Voices of a Distant Underworld

I think the divisiveness of the response to Shinkai Makoto‘s latest film, Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is very interesting, and it perhaps paints a picture of a set of expectations that fandom has for him that he still hasn’t quite met. Personally, I thought Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo was a great film but my precise opinion of its story has fluctuated, not only while I was watching the movie itself, but even afterwards, on further reflection. Various reviewers have attempted to grasp at where the story was lacking, some arguing it was overly ambitious, others saying it was unengaging, simplistic or the pacing wasn’t right. My opinion of its biggest shortcoming is probably controversial in the context of other reviews: I don’t think there was a great deal wrong with Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo‘s story, the core issues were with the plot. (Warning: this post contains major spoilers.)

Before exploring just what didn’t work about Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, it’s still worth looking at what it unequivocally did right: the animation. Shinkai continues to outdo himself, visually, particularly with his backgrounds and colour schemes and interplay between shadow and lighting, an underrated aspect of his distinctive style if such a thing existed. Shinkai loves to exaggerate the laws of physics. In his worlds, light is never diffuse, and it instead pierces through everything. The night sky is filled with impossibly luminous stars, while wide shots will momentarily show a glint in the far off distance that collimates reflected light like a laser beam. Also, clouds. The (minor) criticism that Shinkai focuses too much on clouds doesn’t hold a great deal of weight because when they look as good as these, why wouldn’t you give them this much screen time?

Aesthetically, Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo holds together spectacularly. This is something Shinkai struggled with for a little while in his earlier days, when he couldn’t quite get his character designs to gel with the animation but by the time 5 cm/s came out, it’s something he’s well and truly overcome. The next question is, where does Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo rank amongst Shinkai’s other works overall. Beyond the Clouds is my least favourite Shinkai film and Voices of a Distant Star is my favourite. 5 cm/s and She and Her Cat both sit somewhere between those, but I found Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo to be a more enjoyable experience than either of those titles. Whether or not it’s better than 5 cm/s is up for debate, and it’s something I can see being very contentious. Honestly, as amazing as 5 cm/s‘ first act was, its ending simply wasn’t at all satisfying, and yes, I do realize that was what he was trying to get at. Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo‘s ending is much more black-and-white and therefore easier to swallow. I mean, sure it’s not as contemplative as 5 cm/s‘ ending and anyone who wants to call it “shallow” probably has a fair point, but I’ll take it any day over something which lacked a sense of denouement.

I stand by my statement that Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo is a departure from Shinkai’s pet theme of distance, but I will concede that its theme of coping with loss and death isn’t a long hop. It’s an evolution rather than a revolution, a step similar to the one he took with 5 cm/s when he jettisoned the sci-fi element of Beyond the Clouds and Voices to focus on a romantic love triangle. The romance aspect isn’t the focus of Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo and merely serves the plot. Instead, its best moments come when it fully embraces its fantasy adventure core, and lets the suspenseful action set pieces, particularly those involving the Izoku, take centre stage.

It’s a bit strange that I had no real issue with the story but had issues with the plot seeing as one is a subset of the other, but I guess that’s just another way of saying that Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo‘s problems were technical, rather than in Shinkai’s vision. The biggest problem, which seems to be a pitfall for many fantasy stories, and therefore something of a new player’s trap, is that the plot relies too often on coincidence. Shun/Shin or Morisaki constantly turn up at just the right moment to save Asuna. Morisaki falls from a cliff-face, but not far enough to kill him, while a dying Quetzal Coatl turns up at just the right moment to allow Asuna to overcome a hurdle she couldn’t by herself. Similar coincidences are scattered throughout the plot, and while these are mostly little things, every time one is asked to accept something that’s difficult to buy into, each subsequent suspension of disbelief becomes harder to credit and more likely to take one out of the moment.

