Stories about the dead coming back to life are a dime a dozen these days, mainly because of the current fascination with zombies and vampires, but rarely do we see a tale that’s more akin to the legends of old, where mighty heroes brave the perils of the underworld to be reunited with their lost love.
Sorry, that should be a 12 year old girl. Let’s try this again …
Stories about children having adventures in other worlds are a dime a dozen these days, but rarely do we see a tale that’s more akin to the stories of old, where brave youths traversed other realms on a journey that would teach them … lots of stuff.
Nope, that’s not going to work either. Let’s try putting the two together …
Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, which apparently means “Children Who Chase Stars” but for some reason is called “Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below”, is the latest work from acclaimed creator and director Shinkai Makoto. The story centres on a small town in the countryside, where a young girl called Asuna spends her time after school listening to the strange music that comes from the crystal radio that her father left to her before he passed away.
Everything is peaceful until one rather eventful day …
At it’s core, Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is an adventure covered in a philosophical blanket that doesn’t quite fit, and it shows in many ways. The plot tries to blend a variety of themes, but it never really manages to do this with the panache of Shinkai’s previous works. In addition to this, there’s a childishness to the narrative that some viewers may find a little annoying, and quite often events are resolved in a manner that is very “black and white”. Because of this the story lacks a good measure of catharsis, especially in comparison to “5 cm Per Second” and “The Place Promised In Our Early Days”, and the film concludes with a rather likewarm resolution.
That said, the movie is interesting to a degree, but much of this comes from the way in which myths and legends regarding the underworld and resurrection are tied into the plot. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the opening scenes that inspiration for the anime has come from a few very well known sources, and viewers may find that they spend more time playing spot-the-influence, and less time paying attention to the storyline.
One of the first things that people will notice about Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is the very “Ghibli-esque” atmosphere it has, but while this perception can initially be ascribed to the rural setting and the young lead character, the similarities actually run a lot deeper. The scenery is a rather pleasant blend of Shinkai’s trademark panoramas and the kind of countryside imagery that one might find in “Only Yesterday” or “Spirited Away”. Once the action moves beyond the gate, the background art and the settings dramatically improve, and the audience is treated to the kind of vistas that one would expect in a Shinkai feature.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the design, and viewers may be forgiven for thinking that the entirety of the movie is nothing more than an homage to a certain well known studio. The characters are so stereotypically Ghibli in fact, it’s easy to imagine them searching for Laputa or farming in The Valley of the Wind. The similarities even extend to the animals, and while several of the more fantastic creatures wouldn’t look out of place in the forests of “Mononoke-Hime”, the strongest resemblance (in more ways than one), is between Asuna’s cat Mimi and Nausicaä’s pet Teto. Sadly, the comparison can only go so far as the characters lack visual refinement, which is further compounded by the lack of gradation in the colour palette used for them.
When it comes to the animation, Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is a long way from the best work produced by the long-running Shinkai/CoMix Wave Inc. collaboration. The action sequences are pretty decent for the most part, but the characters can sometimes move in a stunted manner, almost as if there’s a degree of uncertainty about how each person should act or react in a given situation. In addition to this there are several scenes where the characters seem to have irregularly proportioned bodies, and viewers may find themselves wondering why particular events leave them with the nagging feeling that something isn’t right.
The theme song, “Hello, Goodbye and Hello” is a bittersweet ballad composed and performed by Anri Kumaki, and in all honesty it’s a rather fitting song given the nature of the story. As for the background music, there’s a rather nice mixture of placid or bittersweet orchestral tracks, light-hearted jingles and dramatic pieces, all produced by Tenmon – Shinkai’s long-time compositional stalwart. Ironically, the movie excels when it comes to audio choreography, and with an array of high quality effects on offer it can sometimes feel as though more care has been given to making the feature sound good in a pretty setting, and not enough on developing the story.
The script lacks a degree of intuitive flow, and the characters can sometimes state the obvious or wax philosophical for no reason other than to add a veneer of intelligence to proceedings. It’s a sad fact that the dialogue can sometimes be stunted, and lacks the nuance that many viewers might expect. While some people may believe that this is due Asuna’s age and lack of knowledge, the simple fact is that it highlights more than anything else how inexperienced Shinkai is with this type of movie. That said, the more than experienced cast have rallied well, but even with their ability to project emotion and personality, there are moments when they’re unable to compensate for the heavy handed script.
There’s a strange dichotomy with the characters as on the one hand Asuna, Shun, Shin, and pretty much everyone else aren’t really anything to write home about – especially if you’ve watched certain Ghibli movies. On the other hand Morisaki Ryuji is a very interesting person indeed, and is reminiscent in many ways of a more humane Ikari Gendou. Unfortunately he also suffers from the same problem in that he isn’t given enough back-story to support his actions and decisions, but then, that’s pretty much the tale of Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo in a nutshell. Although there is some development for the lead roles, it’s often sporadic as the focus seems to be more on the journey itself.
Shinkai Makoto has made it no secret that the inspiration for this movie came from a story he read in elementary school, but it was during his sojourn in England in 2008 that the idea for the anime finally coalesced into something more concrete.
Which, strangely enough, explains rather a lot.
There’s a childishness to the movie that doesn’t quite fit with the major themes of the plot, and in many ways it feels more like Shinkai was testing the waters and his determination, which isn’t actually surprising when one considers that Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is also his attempt to prove that he isn’t a one-trick pony. While there are some positives that can be taken away from the feature, there are far too many things that have been “borrowed” from other films, and these make it difficult to see the movie as little more than an homage. In all honesty it would have been nice if Shinkai had the courage of his convictions and relied more on his own style (like he did with “5 cm Per Second” and “The Place Promised In Our Early Days”), instead of trying to piggyback on that of another studio.
That said, Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is a fairly easy movie to watch as long as the viewer doesn’t delve too deeply, and it has a much lighter and more adventurous tone that Shinkai’s previous offerings. In addition to this, if one considers it an experiment with a new type of story then it doesn’t just become a reasonably entertaining feature, but also a glimpse into the mind of Makoto Shinkai, and that is a much more rewarding experience than the movie itself.