Reviewby Theron Martin, Nov 26th 2012
Children Who Chase Lost Voices
Asuna, a bright, cheerful, top-performing upper elementary student in her rural town, lost her father when she was young and lives with a mother who works a heavy nursing schedule, so on her frequent solo time she likes to go up a hillside to a cave hideaway and listen to a rudimentary radio using a crystal her father left for her. Soon after picking up a strange song one evening she has an odd encounter with a monstrous creature, from which she is saved by a daring older boy named Shun. Her encounter with Shun, who claims to be from somewhere called Agartha and who (unbeknownst to Asuna) is apparently taking a trip to find something before dying, leads to Asuna going on a journey with her substitute teacher (who works for a secret organization which seeks Agartha) into the mythical underworld below the world's surface. While her teacher is on a quest to find the secret of life and death so that he can resurrect his dead wife, Asuna seeks something that she can't really define, but it does take her on an adventure both wondrous and deadly.
Children marks the third full-length movie (and fifth released anime project) by acclaimed director/creator Makoto Shinkai. It also marks both his longest (at 116 minutes) and most cooperative effort to date, as this time he is only credited for creating, directing, screenplay writing, and storyboarding. That gives this movie a somewhat different look and feel than his previous projects; in fact, much of the film looks like Shinkai took labels such as “the next Miyazaki” literally, as in many ways – the art style, storytelling approaches, sense of wonder and adventure, and even the focus on a spunky, independent young heroine – the movie feels very much like a Miyazaki project. While that's not necessarily bad, it does cut into the distinctive visual and storytelling styles that Shinkai has so carefully inculcated.
And perhaps the biggest difference is lack of clarity in the sentiment that Shinkai is aiming for here. In each of his previous projects this has been direct and clearly-pursued: Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Earlier Days were both about coping with loneliness and isolation by trying to connect with others even across vast distances, while Place Promised also explored the way childhood promises can be forgotten over time and 5cm per Second focused on moving forward after an intense early love slips away. Here, though, the emphasis meanders. The teacher clearly is unable to cope with a bitter loss and move forward, and the story directly drills home how unhealthy that can be over the long term, but that does not seem to be the case for Asuna. While she had a fledgling affection for Shun, she does not seem to be driven by losing him; indeed, she barely knew him long enough to be so deeply affected, even if Shun did save her life. She does not seem to be deeply yearning for her Dad, either, and while she is open-minded, independent, and spunky, the words “bold” and “adventurous” never fit her comfortably. Ultimately she seems to be along for the journey into Agartha simply because the story requires a young character through whose eyes the audience can enjoy the wonder of the setting. That lack of depth and empathy is uncharacteristic for Shinkai's characters and thus a bit of a disappointment.
Balancing out the flaws in focus and storytelling is the wonderful setting of Agartha. It is an RPG enthusiasts' dream, a land of scenic vistas littered with the ruins of a civilization that has been gradually dying for centuries and rife with elements that are borrowed from many cultures and mythologies and somehow melded together into a seamless whole. It has a beautifully-rendered flying ark taken from Hindu legend which undergoes a strange transformation late in the story, the varied but always impressive Quetzal Coatl (think guardian beasts, although one is humanoid), a tribe of twisted and perverted humanoids who can crawl out of shadows to attack elements that disrupt the balance of Agartha but cannot abide sunlight or water, and central Asian-themed mounted warriors and a slightly peculiar breed of horses. And oh yes, there's an absolutely adorable catlike creature called Mimi who absolutely deserves to have a plushie made of him. He steals nearly every scene he's in, from his first to his melancholy departure.
Although the background art of the movie is not quite as crisp as in Shinkai's earlier efforts, it nonetheless delivers an impressive array of detailed scenery which melds flawlessly with CG and character animation; even shots of Asuna's cluttered house impress. Complementing it is the best results yet seen in a Shinkai work with respect to character design, rendering, and animation. The attention to detail in lighting effects that Shinkai's artistry is known for is also present, albeit in smaller doses, and his shot selection has, if anything, even improved; one early sequence showing one location as it passes through the seasons and times of day in a gracefully-flowing manner is sublimely beautiful, and that is not the only such scene. The overall animation effort – whether it be people, animals, trains, or vehicles – ranks this one amongst the year's best releases in that category. This is also Shinkai's most graphic work to date, as it does have a fair amount of harsh violence that can sometimes get bloody and other scenes which can get very intense. Sentai Filmworks lists the movie as TV-PG, but if that rating really is considered accurate then this title marks the top end of that rating range.
Tenmon is back once again to provide the music for a Shinkai effort, and he is just as effective as always. He invariably hits the right note to evoke the gentle mood and sentiment of much of the work and nearly as effectively provides a full and rich symphonic sound to support the more intense scenes. Working with it is an exceptional sound effect effort. Closing song “Hello Goodbye and Hello,” which plays over a mix of credits and epilogue scenes, is pleasant enough but less of a stand-out.
The male roles are generally well-cast and solidly-performed in English, so full appreciation for the English dub almost entirely depends on whether or not one accepts Hilary Haag as Asuna. Her performance is good enough that it should satisfy normal dub fans but it is not a stand-out effort and does shade Asuna a little older. The English script is dead-on, though, often following the original dialogue nearly word-for-word. So, yes, this is a Steven Foster-directed dub that is rigidly faithful and doesn't stink.
Sentai Filmworks is releasing this title simultaneously in DVD and Blu-Ray versions; only the latter was available for review. Despite some very minor flaws probably only noticeable to videophiles, the transfer is, overall, an excellent one, an effort which fully shows off the majesty of the artistry by Shinkai and his crew. Two DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 language tracks beautifully bring out the musical score and sound effects. The movie comes with one of the heaviest sets of Extras seen on a Sentai title in recent years, totaling nearly two hours of run time. They include Japanese promo trailers for the movie, a brief montage of Shinkai's previous works, a five-screen print interview with Shinkai, a 55 minute interview with various cast and crew members (including a more extensive interview with Shinkai), and a 45 minute “making of” video, which includes details on various locations Shinkai visited and lived in while formulating the movie. Amongst the most interesting tidbits to come out of this content are the decision to set the movie in the 1970s to retain at least some plausibility on the “hollow Earth” concept and some of the books and movies that Shinkai used as inspiration.
Children does effectively convey some of the sentiment that Shinkai's titles are known for, but it is the least of his works to date in that regard. It is also too gradual in its plot development and spends too much time exploring its setting; at least 10-15 minutes could probably be edited out without significantly impacting the flow of events or feel of the story. It also has the least satisfying and fulfilling ending of any Shinkai effort to date, as the movies ends without Asuna seeming to have grown much from her experience. Still, it is quite a pretty movie with a real potential to be involving.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Wonderful setting development, pretty artistry, voluminous Extras, Mimi.
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