Otakon 2011 Hoshi o Ou Kodomo US Premiere and Q&A
by Crystalyn Hodgkins,
Fans packed a massive HD theater room to see the American premiere of Makoto Shinkai's newest film, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below). Although a staff member said that Shinkai would only be saying a quick hello after the film and not doing a Q&A as originally planned, after the film, Shinkai gave a heartfelt speech and then hosted a nearly 40-minute Q&A session, to the delight of the audience.
The story of Hoshi o Ou Kodomo revolves around a young, bright girl named Asuna Watase. Asuna, who lost her father at a young age and whose mom works long hours as a nurse, takes care of the house and studies fastidiously. She is enamored with a crystal left behind by her father, and when she uses the crystal to replace a diode in a radio, she hears a mysterious song. Soon after, Asuna meets Shun, a boy who wears a similar crystal around his neck.
When Shun saves Asuna from an attack by an other-wordly creature, he tells Asuna he wants her to live. A few days later, Shun is found dead in a nearby riverbank. Asuna, in her search to try to understand Shun's death, travels to Shun's homeland, the underworld land of Agartha, and meets Shun's brother, Shin. Traveling with Asuna is her teacher, Morisaki, who has been researching Agartha. In Agartha, it is rumored that one could bring someone back from the dead, and Morisaki is hellbent on resurrecting his wife.
Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is a distinct departure from Shinkai's previous films. At barely five minutes into the film, there is a fight scene where a creature is torn apart, spurting blood in all directions. The film depicts war, senseless killing, and hints at genocide. Young romance takes a backseat to fantasy and adventure, and a darker, violent theme.
The film itself screams Ghibli in a way that is impossible to ignore— from the creatures of Agartha, to the cute animal sidekick that is not as he seems, to the character design, and even a mention of pollution killing off ancient creatures. It was honestly somewhat distracting, suddenly being reminded of the boar-demon from Princess Mononoke, the green slime from Howl's Moving Castle, or No-Face from Spirited Away.
However, that isn't to say that the film isn't recognizably Shinkai. The breathtaking and gorgeous backgrounds he is known for are taken to a whole new level when he is given free reign with the fantasy world of Agartha. In addition, Shinkai's theme of lost love is visible in Morisaki's desperate quest to resurrect his wife. The loneliness each main character feels throughout the movie has that Shinkai touch.
Also unmistakable was the piano-driven, orchestrated score from Tenmon. It helped to move the plot forward and elicit goosebumps at the proper moments, making certain points in the film truly moving.
Shinkai mentioned he wanted to make a film that all cultures would be able to enjoy, without the hurdle of needing to understand certain aspects of Japanese culture, as in his previous films. With Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, he succeeds. One can only hope is that he is able to build on this experience and continue find a way to create works that appeal to a broader audience while still keeping the Shinkai touch that makes his works so unique and memorable. And even as he is shakily exploring new territory, it is undeniable that Shinkai's works are a cut above.
After the film, Shinkai walked out to thunderous applause. He said he watched the last five minutes of the film, and said he was so happy about the reactions from the audience during those last five minutes, and the applause the film received as the credits began to roll, that he was moved almost to tears. He noted that while he studied in London for one and a half years, he thought about how the Japanese aspect of 5 Centimeters per Second would be accepted by foreign viewers. He decided he wanted to create a film that viewers from any country could sit and watch for two hours and enjoy the art.
Shinkai also said he wanted to tell the story of Morisaki and how he chose to live his life after he lost his wife. On the other hand, Asuna doesn't fully understand what she has lost when Shun dies. She wasn't sure if Shun truly died, or if Shin is actually Shun, so she goes on a journey to find her answer. Shinkai also noted he did keep the recent disaster in Japan in mind when creating the film, but said he could keep talking about that for hours so he would just leave it at that. Then he began his Q&A session.
What were your inspirations for using the Agartha creatures called Quetzal Coatl in the film, and how did you hear of that legend?
