I mentioned in my thoughts about Bakemono no Ko that Shinkai Makoto has seemingly become the ‘New Miyazaki’ with his smash hit, Kimi no Na Wa. It also came as a surprise to me, given that his other films have been rather oblique, artsy and inaccessible. I didn’t get on with Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place, and Voices of Stars was more of a technical achievement than a truly impressive piece of filmmaking. I’ve still yet to watch 5cm Per Second, but given it’s a short film in three distinct parts, it’s hardly a mainstream movie, and nor is the 46-minute Garden of Words.
So really, it’s this film, Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo, which bridges the peculiar gap between Shinkai being a quirky outsider auteur in the same vein as Yuasa Masaaki and all of a sudden being the new mainstream darling after Kimi no Na Wa. And I have to say, it makes perfect sense. I don’t think this is a particularly good movie, nor is it essential anime viewing, but as a milestone in a director’s career it is highly significant. Essentially, this is Shinkai’s devotional tribute to Ghibli, especially classic Ghibli. It’s almost a flat derivation of the studio’s art style, tropes, callsigns and character types.
Like most imitative works, it’s a little soulless and insubstantial. I really doubt it will go down in history as well-loved. The characters never really fully develop and the world is not clearly-defined. But it certainly has its moments of beauty.
Young Asuna uses a crystal radio given to her by her late father to listen to strange music. Little does she know the crystal inside will link her to a new world. A boy from the mysterious land of Agartha saves her one day from a strange monster, and soon she is drawn into a hidden world of magic, otherworldly creatures and rumours of the resurrection of the dead.
The echoes of Ghibli movies are very clear and direct. The Quetzalcoatls are halfway between the robots of Laputa and the night walker of Mononoke-Hime. Shin slashes his hair like Ashitaka and clings to Asuna as they fall like Pazu. Morisaki-sensei has a good deal of Muska about him, while Shun smiles a lot like Howl. The Izoku share qualities with various creatures from Mononoke-Hime, while Mimi the cat-creature and Nausicaa’s Teto are far from dissimilar.
Shinkai aims for an epic feeling, and with Asuna seems to be going for the cute, spunky female lead of classic Ghibli. The problem is a lack of human feeling. We see Asuna is plucky, vulnerable and good-hearted, but very little unique or really identifiable about her. Shin is introduced late and has some heroic moments as well as looking cool, and has one brief but sweet moment of vulnerability, but we learn very little about him. Shun’s motives are a mystery right to the end. And Morisaki-sensei is basically two-dimensional. I’ll always remember how the climactic sword-fight Shin has to really get centre-stage is to some random goon who still manages to put the poor kid down completely.
There’s very little driving the quest beyond Morisaki’s determination, but the dilemma at the end happens without enough build-up and seems like a problem tacked on at the end to give a strong climax. Too much of the invented world is murky pools and sheer cliffs, so the movie rather lacks in wonder. And the tugging-at-the-heartstrings moment mostly feel too manufactured and obvious to actually affect the viewer.
Certainly, this is a beautiful, well-made and polished movie, but it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas derived directly from the Ghibli storybook. But I earnestly think that Shinkai had to try his hand at this style of movie before turning to the more everyday and relatable – paving the way for Kimi no Na Wa. Undeniably, Shinkai has come a long way from She and Her Cat.