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Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo Review (Children who Chase Stars)

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

6 responses so far

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6 Responses to “Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo Review (Children who Chase Stars)”

  1. Jonathanon Dec 30th 2011

    I agree with your assessment of the movie. I have not seen it in full, only the first thirty minutes, but I have seen his other three films, 5 Centimeters Per Second, The Place Promised, and Voices of a Distant Star, and they all follow a very similar narrative structure – generally one or two narrators, starting off when they are very young and them eventually growing up, gradually showing very tiny snippets of their lives as they grow, written and drawn like a very eccentric bildungsroman novel.

    I agree with your argument that Shinkai is an excellent painter, though his story-telling is not good, according to the standards of traditional narrative film as it has evolved in the West since the 19th century. I think this is for a number of reasons. Since I didn’t really watch his last film, this will mainly be a rant about 5 cm per second and to a lesser extent his other two films, though I don’t imagine his newest film is too different in structure and style.

    First, I think in order for a film as a medium of telling a story to be considered “good” by a certain audience, it must develop some conflict that resonates with the audience. The conflict must be something of man against another man, man against nature/world/environment, or man against himself. This conflict, through moving the character, also moves the audience, excites them, drives them, and through some fact realized by either overcoming the conflict or altering the relationship between the character and the conflict, the film leaves the audience with a sense of overwhelming pride, loss, guilt, or some other deeply felt emotion. In order for a story (in this case a film) to be considered good by traditional standards, in my opinion, I feel that it must portray this development well, or else it is not considered a good film, novel, comic, video game, or any other medium of conveying a narrative.

    Now, it seems to me that very few of his films possess this element. In 5 centimeters per second, a conflict is somewhat visible, however, it seems that the Shinkai is more concerned with portraying the ephemeral beauty and atmosphere of a sort of voyeurism in watching the development of the conflict in this character, drowning the audience in a sort of glamorous nostalgia, rather than trying to show the overcoming of the conflict from the point of view of the character. The characters are all really distant from us (with the slight exception of Kanae), and I think that he does not show too much of human nature as a “conflict-resolving automaton”, the characters sort of just melt into their environments instead, rather than actively engaging in it.

    Perhaps this is Shinkai’s goal – perhaps his objective was a rebellion against the traditional narrative structure involving conflict resolution. This is just a thought, but I think he is in fact trying to show the potential of landscape imagery to be an emotion-heightener. I don’t know if he’s trying to make any kind of judgment on the purposes of art and film, but it seems evident to me at least that since he spent so much time on the coordination of nostalgic musical pieces and breathtaking landscapes, he does feel that perhaps film ought not to just display characters and the relationships to the conflicts they face, but maybe film should also just be about the portrayal of experience – in this case, a sort of 4d, voyeuristic, “displacing of what is a beautiful world to the audience”, sort of portrayal.

    I think it was quite an experiment in film-making, I don’t know if Shinkai thought too much of the possibilities of different narrative structures of film or if he acted impulsively, but I do agree that his ability to develop voyeurism is quite amazing.

    Thanks for reading this far, if you have… I read your other reviews of Honey and Clover and Whisper of the Heart. I really liked the anime, and your reviews. Honey and Clover is also my favorite anime of all time. In that show, it is clear what the conflicts are, the different complex personalities, the atmosphere and the sense of place and time, and they mesh perfectly with the images and the music. That is what I would consider a masterpiece as well.

  2. Theowneon Dec 31st 2011

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I agree with all of what you said (which was quite eloquently put), though I must point out that this new film does indeed attempt to depart quite a bit from the ‘structure and style’ of the earlier ‘5cm per second’ (which, in my opinion, is the reason this new one fails to make any impact). Shinkai seems very uncomfortable with sustaining a traditional narrative structure across an entire film’s length, and the film meanders along rather awkwardly and unconvincingly. I have already forgotten most of it.

    In most cases, if I dislike a film or director, I will not typically make the effort to write about it. The reason Shinkai is an exception, is because it confuses me when I see perpetual praise given to him above others, heralding him as the successor to the great Japanese animators. As I said, I believe that what he does requires talent, but surely there is a degree of versatility required before one’s name is compared to Satoshi Kon, Hayao Miyazaki, or Isao Takahata?

