Journey To Agartha (Cert 12)
1 Disc Bluray/ DVD Lt Ed. 3 Disc set (Distributor: Manga Entertainment/Kaze UK) Running time: 116 minutes approx.
12 year-old Asuna lives in a rural village where she likes to sit on the hills and listen to the unusual music from below the ground via a crudely made crystal driven radio system made by her late father. One afternoon Asuna is cornered by a large monster on the rail tracks, but is saved by a mysterious young man named Shun, who is injured in the process. Shun reveals that he is from a subterranean world called Agartha and gives Asuna a necklace with a crystal called clavis.
The next day Asuna learns that the body of a young man was found in the river but refuses to believe it is Shun, but when she goes to meet him she instead meets Shun’s younger brother Shin, claiming to be there to reclaim the clavis. Suddenly they are ambushed by three masked men, whom Shin refers to as Arch Angels. The leader of the group reveals himself to be Asuna’s substitute teacher Mr. Morisaki, explaining that he is searching for the portal to enter Agartha to resurrect his dead wife. Shin reluctantly agrees to take Morisaki and Asuna to Agartha where an adventure of a lifetime awaits.
Of the new wave of anime directors fated to succeed the legendary Hayao Miyazaki as the King of Anime, the master of melancholy Makoto Shinkai is at the top of many people’s lists. A self confessed Miyazaki fan, this latest film – known in his native Japan as Children Who Chase Lost Voices – is solid evidence to back those sentiments, being the closest thing to a Miyazaki film without any involvement from the man himself.
Therefore be prepared for the name “Ghibli” to feature quite heavily during this review as obvious comparisons are rife, but don’t think that Shinkai hasn’t created another wonderful piece of work to sit along side his own impressive catalogue, rich with his own unique flair and sense of introspective storytelling.
The story covers much ground thus keeping the summary to a spoiler free minimum is quite difficult, which is a testament to the sheer scope of this captivating yarn and Shinkai’s imagination. Asuna is a self-reliant young girl as her mother works as a doctor, with just her tiny cat Mimi for company. Her interest in Agartha is heightened when Morisaki relates a tale from ancient folklore of a land where the dead are said to reside until the bereaved finish grieving.
Both Shin and Morisaki are after the clavis Shun gave Asuna – the former to return it to his people, the latter to open the portal between the human world and Agartha so he can visit the Gate of Life and Death. Upon arrival in Agartha, Asuna is abducted by a race of monsters called Izoku, which can pass through any solid surface. At the Izoku’s lair Asuna meets a young mute girl called Mana whom she helps escape with a timely assist from Shin who is injured in the process.
The trio meet up with Morisaki and take Mana to her home village of Amaurot although the welcome is far from warm, learning of a bitter feud between the Agarthans and the “Top Dwellers”, which, while Asuna is keen to promote peace, Morisaki’s actions stoke the flames of hatred further.
Arguably his most ambitious and accessible film to date, Shinkai takes us on a magical journey similar to those Miyazaki has taken us before full of emotion and whimsy in equal measures. Agartha is a world inhabited by both mystical and grotesque creatures, brave heroes and colourful vistas made up of lustrous skies, cosy green landscapes and quaint medieval style buildings.
Similarly Shinkai captures the rustic wonder of the sleeping mountain village Asuna calls home, with the same attention to detail to allow every gentle breeze, every swaying blade of the inviting grassland, every pebble on the rail track and every star in the glittering night sky to leap off the screen, looking particularly luscious on Blu-ray.
The character designs are as close to Ghibli’s as one can get without infringing on their trademark style and in the cases of some of the creatures – the spiritual giant Quetzalcoatl is a prime example – certain Ghibli creations will almost assuredly spring to mind upon sighting them. The lilting and emotive soundtrack from Tenmon rather pointedly reflects the scores by legendary Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi but is nonetheless gorgeous.
Putting the aesthetic similarities to Ghibli works aside, the key messages within the story are very much canon for Shinkai; the themes of saying a final farewell to a missed loved one just as potent regardless of the setting being a fantasy tale. Compared to his previous works, such as the sublime 5 Centimetres Per Second, such a wondrous setting allows for a brighter pace and tone than before while maintaining Shinkai’s exploration of human emotions being laid bare.
While Asuna’s motives for entering Agartha are quite vague, Morisaki has the definite goal to achieve. Perhaps not an inherently bad guy, he is a man driven by loss and heartache, making him at least a passionate antagonist. Morisaki may not show any signs of ill will towards Asuna but the growth of a bond between them doesn’t arise as one might expect it to, a result of Morisaki’s single-mindedness.
Meanwhile Shin is the pretty boy hero who shows signs of progressive thinking after meeting Asuna, much to the chagrin of his parochial elders, whose hatred for Top Dwellers mirrors the ecological protests of such Miyazaki films as Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Winds and Princess Mononoke.
If Makoto Shinkai himself is serious in being the next Miyazaki then Journey To Agartha is as spectacular a way as any to stake that claim. Fans of his previous films can easily embrace this film despite its startling change of approach and style while Ghibli fans shouldn’t need to cry foul. A truly magical, mystical and mesmerising adventure one should eagerly leap into. Enjoy!
Japanese Language with English Subtitles
Limited Edition Collector’s Bonus DVD:
Behind The Scenes of Agartha
The Journey of Makoto Shinkai
Hello Goodbye and Hello
Ratings – ****
Man In Black