But despite these little issues, the overall story, particularly when it’s concerned with Morisaki’s attempt to cope with the death of his wife, which culminates in the message that the living should never be sacrificed for the sake of the dead, makes sense. I readily concede Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo has flaws, particularly regarding its technical writing, and that Shinkai has a lot further to go before his storytelling in the fantasy genre is on par with that of Miyazaki Hayao. Then again, in all likeliness, he never will be and any attempt to imitate the master director may well be misguided. What I do approve of is that Shinkai is at least pushing his own limits and refusing to settle into a rut. Each of his new works are in one way or another, distinct from the last and each is an endeavour to improve and expand his own craft while still maintaining the distinctive aspects of his style that he mastered long ago.

20 Responses to “Voices of a Distant Underworld”

  1. The (minor) criticism that Shinkai focuses too much on clouds doesn’t hold a great deal of weight because when they look as good as these, why wouldn’t you give them this much screen time?

    Bull-fucking-shit. They serve no purpose except looking pretty. Therefore they are completely pointless and waste time

  2. “Bull-fucking-shit. They serve no purpose except looking pretty. Therefore they are completely pointless and waste time”

    Ah, the old ‘ornamentation is crime’ argument eh. Well, as much as I love minimalism in architecture, when it comes to anime I must have minute detail nowadays. For me it was the fine detail that made the Ghost in the Shell films delicious.

    That’s not to say I always felt this way. When I was a kid who loved laser/robo anime I also enjoyed shooting real rabbits with a shotty rather than a rifle because the BOOM-Splatter-laugh sequence was rather addictive but now, I find taking fluffy out with a scope at long range to be rather more satisfying than wearing bunny guts.

    So in short, one changes likes with age.
    Give me Makoto’s clouds as room to contemplate over a screaming clamp biatch anyday.

    Now, I have to find this new Shinkai film and see for myself…

  3. “Bull-fucking-shit. They serve no purpose except looking pretty. Therefore they are completely pointless and waste time”
    I actually wrote in my review that the clouds serve as an arrogant declaration that while the world is pretty and awesome, Shinkai has no interest in it whatsoever.

    Too hipster? :P

  4. but I’ll take it any day over something which lacked a sense of denouement.

    I would recommend not reading Chekhov, then. I guess this is just a matter of personal taste. Fiction need not follow such a rigid structure as long as it works, and I think in 5cm/s it did. The smile at the end was a great decision IMO — it begs the question, and you can see it any way you want to, really.

    Anyway, I pretty much agree with the whole article, especially the last bit, so I don’t have much to say. Another thing Shinkai likes to do is end shortly after the climax and then (possibly) use the credits to show the aftermath; it’s happened in all of his films. In doing this, I think he creates a bit of ambiguity (except in Beyond the Clouds — also my least favorite). Here, one has to wonder, is Morisaki really better? We know he probably won’t anything so insane again, but has he actually moved on? We’re led to guess “yes, a little bit” but we don’t really know.

  5. @batfink

    The fine detail in Ghost in the Shell was used in world building. Fine detail in the architecture painted the picture of the future they lived in. Clouds are just clouds

  6. I had two problems with it.
    The main character was much to perfect, flaws what are those, leaving no room for improvement. In Spirited Away I understood that Sen had grown at the end of the movie.
    The hate towards surface dwellers made no sense, we are to believe that Agatha has repeatedly been invaded by large numbers of people from the surface, yet to the surface dwellers Agatha is a myth. That’s just stupid. A much more credible way to do it would have that a lone surface dweller came to Agatha 100 years ago and brought smallpox with him.

  7. The cloud serves as worldbuilding as well. considering they are underground, I think having cloud there is actually a major point in terms of designing the look of the land and the depth of the ceiling. It’s beyond merely ornamental.

  8. The fine detail in Ghost in the Shell was used in world building. Fine detail in the architecture painted the picture of the future they lived in. Clouds are just clouds

    Not sure I agree with that either. Oshii loves showing off with scenary porn as much as any other animated filmmaker. The architectural aethestics you’re describing were also used heavily in the second Patlabor movie.

  9. Praise for the aesthetics and criticism for the plot is in line with my opinion on Shinkai – he is a great painter, and not much of a storyteller. As far as stories go, he seems to have a single one that he can do well and has repeated three times (which, combined with his glossy artwork and melancholic monologues, has been enough to make him the darling of the online fanbase), and his first attempt at something different (this film) has, somewhat predictably, had a divisive result (or, in my opinion, failed). I like Shinkai’s ambition and love for animation, but time will tell if he actually ever shows the versatility that his fans have already declared him to have.

