her, looking rather like a pregnant woman crossed with those robot things from Laputa. It even brings over the forced in environmental message that Miyazaki works into his films with the grace and subtlety of a hippo doing ballet. It did only got a passing mention and, while clunky, wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Miyazaki’s tend to be. Besides, the movie earns so many points by adding the much needed nuance to the main character and the sorta villain that I can forgive most of the mistakes it makes. Asides from the clouds. Please stop with the damn clouds.
There is one final problem I’d like to highlight. There was something off about the pacing. The story was very well told and wove the themes of loneliness and loss in extremely well, but the transition from set piece to set piece was clunky, as though it was adapting a TV series and these were the gaps between episodes. As I said, it’s a two hour movie which is really a touch too long, but I also wouldn’t want to cut much out of it (asides from all the clouds). I think it may have suited a short Noitamina length TV series or OVA instead. You could have delved into some of the characters pasts a bit more, or told us more about Agartha. That was one thing I was a bit miffed about. There was an interesting conflict between Morisaki and the people of Agartha where he accused them of accepting their decay and being lazy, which tied quite well in with his own story, but it didn’t really tackle the Agartha side of the story once he’d left.
While there are plenty of flaws with the movie, I did end up enjoying it a lot. Not sure how fans of previous Shinkai films will take this, as it’s a drastic change from them. I suppose the themes are kind of similar (or at least I’m told the themes are similar, I was too busy gnawing my arm off in an attempt to stay awake to notice the themes of his previous films). But if you like Miyazaki’s films, you’ll like this. It’s too long, take a while to get going, gets a bit silly at times, and someone needs to bop the composer over the head and tell him to lay off the full orchestral sweeps every once in a while, but it’s a genuinely entertaining film with a well told story. And clouds.