I have always felt a little uneasy when discussing Makoto Shinkai ever since my first viewing of 5cm Per Second, a film which I had watched due to the constant praise heaped upon it by several like-minded acquaintances. My impression of Shinkai after that film was that he was more of a visual artist than a storyteller – yes, he could beautifully render a certain mood and present a snapshot of an emotion or feeling within a scene , and yet once the moment had passed, the emptiness of the characters and the blank world around them seemed to grow more and more notable, seemingly enhanced by the sterile shine of Shinkai’s art style. I don’t disagree that what he does requires talent, but I am unable to take the comparisons to great storytellers like Satoshi Kon or Hayao Miyazaki to heart.
My review of “Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo” will be kept rather short, as I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm about it – positive or negative. Shinkai attempts to step outside his comfort zone by presenting what is ostensibly an adventure story about a young girl and her teacher. Both have lost loved ones, and the film presents a fantasy world named “Agartha”, bound to the mythology of the afterlife, where the possibility of reviving them seems to exist. Despite the female lead, Asuna, having a deceased father (reflected upon but forgotten by the film’s end), the “loved one” I mentioned is instead a boy named Shun, who is introduced in the first act of the film and disappears shortly after, providing a rather sudden catalyst for Asuna’s journey. He is, unfortunately, the sort of generic male character who appears before the heroine, long hair sweeping in the wind, to rescue her from a life-threatening creature. Although her interaction with this character is short and uneventful, she nonetheless develops a deep affection for him that allows her to follow her teacher blindly into the dangerous fantasy world of Agartha. This sets the tone for the sort of rather meager characterization which will dominate the rest of this film.
The world of Agartha, where much of the film takes place, seems to exist solely for our main characters to wander through it, and the film goes from set piece to set piece without ever forming a cohesive or interesting vision of this world. A few times, Shinkai pans his camera outward in what is presumably meant to be an impressive reveal, and yet the landscapes never seem to echo the grandeur that the sweeping music seems to believe it should. Facts about this world and its mythology are exposed through mechanical dialogue rather than through the narrative itself, and thus there is rarely a sense of mystery or intrigue to the proceedings. The theme of the story is ambitious, certainly ( the loss of loved ones and the unquenchable desire to see them once more ) but Hoshi has neither the characters nor the proper world to explore it in an equally ambitious manner. The film goes through the motions – introspective dreams, moments of fear, and a tearful climax, but these moments lack emotion and feel unconvincing.
There are occasional moments in the film which I appreciated, such as a few genuine moments of humour, but it is hard for me to show any real enthusiasm for “Hoshi“. There isn’t much in the film that made any meaningful or lasting impact on me, and I unfortunately believe that Shinkai, in trying to make a film reliant on characterization and storytelling rather than mood and tone, highlighted the weakness that were masked in his more stylized “5cm per second” (I cannot comment on his others, not having seen them). In some ways, this is a good thing, as it means Shinkai is trying to broaden his horizons, but “Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo” is only an intermediate stage – the slightly awkward steps of a film-maker in new territory. 1/2
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