  10. @Scamp
    Posting contradiction without backing it up with a supporting case is fairly low level on the debate pyramid. Here’s a list of things that clouds achieve in Shinkai’s films:

    - They add to the aesthetic feel Shinkai is going for. (Aesthetics are pretty damn important in his movies.)
    - They fill in the scene transitions. Shinkai’s films are paced deliberately slowly as a way to build the atmosphere. Clouds give us something pleasant to look at between each shot.
    - They help fill out the setting. (World building, see the comments above.)
    - It’s one of Shinkai’s signatures. People watch movies to see a skilled craftsman doing something well.

    I’m not going to say that Shinkai’s clouds are a critical feature of his works but to dismiss them out of hand is to disregard how beneficial scenery porn can be to the atmosphere of a movie.

    @batfink
    Well, that was a grizzly analogy…

    @cyth
    Not really. This is actually a criticism I can credit, and not just vacant contradiction. I still think Shinkai’s clouds are important for his works’ atmospheres, and I’d say they’re worthwhile as a feature of Agartha’s landscape. But this criticism amounts to “he should have aimed his camera lower”. Which is probably right, but he was probably just playing to his strengths.

    @DrIdiot
    And yet I had no issue with the open ending of Lost in Translation. I guess I just found 5 cm/s’ ending jarring, because the rest of the movie seemed to be tracking in the direction of a romantic reunion. I don’t have an issue with bitter, realistic endings of themselves, but for mine, this one didn’t meld with the rest of the film (also, I didn’t think the middle arc was as engaging, but that’s kind of a nitpick). As for Morisaki, the film could have been more ambiguous if he wanted. Sure, it’s a little open to interpretation, but it seems more reasonable to guess that he was better from his experiences than not… if only because that’s how literature generally tropes with such endings.

    @hurin
    Yeah, that was one part in the plot that was a little difficult to buy into.

    @omo and @TIF
    Absolutely, totally agree. The slightly more interesting debate about Shinkai’s clouds isn’t whether they should have been there or not, to which I think it’s fairly safe to say they should have been, it’s whether or not he overdid them. My opinion is, maybe, a little, but I’m not going to complain because he does them so damn well. But at the end of the day, c’mon, they’re just clouds. They’re one working part in Shinkai’s aesthetic style which is one working part in the overall film. Nothing in this movie relies critically on clouds to work, and any good film is greater than the sum of its parts.

    @Momo
    He’s made a handful of good films, but any comparison to Miyazaki at this stage is certainly premature (and arguably misguided, since it makes more sense for him to be carving out his own path rather than imitating that of another.)

  11. Hmm, I’m really looking forward to the release of the Koreanimation film ‘Green Days’ from MWP Studios, purely for the Shinkai-like detail.
    It’s not just detailed clouds but overloaded power poles (utility poles) and the relentless sound of the crickets that Shinkai uses to create atmosphere and I’m really expecting Green Days to emulate that because it’s beautiful and so very common throughout South Korea.

    Kind of sad that Shinkai wasn’t big enough to be included in the animatrix back when it made as that’s a who’s who of sci-fi anime but, there’s always room for talented new blood.

    Sigh, if only Korea could offer up a producer who made science fiction films as good as the Koreans do revenge as a genre, the world would be so much better for it.

    Come on Peter Chung- stop making other people’s crap and make something new in the tradition of your Aeon and Reign. I don’t mind your gaunt scary faces when the storytelling is that good.

    Hmm, Satoshi Kon needs to change tracks- Paprika just frustrated me and if anyone saw the recent doco ‘The Prophets of Science Fiction’ episode 2- Philip K. Dick, you really get the sense that Satoshi is walking (stumbling badly) in P.K.Dick’s shoes.

    just some thoughts at 3am

  12. The (minor) criticism that Shinkai focuses too much on clouds doesn’t hold a great deal of weight because when they look as good as these, why wouldn’t you give them this much screen time?