When I wanted to create the world of Agartha, I wanted it to be the foundation that sprouted all the legends around the world. So there are terms that you find in the film, some of them directly coming across to the topside world (the 'real world' in the film). When I was in London, I went to a museum that had a large exhibition on the Quetzal Coatl, and that became a huge inspiration for the film.
How did you come to play with light and dark, life and death in the film?
The topside world is light and underworld Agartha is dark. Even in the daytime, Agartha is life, and at night time it becomes death. Light and dark plays a key role in this and in the visual representation of the film.
In the film, the realm of Agartha is depicted as a place mostly forgotten, and most of what is left of it is in ruins. This is something happening in rural Japan itself - was this something that you were thinking of when you made the film?
When the earthquake happened during the production of this film, it's not like this idea suddenly came about or anything. In 5 Centimeters per Second, there was the daily life in Japan, and as long as there was that, things just changed around where we were; that was one of the underlying themes of that film. But nowadays the basic idea that life really just goes on became a question for me. So that and seeing the world changing and the atmosphere around me, it played a role in the creation of Agartha.
Do you have any topics in mind for your next film?
I just finished creating this film, so I haven't started thinking about what to do next yet. I would like to explore a story though that asks the question, what if you have a comfortable life and you find yourself having to leave it? I would like to depict a story of a person leaving their home, whether by choice or not, and the positive actions that come about from leaving their home. I would like to create such a film.
Are you interested in working on a TV series?
It's not like I don't get offers actually, but a weekly broadcast? It seems like an awful lot of work to me. I would need more experience first before I tried creating a television series.
A common theme in your works center around a search for a human connection; finding meaning. It also centers around loneliness. Do you draw upon your own loneliness to create these works?
Each character in Hoshi o Ou Kodomo has their own loneliness in the film. For the film, I had to choose whether the characters would hang on to that loneliness throughout the film and beyond, or whether they would find an outlet or resolution for it. Instead of an easy resolution where the loneliness goes away, the loneliness in the film changes shape and form, and moves on by connecting with other people and their loneliness. It wasn't an easy resolution, but they didn't keep it all the way through the film. I wanted to let any audience members who are lonely know there are possibilities out there. And I guess I do sort of feel such a loneliness inside me as well.
While living in England, did any Western ideas in general influence you for this film?
Before going to England, I did a lot of cultural work in the Middle East. There, I saw many Middle Eastern ruins. They definitely had an influence on Agartha. We don't have very many old buildings in Japan because of the natural disasters. But when I visited the Middle East, there were ruins from 4,000 years ago that kids were playing soccer on. That gave me a whole new view of things. It definitely influenced the film.
Is there any place in the real world that represented Agartha for you?
This movie borrows on the theory of a hollow Earth with a separate civilization underground. It was definitely the basis for this movie. But if you ask me if I believe in this theory, I guess I can't believe. We understand the nature of earthquakes now, so how can someone believe in something like that? But, part of me would like to believe that there is a place like that, whether underground or elsewhere.
In the film, Agartha is in decline and the people there think it's best to accept it, but others struggle not just against death itself, but struggle to live their lives. What are your own thoughts on to what extent a person should struggle against that fate or accept it?
In the film, there are those who have accepted that they are not long for this world. But Shin, a resident of Agartha, hasn't accepted it. If asked this question 15 years ago, I would have definitely sided with Shin, but now that I'm older I can't help but say I understand the view of the other people. In this film, I didn't want to side with either side. I didn't want to deny either side.
I noticed you never have just a clear blue sky or a plain sky in your works, there is always a blue sky laced with clouds, or a dark sky with an aurora borealis. Why is that?
In animation, if you have blue skies only, it gives the impression that the animator didn't spend too much time with the animation, so of course I put clouds in. I always loved looking at the sky when I was little. I grew up in the country, so the stars were always very clear, and even now I still love to look at the sky, and so I try to put in as much detail as I can.
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