Sunday morning I woke up early and I watched a movie, a Japanese anime from 2011.
As it often happens with Japanese animation products, the film goes under a number of different titles.
The original Hoshi o Ou Kodomo literally means Children who chase stars, but the film is best known as Children who chase lost voices or as Travel to Agartha.
And now you can probably see the reason for my interest – Agartha being one of the great legends that haunt the Silk Road and Central Asia.
The film was written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, a young director with a number of short animations in his name. The feature is very Miyazaki-like in tone and setting, and this is quite fine with me.
The plot: young Asuna is a lonely girl living in the Japanese countryside. Her widow mother works as a nurse and is often away, and the girl has learned to cope by herself. After school, she climbs a hill overlooking the valley, where she has built a small den and where she has a rudimentary radio she uses to listen to distant, mysterious sounds.
One day after school she is confronted by a strange monster, and saved by a young man, whose body is later found in a river.
The death of the mysterious stranger precipitates the situation, as different factions with different agendas seek the key to the underground world of Agartha – and soon young Asuna is stranded in the inner world.
The plot acknowledges much of the folklore and legend of the Hollow World, including beasts both imaginary and real (but out of time), maps and images well known to anyone with an interest in the subject, and many other visual clues.
The Agartha of the story is beyond science and magic (echoes of Clarke’s Law) but is not the ultimate power imagined by Theosophy (or by the Nazis) – it is a place that has grown weary of our world’s interest and curiosity, and has been traumatized and brought down by attempts made to steal its ancient secrets.
As I said, the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki hangs heavily on Travel to Agartha, which some might describe as derivative in tone and visuals. On the other hand, Shinkai is very much his own man when it comes to building situations and providing pace and pathos to what in other hands might simply be yet another young adult animated movie.
While offering beautiful vistas of the fabled Agartha, a lost world littered with cities in ruins and strange creatures, the movie explores the themes of death, loss and loyalty, tradition and change – and once again makes me stare in wonder at the quality, originality and depth of some of the animated movies produced in the East. And at the ability of the writer and director in creating a movie that is ultimately about death and impermanence, and yet make it such an exhilarating adventure.
All in all, a fun, lighthearted and yet serious, original film for young (and not so young) viewers, and quite a nice way to spend two hours.