    I wouldn’t credit Shinkai with the fact that the clouds are pretty. That’s the art director and animators. Any schmuck with authority over a film’s production can point to a guy with a pen and tell him “hey, draw some clouds.”

  13. “I wouldn’t credit Shinkai with the fact that the clouds are pretty. That’s the art director and animators. Any schmuck with authority over a film’s production can point to a guy with a pen and tell him “hey, draw some clouds.” ”

    In the dvd making of/behind the scenes section in ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’, Shinkai is shown sitting next to his computer but facing the camera and talking about his style- on the screen of his computer as he talks though, are those highly detailed cartoon clouds- this is what he likes to see.
    Shinkai also draws all the original storyboards himself and yep, there are the clouds as specified by Shinkai, though much less detailed at the early stage.

    Shinkai then hands specific details to Tenji to complete BUT this wasn’t the case with ‘Voices Of A Distant Star’ as Shinkai did it all apparently. After Voices Shinkai worked to discover what the team he had around him were good at and then he got Tenji to start doing the fine detail he demands of himself.

    I reckon that qualifies the clouds as the product of Shinkai.

  14. Hmm, Satoshi Kon needs to change tracks- Paprika just frustrated me and if anyone saw the recent doco ‘The Prophets of Science Fiction’ episode 2- Philip K. Dick, you really get the sense that Satoshi is walking (stumbling badly) in P.K.Dick’s shoes.

    Satoshi Kon is like, dead, dude. Don’t think he’s in any position to ‘change tracks’, as you call it.

    :3

  15. It’s a welcome surprise to see Shinkai try something outside of his comfort zone, but I just couldn’t enjoy the show as much as I hoped. I think it’s funny that I enjoyed Fractale a lot more than this in the context of recent works exploring the fantasy genre.

  16. “Satoshi Kon is like, dead, dude. Don’t think he’s in any position to ‘change tracks’, as you call it.”

    Wow. Okay.
    Really didn’t know he’d died until now.

    I gave up watching his stuff after paprika. It was just such a disappointing mess. Don’t mean to speak ill of the dead but when I get fed up with a director/production house I don’t pay any more attention to them.

    # Interested in seeing Yonebayashi’s The Borrowers though.

  17. Hmm, was pondering upon the clouds in Shinkai’s work some more and realized that Sophia Coppolla uses sunlight through trees (dreamy leaves) to convey a feeling in the same way that Shinkai does with clouds.
    Thinking of The Virgin Suicides in particular though there may have been shots of leaves in the walking in Kyoto sequence of Lost in Translation as well.

    The clouds are a device.

    Some more devices just off the top of my head:
    # In CSI Miami the main actor (red haired dude) is always shot from a camera that is lower than his eye level- thus it makes him look taller and more authorotative.
    # In recent Doctor Who series –last 3 doctors– drama is created (badly) with a close up of the Doctor’s anguished facial expression when the plot is thin.

  18. HEY EVERYONE!!!

    FORGET THE VISUAL, EFFECT, OR THE CLOUD, YOU ALL LIKE 7 years old that want watch film just because effect, visual, and eye candy graphics, grow up men, then…

    feel the Hoshi Wo Ou Kodomo story, what moral values ​​contained in it.
    useless if the effect and the visual is as good as transformers or avatars, but the storyline and good moral values ​​do not exist in that film …

    I never watch transformers, why? because of the effects and visuals in the movie is not that important, it’s just as our first impression to want to watch it.

    Do not just watch movies, but watch and feel the movie, then you are a true film lovers, not just movie watchers.

    (sorry if my English is bad) :)

  19. Yes,
    that reminds me. Transformers 3 had a really bad device- the director propelled the story by cutting scenes and making these short black outs on screen.
    So, people would say half a sentence and the director would black the scene out and that was it- yes, you knew what was going to be said or where it was leading but this exposition technique was irritating when done more than 3 times because you became aware of story acceleration.

    So Makoto, you want people to be moved by the emotion more than anything else.
    Hmm, no.
    I can’t do it, sorry. Has to be a balance- many ingredients make the recipe.

    Shinkai has his own device, which I love but even he has to have the right balance and use many ingredients.

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