ANIME & MANGA - Review
15:42 - 10th April 2013, by David West

Journey To Agartha

Asuna is a bright girl whose father passed away when she was just a child. Now she lives in a small rural town with her mother, who works long hours in a hospital. In her spare time, Asuna listens to a homemade radio powered by a crystal her father gave her. Once, she had heard a strange song on that radio, and since then, she's been trying to find it again. One day after school, she is confronted by a huge creature on a bridge, and is only saved from the beast by the intervention of a boy called Shun. He is from a land called Agartha, which legend says is a place where the dead can be returned to life.

Makoto Shinkai's new film is a touching look at people coping with loss, set against a fantasy backdrop. From the director of 5 Centimetres Per Second and The Place Promised In Our Early Days, Journey To Agartha (originally known as Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below) is suffused with a profound sense of sadness. The movie looks wonderful, although, more so than in his earlier works, Shinkai appears to have drunk deeply from the Miyazaki well. With a brave young heroine, magical creatures and spectacular backdrops, there are shades of Studio Ghibli throughout the story.

On the script front, Shinkai tries to pack too many ideas into the running time. There is enough material to easily fill a 13 episode series, and the plot does suffer from the need to rush from one idea to the next. There is not enough opportunity for many of the central relationships to develop any emotional depth, which is particularly true in the case of Asuna and Shun, the boy who saves her on the bridge. The theme of loss is expressed with the greatest clarity in the character of Morisaki, a substitute teacher at Asuna's school who has never been able to move on following the death of his wife. He has a clear goal in travelling to Agartha, to be reunited with his wife, but it is far less clear why Asuna chooses to undertake the perilous voyage. She is not looking for her father, but rather serves the role of being the eyes through which the audience experiences the strange place - a sacrifice of characterisation in favour of plot. Similarly, it is never entirely clear how Morisaki knows so much about Agartha, besides vague references to myths and rumours, or what he is doing working as a substitute teacher.

A recurring story device that is overused in the script is for Asuna to be threatened with impending death by some hostile creature or creatures, only to be rescued at the very last moment. Having this happen once would be fine, but it is a motif repeated throughout the film until it quickly loses impact. The monsters themselves are creepy and weird and the film has moments of fairly intense violence and menace, so it might be too much for younger viewers.

Despite various shortcomings mainly in the plotting and pacing, Journey To Agartha is still an impressive outing from Shinkai, even if it is not quite up to the lofty standards of his previous films. The central theme of the story, that it is our ability to feel loss that makes us human, is undeniably powerful and moving.
SCORE: 4/5
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