It’s not for nothing that director Makoto Shinkai has been called the new Miyazaki, but it’s only on the truly epic Journey To Agartha – released in Japan as Children Who Chase Lost Voices (星を追う子ども – Hoshi o Ou Kodomo) – that the hyperbole begins to peel away from this boast.
An all-ages fantasy epic, very much in the mould of Spirited Away, you have the absent parents, the big hearted protagonist, the blustering boy, the morally suspect adult, and a visually stunning fantasy kingdom peopled with all sorts of beasties and challenges to be overcome. The lonely Asuna Watase (Hisako Kanemoto/Hilary Haag) and her heartbreakingly cute pet kitten fox thing Mimi are drawn into subterranean world she’s always felt was out there when a strange boy – Shin (Miyu Irino/Leraldo Anzaldua) – from the pastoral hollow earth saves her from a monster on a rail bridge outside of her sleepy, mountain village. Unbeknownst to her he dies, leaving behind a magical crystal that unlocks the portal between the surface world and Agartha.
Other forces want the secrets of Agartha mind – her supply teacher Ryūji Morisaki (Kazuhiko Inoue/David Matranga), still grieving over the loss of his young wife, and an agent for a shadowy paramilitary agency, wants to unlock its fabled powers to bring people back to the dead as Shinkai deftly mashes together hollow earth pseudo-science and the underworld mythology of many cultures (most prominently meso-American) to create a rich and compelling cosmology all of his own. Meanwhile, Shun (Miyu Irino/Corey Hartzo), the younger brother of Shin, is tasked to retrieve the crystal – and as Morisaki and Asuna get closer and closer to finding the secrets of life and death, to thwart their mission – battling his obvious affection for Asuna on the way.
The character and world design is simply breathtakingly beautiful – all rolling hills and plains, waterfalls and ruined cities, while the scenes in ‘our’ world are redolent of the parochial loveliness of Ponyo. But Makoto Shinkai is more than just a digital animation alchemist – his earlier films like The Place Promised In Our Early Days and Voices Of A Distant Star praised as much for their deft emotional literacy as their masterfull visuals.
In true Ghibli style, grotesquely odd creatures and emotionally heavyweight themes are waiting for our heroes. Morisaki learns to let go of his wife, and to live on and find happiness, the shock of Shin’s death finally hits Asuna, and even Shun, cruising by on a mixture of anger and stubbornness is finally allowed to shed tears. It’s powerfully affecting stuff with all the escapist wonder of Narnia followed up by the emotive gut-punch of Watership Down, and at 119 minutes long there’s a real series of character arcs that you just don’t get in Western fantasy films or animation.