Year: 2011
Director: Shinkai Makoto
Screenplay/Story: Shinkai Makoto
Animation and Character Design: Nishimura Takayo
Art Director: Tanji Takumi
Runtime: 116 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled) and Teaser Trailer, followed by snippets of other Shinkai films (not subtitled) – watch the latter if you want to get a first sense of Shinkai’s visual feel.
Film’s official website: 星を追う子ども (in Japanese)

Seen at a screening at Vue West as part of the BFI Film Festival.

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo (literally Children Who Chase Stars) is Shinkai Makoto’s most Studio Ghibli-like work. This isn’t exactly praise, because Shinkai’s talent lies in something quite different than what enchants us with Miyazaki and other Studio Ghibli directors. Unlike them, Shinkai is not a story teller – at least not yet -, but someone who has a unique sensitivity to emotions, particularly intrinsic human loneliness, and an unparalleled ability to express them in a very lyrical manner on the screen. The scene from Chapter 13 (on the DVD) of 雲のむこう、約束の場所 (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho/The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004) in my mind still provides the best description of depression I have come across, in animations or otherwise.

Hoshi o Ou Kodomo however somewhat turns away from emotions and focuses on developing a fantastical plot much more so than Shinkai’s previous films (although these did contain sci-fi elements also). Asuna, a young girl, finds herself entering the ancient, mythical land of Agartha with her substitute teacher Morisaki Ryūji, who has been struggling to find meaning in life since the death of his wife a decade earlier. Agartha is located deep beneath the surface of the earth, although, apart from the absence of stars at night, it looks as if overground. According to legend it is a place from which the dead can be retrieved back to life, something that Asuna and Morisaki sensei set out to do. They quickly discover that much of Agartha now lies in decay and is full of dangers. As ‘topsiders’ – the name for humans from above the ground – they are not welcome there and hunted by monstrous creatures as well as people, including a boy called Shin.

It sounds like a promising plot, but the scriptwriter (Shinkai himself) doesn’t quite deliver: plot parts tangle too loosely from the storyline as they are started but never amount to much. Characters are only somewhat rounded and many soon disappear from the storyline or are killed off before they can take form, their deaths barely explained and therefore not making much sense. Even the motivation for the journey through Agartha is somewhat uninspired, at least on the part of Asuna. What Shinkai needs is guidance in the art of storytelling and a good editor to create a tighter, more compelling plot that doesn’t let viewers look away even for a second.

There is also the fact that some parts of Hoshi o Ou Kodomo’s animation are too reminiscent of other films: with their red-glowing eyes and haggard bodies, the shadow creatures seem like a blend of Gollum and もののけ姫 (Mononoke Hime/Princess Mononoke) apes; Asuna’s fall and Agartha’s architectural make-up remind us of 天空の城ラピュタ (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta/Laputa: Castle in the Sky); the green slime recalls ハウルの動く城 (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro/Howl’s Moving Castle).

But it’s not all bad news. Compared to previous Shinkai films characters generally look better as they have more individualistic features and are now easier to tell apart (although, again, Shun is a bit Howl-like). Shinkai also remains a masterful observer of light (or rather, the interplay between light and dark and the luminescence of colours) and excels at drawing the jaw-dropping landscape scenery we have come to expect from previous films.

Music-wise, the verdict is more varied: as always, Shinkai paired up with Tenmon, but the score, although not bad, left less of an impression on me than in 雲のむこう、約束の場所 (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho/The Place Promised in Our Early Days) or 秒速5センチメートル (Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru/5 cms per Second, 2007). Of course, music should never take over a film, but it is wonderful to be struck by the beauty of it even in the midst of watching a scene. Kumaki Anri’s ending song “Hello Goodbye & Hello” for the film did not help matters – with the frequent repetition of the two or three English words mixed into the otherwise Japanese lyrics it sounded a little silly to the ears of English speakers.*

And then there is the film’s ending. I’m generally a big fan of scenes during or after the credits, but would have been more satisfied if Hoshi o Ou Kodomo had finished a few minutes earlier and left viewers with an open ending. Instead, the tagged-on mini-scenes were fragmented and unclear (what exactly happens to Morisaki and Shin? And what meaning does the Agartha adventure have for Asuna?), providing neither any more conclusion nor leaving things to the viewer’s imagination.

Is Hoshi o Ou Kodomo worth seeing? It is a good, but not an outstanding anime. It is not an absolute must-watch (but even Studio Ghibli’s much more polished 借りぐらしのアリエッティ/Karigurashi no Arrietty/Arrietty is not a must-watch for the average cinema goer), but neither is it a waste of one’s time. If you are only starting out with anime, I would recommend trying some other, more established films first. However, if you have are already familiar with Shinkai, don’t miss Hoshi o Ou Kodomo because he is certainly an anime-maker to keep an eye on.

Rating: 6.5/10

*I am not dismissing mixed-language lyrics entirely – they can work and were certainly fine in “부탁해, My Bus! (Jan Geun Suk for 매리는 외박중/Maeri-neun Wibakjoong/Mary Stayed out All Night) or Arrietty’s Song (借りぐらしのアリエッティ/Karigurashi no Arrietty/Arrietty).

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