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.