    P.S. Although my Honey and Clover review is in serious need of a rewrite, I’m glad you agree with my general thoughts on it.

  3. Jonathanon Dec 31st 2011

    Thank you! I’m glad you liked my post. To some extent I don’t feel that I stated very clearly the part about his intentions as an artist, and to be honest, I’m still struggling with the best way of understanding how that relates the style of the film itself. Maybe later when I go back and watch it again, it will become more clear to me. By the way, I guess I spoke too soon about the newest film, I think I will go finish it before I make wide sweeping generalizations… :p

    I really feel the same way as you do about critiquing people who others have deemed great and you feel differently… it’s sort of scary and you second-guess yourself. I think part of the reason why people compare him to other notable film-makers is because his animation is just really beautiful, and he coordinates the spirit in the scene so well with the music. Or maybe it’s just pure visual eye-candy, tapping into certain images he has felt are really moving and that he feels the audience would feel to be really moving. I remember the first time I saw The Place Promised, I was just blown away by the longing that the main character was feeling as he was ice-skating looking up at the tower. But now I look back, and I struggle with interpreting what Shinkai wants to convey. Is he trying to convey the character’s longing? Is he trying to convey the beauty a bystander would feel observing this character, or is he trying to convey something different… I don’t really know. The same goes for a scene where Kanae is surfing. I thought it was breathtakingly beautiful the way it was drawn and how this amazing piano piece was incorporated into the scene so well… though I was confused as to what he was trying to express.

    Another one of the reasons people also compare him to other great film-makers is because his first film was done completely on his home computer, written, drawn, and it was amazing given his budget was probably miniscule. I don’t know if he wrote the music, but from what I remember he produced the entire thing for the most part on his own. I guess this has little to do with one’s film-making skills in themselves, but granted he’s only been making professional film in the last decade or so, and he’s still starting out… it does show he is a very passionate and dedicated film-maker, though a Miyazaki… that’s quite the comparison… I’ll be very interested to see how his film evolves over time as he becomes more knowledgeable of what he wants to convey in his work.

    Finally, about Honey and Clover, what do you feel like is in need of rewrite? Do you feel it needs a rewrite because it was poorer now that you look back at it? If that is the case, I definitely understand. Sometimes I see anime that I look back on and I wonder how I ever got into it, it wasn’t as great as I thought (cough* cough* Sailor Moon cough*). I thought it was quite a comprehensive and accurate review, and I’m extremely interested in what you feel it needs a rewrite for. Is it for everything? Or just the plot one or specific episodes like the Kaoru/Shinobu episode 7?

    Thanks for reading again.

  4. Theowneon Dec 31st 2011

    Yes, ambition is a respectable thing. Shinkai certainly values animation as a medium and it’s entirely possible he will grow into an animator of the same calibre. It just seems to me that the current online generation of anime fans jump to put him on the same pedestal as the great storytellers without fully understanding what that comparison entails. Even moreso after watching this new film.

    As for Honey and Clover, don’t get me wrong – I still consider it a favourite of mine – my issue with my review, like many of my early reviews (this one was written nearly three years ago), is that I feel that my writing tended to move towards “gushing” rather than providing an interesting commentary. This tends to happen when you write a review while the “glow” of finishing a satisfying series is still lingering. The problem with my review is that it focuses too much on praise and not enough on explaining why a series that ostensibly sounds like soap-opera material, is instead a very genuine and moving piece of fiction – and why exactly that’s the case. Because I feel that if I had come across the story description of the series *today* (a group of college friends and their relationships), I would have made incorrect assumptions about it. Since my website is intended for like-minded people, I would like my review to target those assumptions and change them.

    That’s all I meant. Still love the show 🙂

  5. leonbloyon Jan 6th 2012

    Nice review and nice comments. The movie left me rather unsatisfied, and wondering if Makoto Shinkai -apart from his sense of light and sentimentality, which I enjoy- has something more substantial inside that will eventually produce some real convincing movie. Not only the narrative structure; I’m getting tired of his uninteresting characters: specially the same sweet girl with the same sweet whispering little voice that goes by with her happy smile until she gets startled because of some triviality and she opens wides her eyes and blushes, and then returns to her happy smile for a while until she gets startled again etc etc… Oh gimme a break, gimme some Ghibli girl, please! 🙂

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