The most successful anime of all time, worldwide, is Your Name, by Makoto Shinkai. We will be looking at that film in a couple of weeks, but first we are taking a look at some of his previous work, of which this is in my opinion the best example. Shinkai is a Studio Ghibli fan and his favourite is arguably the studio’s first great masterpiece: Laputa: Castle in the Sky. I can’t argue with that choice; it’s a fabulous film. Journey to Agartha is in some respects his tribute to that film, and comes within a hair’s breadth of matching its brilliance.
Before I confuse anyone, this film has been released under a different title across the pond. In the UK it is Journey to Agartha, but in the USA it is Children Who Chase Lost Voices. A quick run down of the plot: the main character is a girl called Asuna, who is an independent spirit, spending her spare time at her den perched on an outcrop of rock in the middle of nowhere, listening to strange transmissions that she picks up on her radio. She meets a boy named Shun, who seems to have crossed over from another world, but tragedy strikes and just as she is falling for him he meets a tragic end. The majority of the film chronicles her journey into Shun’s homeland, a secret underground world named Agartha, accompanied by his brother Shin and her teacher Morisaki, who has a powerful and troubling ulterior motive. In Agartha there dwells a god who has the power to bring the dead back to life, but there is a terrible price to pay. For Morisaki, who has lost his beloved wife, that price might just be worth paying.
So there are some deep issues being explored here. Both Shin and Asuna have to go through a grieving process for Shun, while Morisaki has been consumed with grief and even after ten years without his wife he can think of nothing other than finding a way to get her back, whatever the cost. Like Laputa, Agartha is a secret world that borders on our own, but also like Laputa many “topsiders” have tried to take advantage of the opportunities it offers and corrupt them for their own ends. Just as the castle in the sky lies in ruins, so does most of Agartha, but both retain their beauty. The artwork is completely gorgeous. There are some compelling spiritual ideas here too. Agartha has guardians, the Quetzal Coatl, who consume the dead and continue the circle of life. It sounds scary and looks scary, but there is such a beautiful gentleness to it. The importance of accepting the cycle of life and death is central to the film. I also love the Ghibli-esque approach of avoiding a moustache-twirling villain. Morisaki is willing to do a terrible thing, but he does so out of desperation and misery and with regret, and becomes almost a father figure to Asuna throughout the film. Asuna, in turn, has lost her father when she was very young, and it is strongly hinted that he was from Agartha. So the journey is important to her, a way of connecting with something that she finds in her soul, learning about herself and her place in the world. This is how you do a coming of age story.
But what this film accomplishes so well, and it is something it shares with Laputa, Spirited Away and a few other Ghibli films, is that it tells a coming of age story while delivering some fabulously exciting set pieces. My favourite is when Asuna is kidnapped in the night by creepy, shadowy creatures called the Izoku, who cannot exist in sunlight, and taken back to their nest. She wakes up in the middle of a ruined castle, with the only exit she can reach bricked up, with a little mute toddler girl for company. The Izoku have to stick to the shadows, but the sun is going down, and there is nowhere to run. It is the one of the most frightening and exciting moments I have ever seen in an animated movie, and there are plenty more great moments like that.
When it seemed like Studio Ghibli were finished I was downhearted. I loved those films so much. Almost reluctantly, I started to give one or two other anime movies a try and this was one of the first I found. Journey to Agartha opened my mind. Studio Ghibli is far from being the be-all-and-end-all for anime movies. If you have explored no further than Ghibli, let the studio be the beginning of your journey, not the end. There’s a world of wonders to be found.
Journey to Agartha has a running time of nearly two hours. Next time we’ll take a look at something very different from Makoto Shinkai, the 45 minute short film Garden of Words. The trailer below doesn’t capture the beauty of Agartha, but it’s worth a look anyway. RP